boredom, anxiety, and pedagogy

1000px-Challenge_vs_skill.svgRight now I am teaching a summer online course on videogames. Along the way, we have discussed Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow, and the matter has come up in relation to the course itself. As teachers, we’ve all had the experience of being told that a book or the course is boring. Why is that? What makes a learning experience boring? While we can certainly critique this Csíkszentmihályi’s chart, I think it at least provides a useful heuristic for thinking through the issue.

According to the chart, boredom occurs when the challenge level is low in relation to the skill level. I.e., the reading or course is experienced as “too easy.” Indeed, when I read through student feedback on our composition courses, I often see feedback that the class is “too easy.” I don’t ever recall students saying the course is “too hard.” Instead, they will say that the instructor is a “harsh grader” or that the instructor didn’t make the objectives of the course or assignments clear. In other words,  a lack of success in the class is very rarely attributed to the difficulty of the content or challenges presented. On the flipside, as faculty we commonly say that students lack skills and that each year we find ourselves “dumbing down” courses, requiring less reading and so on.

As course designers and teachers, our targets are probably flow and/or control, but getting there requires helping our students develop a sufficient level of skill. Until then, the best we can hope for is “arousal.” Of course arousal suggests something more embodied and sensual, if not sexual, than what we are likely aspiring to in the classroom, but all that is meant here is an activity were one with moderate skill is given a task with sufficient challenge. We are being pushed to our limits but don’t have the skill to enter a flow state where we have greater confidence. From a pedagogical perspective we are always guessing at our students’ skill levels (and obviously they come to us with varying skill levels). As such in the pursuit of arousal we risk either anxiety (too much challenge for skill) or boredom (too little challenge). In that equation we tend to err on the side of boredom. I can’t say that’s a bad decision.

However there is another element to consider here: intrinsic motivation. There is no doubt that any reading or assignment I might give could be experienced as boring. Heidegger is generally considered a challenging read. It would be a challenge for an undergrad class, but they could certainly experience the text as boring. Why? Because they just skill through it. They don’t choose to rise to the challenge of the text. I could follow that up with an essay exam where I said that the entire grade would be depend on their demonstrating an understanding of Heidegger. I could probably shift students into anxiety then as the challenge becomes unavoidable. In my summer class, we just finished reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. It’s a nonfiction book for a mainstream audience. As such it isn’t a challenging read for college students in terms of its content or discourse. That said, it presents some provocative ideas about the value of gaming that one might either find exciting and stimulating (if one agrees) or troubling and problematic (if not). To reach those states of “arousal” however, one would have to rise to the challenge of the text. One would have to claim some interest or stake in the issues the text raises. Furthermore, one would have to find some intrinsic value in the activity of the course, something beyond the grade and credit. The same challenge is there for faculty, btw. If I am showing up to class and teaching in order to get paid, then I’ll probably be bored too or maybe relaxed (according to the chart). Neither of those are very inspirational affects.

I know that at least in the case of my class, the readings, activities, and assignments create a context, a foundation, upon which students can build their own challenges, make connections to intrinsic motivation. There are other ways to go about this. One could prefer creating anxiety to boredom and build in high challenge. One could take on the task of being entertaining, of “arousing,” as a teacher through individual performance. No approach is assured of success. However, I do think it is worthwhile to give students a way to think about these matters and demonstrate the important role they play in moving beyond their own boredom.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(401px,auto, auto,401px);}

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