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How to optimise students' cognitive engagement and reduce boredom

How to optimise students’ cognitive engagement and reduce boredom

4 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

The very principle of school requires students to try and stay engaged, focused and interested for hours a day, every weekday. This, of course, is a tall task – at one point or another in the week, students will inevitably get distracted, bored or suffer from mind wandering. But when that becomes too frequent, it can seriously hinder their learning.

Over the last decade, there has been a surge in research on boredom. So, let’s take a deep dive into the underlying mechanisms of boredom and uncover effective ways to boost cognitive engagement.

Why do we experience boredom?

A paper published recently proposed an intriguing model of boredom. The researchers based it on the intuitive premise that we humans feel good when our cognitive resources (i.e., the mental abilities we use to perform different tasks) are actively engaged with the world.

They therefore argued that our brain regulates our behaviour to keep our cognitive engagement within an optimal range. As a result, boredom is a signal that we have dropped below this optimal zone of engagement.

Perceiving boredom this way highlights that it is caused by a mismatch between current and desired levels of cognitive engagement. More specifically, we leave our optimal engagement zone when the expectation of how much we will use our skills isn’t met – because a task was either way easier or way harder than expected.

This explanation of boredom is supported by a new experiment where the researchers manipulated participants’ expectations regarding the engagement of the experimental room. They found that individuals put in a room with activities that promised but did not deliver cognitive engagement reported more boredom than those in a room with no such activities at all. 

Effective learning starts with the ability to focus on the right thing at the right time. We can help your student with that.

How can we prevent students from becoming bored in class?

One negative impact of boredom in the classroom is pretty obvious: bored students are likely to disengage and lose out on precious learning opportunities. It may also entice students to act up and cause behaviour issues. But experiencing boredom does not only negatively affect student learning but also their well-being.

All these negative effects make it crucial to find ways to keep students cognitively engaged in the optimal range to prevent boredom from taking over. Here are some ways to do this:

Use cognitive reappraisal strategies

Cognitive reappraisal strategies get students to think differently to change their perception of the situation.

A good example will be a student who reminds themselves that even though a Maths class feels difficult, it is important to help them build logical reasoning skills. Finding this newfound meaning and purpose of an activity may change their expectations regarding engagement, and so they may not feel as bored.

Indeed, a study done recently identified this type of strategy as the most effective in eliminating student boredom in the classroom.

Tell students what to expect before the lesson 

It’s important to give students a head start and prepare them for each lesson. It may be a good idea to let students know the purpose of the lesson and what they can expect to be doing and learning at the beginning of the lesson.

This way, students’ expectations of the cognitive skills they need for the class will match up with the actual mental difficulty of it, making them less likely to become bored.

Ensure content is set at the right level of difficulty

To prevent students from deviating from the optimal cognitive engagement zone and becoming bored, you must ensure that the content you’re teaching is neither too difficult or easy. One effective way to monitor this is by using exit tickets after each class to check for students’ understanding. These should include 3-4 questions and take no more than 5 minutes to complete.

It is recommended that we aim for students to get these questions ~80% right. This indicates that the material is set at an appropriate level of challenge: not so easy that students can coast through it, but not so challenging that they lose motivation and confidence. If students score significantly lower or higher than this sweet spot, you may need to adjust the difficulty of your teaching material accordingly. 

Final thoughts  

Maintaining students’ cognitive engagement in the optimal range is a critical aspect of effective teaching and learning. It will be impossible to entirely control this. Many factors are at play, such as how much sleep they got last night, the culture of the school and the dynamics within the group. By utilising the strategies outlined above, we can hopefully get one small step nearer to helping maximise cognitive engagement that accelerates learning.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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