Boredom Coping Strategies among University Students

Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2020). Class-Related Boredom among University Students: A Qualitative Research on Boredom Coping StrategiesJournal of Further and Higher Education, 44(8), 1098-1113.

Many of us certainly experienced many boring moments during our university studies though we may not be able to recollect all those moments as boredom is an experience without qualities that frequently goes undetected. However,  in some situations, it is an almost inevitable and semi-automatic response to what is happening around that we perceive as not particularly interesting. Boring classes are the nightmare of student life, which is corroborated by numerous studies. The label of ‘boredom’ is the most frequently used by the students to describe the overall experience of a class. How students, especially college/university students, cope with their experience of class-related boredom? What non-class-related activities do they perform during boring classes? The main aim of my research among students of the University of Warsaw was to answer those questions.

The data for the study came from three sources: (a) Individual in-depth interviews (IDIs) and focused group interviews (FGIs) with university students; (b) the researcher’s participant observation during university classes; and (c) computer-assisted web interviews (CAWIs) with university students (see more methodological details at the end of the post).

BOREDOM COPING TECHNIQUES

The majority of previous studies on academic boredom coping was quantitative, psychology-based studies. The table below displays the results of those existing studies that have enlisted boredom coping strategies employed by university students.

Finkielsztein, 2020, p. 1001.

My study corroborates the majority of previous findings adding more analytical depth to them (not just making a list) by using the qualitative sociological method. To organize the various forms that boredom coping take I employed the theoretical framework set forth by Nett, Goetz, and Daniels (2010), which distinguished four main types of boredom coping: cognitive coping (approach and avoidance) and behavioural coping (approach and avoidance). They are briefly described in the below table.

Nett, Goetz & Daniels, 2010, p. 629.

The students’ narratives and answers were unambiguously dominated by references to behavioural avoidance boredom coping techniques, so here I will focus on this type of coping. These included all students’ behaviours that were not related to the ongoing situation in class and which were oriented towards their disengagement from it with the aim of avoiding class-related boredom. The findings of the my study strongly suggest that behavioural avoidance coping strategies are resorted to by university students in most boredom-induced scenarios in class. The below table presents the most frequently mentioned avoidance boredom coping strategies.

Finkielsztein, 2020, p. 1005.

Less frequently mentioned actions by the respondents embrace such diverse activities as eating, listening to music (with just one earphone), drawing, checking the time on one’s watch, folding paper aeroplanes/hats, painting one’s nails or spotting teachers’ mistakes and catchphrases (i.e. detecting teachers’ language errors or counting the repetitions of teachers’ idiosyncratic/favourite expressions such as ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ ‘so to speak’, ‘right?’ etc.).

Another behavioural avoidance boredom coping method is skipping boring classes altogether. This ultimate act of radical avoidance is triggered off by the situation where boredom in class is no longer bearable, and the tuition begins to be perceived as totally useless/a sheer waste of time.

OPPORTUNITY COST – THE TIME MANAGEMENT OPTIMIZATION

University students often consider academic boredom in terms of opportunity cost. When getting bored in class, students tend to regret the loss of potential gain from activities that they could be doing instead. Thus, all strategies to cope with boredom are meant to optimize the use of time in class either by re-engaging in the learning process (approach strategies) or by taking non-class-related actions aimed at increasing the profitability of one’s time investments (avoidance strategies).

Photo: Mariusz Finkielsztein

Strategies for making the best use of one’s time in class and, by the same token, for deterring boredom, are developed particularly ‘for dealing with the conflict that frequently arises between his [a student’s] natural desires and interests on the one hand and institutional expectations on the other’ (Jackson 1990, 9). In other words, such strategies can be seen as a defensive mechanism of mediating a boredom-inducing discrepancy between students’ personal expectations (concerning the educational process) and the institutional system of the university.

ANTICIPATORY BOREDOM

In order to avoid wasting time in the courses which students anticipate being boring, they employ strategies aimed at preventing such boredom from occurring. I called it anticipatory (academic) boredom. It refers to boredom that is predicted to take place in class on the basis of one’s anticipation/expectation/fear/previous experiences that future activity will be boring or, for that matter, that the ongoing activity will become boring.

Photo: Mariusz Finkielsztein

The simplest technique to prevent boredom is to show up in class as late as acceptable – essentially just to earn class-attendance credits. More advanced strategies consist of an ‘alternative’ preparation for classes. In anticipation of getting bored during such a class, students often come with a ready plan of substitute activities. Put differently, they map out behavioural avoidance strategies in advance, acting on the assumption that they will need those strategies to cope with boredom in class.

We knew that those classes would be rather boring, we guessed that they would be like that . . . So when coming to class, we would have already sort of planned what we would be doing during that time (FGI, history, male, graduate).

I’d prepared myself for those classes, I’d printed the notes earlier, I looked through them [during the classes], I read the texts. Others also had something ready at hand − a newspaper or someone was preparing for a job by doing something. Well, everybody knew that the classes would be boring and so they tried to make some sensible use of the time. (FGI, sociology, male, graduate)

My study shows that class experience as recurrent one produces institutionalized answers to anticipatory boredom. In other words, that our responses to boredom are not only ‘spontaneous’ but can take the form of structured and organized response to our institutional environment.

*This is only a brief summary of some findings presented in the paper. If you want to learn more, read the original article.

Photo: Mariusz Finkielsztein

Methodological note

A total of 26 full-time students participated in the qualitative part of the study (73% female, 77% graduate students; in comparison to 65,81% and 33,74% respectively in the overall population of full-time students of the University of Warsaw; GUS 2018). The participants represented 8 out of 21 departments of the university and 11 degree programmes (biotechnology, European studies, history, Hungarian studies, international relations, law, logopaedics, philosophy, political studies, psychology, and sociology). In order to ground and corroborate the data obtained by using other methods, covert participant observation of a total duration of over 300 hours was conducted in university classes at the faculties of archaeology, biology, cultural studies, geography, history, journalism, law, political studies and sociology. The observation notes were taken in vivo in the author’s capacity as an auditor, after asking the teachers for their permission to attend the (seminar) classes, or without asking in the case of lectures, as those are accessible to a general audience.

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