What’s Going on When Students Tune Out?
Have you ever felt like your students were bored in class? When students seem disengaged, it’s natural to wonder whether we might be boring them. We might even assume the material under discussion is not challenging enough to be interesting, which could lead us to speed up the pace or skip steps or sections, trying to get to the good parts. But another, and perhaps more likely, possibility is that students have tuned out because they’re lost, and they’ve given up trying to make connections between what they know and what they’re trying to learn.
In her book Spark of Learning, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh describes having such an experience and (courageously, in our estimation) asking the students what they were actually feeling:
In my Physiological Psychology course I once stopped midlecture and told my students that I could detect their nonengagement, and that I honestly could not differentiate between hopelessly lost and hopelessly bored and thus could not tell whether I should slow down or speed up. We discussed how they were feeling and it turned out they were lost—I slowed down, backed up a few steps, and guided them back through the material. (p. 73)
When students can keep up with the pace of the class session—and when they have time to think, write, or interact—they are much more likely to be engaged. That’s why we often recommend building pauses, checks for understanding, or activities into lectures (if you lecture). Students often tell us that they appreciate when instructors show willingness to back up and explain things differently. They also admit that they usually feel uncomfortable asking their professors to pause or to go back a slide, and that the faster an instructor goes and the less approachable they seem, the less likely students are to ask them to slow down or go backward. While students weigh the potential social cost of raising their hands for help, it may not even occur to us that they might be lost. Cavanagh explains:
We have difficulty understanding the mental worlds of other people—particularly our students. When you have been mired in a subject for decades, it can seem like the most complicated things are very simple. This interferes with good teaching, because if you can’t recall why and how a particular topic can be difficult it becomes much harder to break it down for new learners, as well as to identify ahead of time where they might get stuck and strategize ways to make those areas clearer. (p. 96)
We might also rush through material because we feel what is sometimes called the “tyranny of content.” Whether from external or internal sources, we feel pressured to cover a certain amount of material in a course. It’s not that we want to leave students behind, it’s just that we feel like we can’t slow down, or we won’t be doing our jobs as teachers. It helps to remind ourselves that just because we say something in students’ presence, it doesn’t mean they’ve learned it. Indeed, it doesn’t necessarily matter what we cover; it matters what students learn. When facilitating real learning is the goal, we must check for understanding and design our courses so that students have opportunities to revisit topics, apply concepts, make sense of the material, and get practice and feedback on the development of their skills. Canavagh describes the neuroscientific reasons this is true:
Studies of synaptic plasticity, or how neural communication changes at the level of the synapse as a result of experience…[suggest] that in the eternal pedagogical struggle between breadth and depth, depth should win out—that learning requires repetition that allows new pathways to develop and strengthen; thus, to maximize long-term learning and retention of material, teachers should prioritize repeated testing occasions, multiple frames of the same material, and student-led elaboration of material wherever possible. Skimming over multiple skills or topics in order to cover the most material will result in shallow learning, easily lost once the final exams are collected. (p. 28)
To return to the original topic, one way to avoid boring students—who often tune out because they’re lost—is to set a pace at which it is possible for them to learn deeply. Additionally, Cavanagh says, we can harness students’ emotions to further their learning. As we likely know from experience, learning can be thrilling. Spark of Learning is all about “energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion.” We’re in the midst of a faculty reading group on it now, and we plan offer it again in the future.
If you’d like support to adjust the pacing of your course, or to survey students to find out if they’re lost, bored, engaged, thrilled, or anything else, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a consultation. We look forward to working with you!
Exam Design Workshop
Tuesday, November 1st | 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend
Are you happy with the exams in your course? Do you feel like they accurately reflect how much your students are learning? During this interactive session, we’ll help you ensure that you test what you mean to be testing. We’ll discuss the alignment of exam questions with your learning goals for students, and with what they spend their time doing in the course. We’ll also work on writing exams as transparently as possible, so that students can interpret the instructions, questions, and problems. We hope to see you there!