When the Students Say I’m Boring

I’m back from vacation and starting to focus my attention on my department’s August orientation and retreat. Doing so brings me again to the subject of course evaluations. I’m fixated on evals because they provide the only regular feedback instructors receive about their teaching, which is ironic given that we’re primarily a teaching institution. (My experiences at several liberal arts colleges has all been the same, frankly: good teaching is just assumed to be happening and so very little support is given to faculty development and mentoring.) Because evals are often the only form of feedback, they take on rather mythic proportions in our professional lives. I want to knock that proportion down a bit by adding other forms of feedback (like peer observations and teaching demos), but I also want to help instructors make the best use of the eval data.

Today I’m thinking about what the written comments can tell an instructor about how students are experiencing his or her courses. In my previous post, I wrote about the benefit of organizing the written comments to look for trends. Today, I want to think about what to do in light of one very common trend across the comments, regardless of course: students calling the course or instructor boring. Now really, this is two different things, and noting that difference is very, very important. Students can be more discerning than we sometimes give them credit for. They can separate the purpose and content of a course from its delivery. Of course, they can sometimes do that too well, creating too great a separation between material and form. Many times, however, they make the distinction as a way of either buoying or sinking an instructor.

For example, I see a lot of comments from our first-year writing courses that say, in effect, “Mr. So-and-So tried to engage us in class, but it’s hard to make English writing interesting.” Likewise, I see many comments that say, “The papers were interesting but Ms. Whatsit mostly wasted class time.” The first comment takes up Mr. So-and-So’s case, arguing that, try as he might, he just couldn’t escape the terrible, no-good purpose and content of the course. The second comment takes a stab at Ms. Whatsit, contending that, if not for her, the course material would have shined brighter.

It’s certainly easy — and sometimes correct — to dismiss students’ complaints about boredom as symptomatic of their small attention spans, general disinterest in learning, Facebook addictions, etc. And it’s equally easy — and equally correct on occasion — to think that our colleagues who are never called boring simply spend their class time entertaining their students, playing to lowest common interest. But let’s give the students and our exciting colleagues the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Imagine that what the students are saying when they offer the “boring” critique is that their experiences in the course didn’t jibe with their expectations. And imagine now that such expectations are indeed the responsibility of both parties — students and instructors. What I’m getting at here is that boredom is itself an expectation and a habit of mind. We expect the waiting room at a doctor’s office to be boring, so we plan against it. Likewise, when I’m confronted by work that is itself either well below or well above my ability level, I’m bored in a different way. I have a responsibility to work against my boredom in ways that speak to my interests. People I’m trying to work with have the responsibility to present my tasks and my roles in ways that make sense to me and that take advantage of my talents and interests.

I think the “boring” critique is a sign of a breakdown in communication between the instructor and the students. It’s true that not every course will be of major interest to every student, but perhaps student boredom can be reduced — or repurposed — through meta-conversations about the purpose of the course, its assignments, and its activities. Students disconnect from a class when they feel no ownership of it, when they feel like their investment in the course will provide little return, and when they can’t see the connection among course discussions, in-class activities, and major assignments. I’ve found that stopping a class session and engaging students in a critique of the discussion/activity is a productive way to get their attention and energy refocused on the task at hand. If conversation drops off, for example, I’ll stop the discussion and ask students to write for a few moments about why the discussion seems to be going so slow. Often I get what I expect: students haven’t done the reading or they didn’t understand something, etc. But sometimes I get interesting notes: like when students have lost track of why we’re discussing something in the first place, or when they explain that they think they have a good understanding of the topic and want to move on (at which point I can give them a quick activity to demonstrate that understanding and then, indeed, move on).

I’d say that the great majority of my teaching is rooted in meta-cognitive awareness. I try to explain to my students frequently what’s going on and — most importantly — why it’s going on in the form that it is. If it seems like an unproductive form, I make changes on the fly. The advice I’d give faculty who see the boring critique trend across their evaluation comments is to engage in meta-discussion more with their students. It gives instructors a really good sense of how students are experience the course on a day-to-day basis, and it provides opportunities to debunk wrong ideas about the course or to explain a key facet in more detail.

How we teach is as much what our courses are about as what we’re covering. No instructor or course is inherently boring, as “boring” is simply a perception rooted in a social context. Alter that context and we can alter the perception.

I’ll try to work on some more specific teaching strategies in another post.

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2 thoughts on “When the Students Say I’m Boring

  1. I’ve considered this before, but in line with comments about liking or disliking the instructor / course (boredom would be connected, I’m thinking). While, as my high school teachers would say, it’s not a “popularity contest,” the “like” the students suggest in their evaluations (or dislike) can be indicative of their engagement in the course and provide clues to where and how things have broken down between them and myself. Once I learned to stop taking those comments personally, they became much more revealing / productive for me as an instructor. Thanks for writing this one.

  2. I like the observation that students’ reports of “boredom” may relate to their expectations. It raises another interesting question: if students expect, or want, to be engaged/entertained in a class, what do they see as their role? The idea that boredom in a class may stem from a communication breakdown sheds some light on this question. As a teacher, I can imagine students finding it difficult to understand their role in a class if they sense the delivery is pitched above or below them. If they feel themselves beyond their teacher’s expectations, or ill-equipped for them, their willingness to play the role presented to them could wear thin. Required courses, naturally, complicate the situation. There, students’ level of engagement also depends on the extent to which they understand and agree with the reasons for requiring a course. I can see how the metacognitive approach suggested here would make it possible for students and their teacher to address this problem together, asking questions such as “Why are we doing this?” or “Is there a sensible reason for having this discussion in this class?” In writing classes, especially, maybe some of the most sensible reasons pertain exactly to our need to be able to pose metacognitive questions, and attempt to answer them, in meaningful ways. Thanks for this post!

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