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14/03/2017  •  8 min read

boredom | student engagement

How to Win the Battle of Boredom: Strategies to Re-engage the Disengaged

When the mind drifts away…

Have you ever found yourself at an endless meeting or lecture in which the speaker’s monotonous tone threatens to put you to sleep? Perhaps to battle the boredom, you kept your mind occupied by sneaking glances at your smart phone. I remember back in my school years, I would daydream of me being a superhero solving all kinds of hero problems just to keep my mind occupied and awake.

The escape routes are just way too easy, or perhaps you are using this valuable time to mark papers, chat with your colleagues, catch up with email, or text. After all it’s a mandatory meeting and you are not there by choice, so you might as well get a few things done while you are there, right?

Let’s face the facts, especially in today’s busy world, unless you find that a meeting engages your mind or attention, you will find something else that does. If we as adults and teachers find it difficult to engage and concentrate, then why do we expect more from our students?

Here comes the tricky part…. How do we do it? How do we attract and keep the attention of not one, but all of the students in class? That’s the question we are tackling today.

The first step: Earning respect

Having students drift off is contagious and when one of them disappears, there’s a risk that others will follow. It is always easier to try and prevent it from happening than pulling them out of the disengaged zone. The first step is to gain their respect. Research shows that students want stronger relationships with teachers, with each other, and with their communities. They want their teachers to know them as people.

I remember asking a student about a particular teacher that seemed to be idolized by all students alike; what is their “secret to success?” I asked. The following response was an eye opener for me:

“No matter which student she is talking to, she always has a way of making him or her feel that they are the most important person in the classroom.”

If we don’t gain their respect, then we wont have their full attention. When students feel that they are being listened to and realize that their teachers care about what they think and feel, chances are they will also care about what their teachers think and feel.

Bridging the gap between work avoiders and engaged students

As educators, we all want to bridge the gap between the disengaged and the engaged. The dream scenario is to be able help every single student improve, which is easier said than done. The initial planning stages are therefore vital. We all know it takes a lot of time to develop and test ideas, but the reward will be well worth it when you week after week are able to captivate your students. If you need somewhere to get started, we will list a few examples below. 

  1. Use mental warm-ups for the mind

    Back when I was getting my IB-diploma at Malmö Borgarskola, I had a brilliant math teacher called Carol Lundgren who at the start of every class would introduce her PoD (Problem of the Day). It was math problem she would put up on the board and the first person to solve it would get a snickers or a different small treat for the effort. Although, my limited math ability resulted in me never winning the grand prize, I would put in my best effort to try and win it. The entire class was into it and it became a fun competition and a good mental exercise to start the class.

    By being actively engaged right from the start, we were ready for the rest of the class. Loved it! 

  2. Use “brain breaks” such as movement to improve focus

    If you notice students beginning to slip, it’s probably time for a little re-focusing activity or a “brain break”. Scheduling brain breaks into your lesson plan is a resourceful way to break up a dull routine of incoming information and refresh thinking patterns. Movement is just one way of taking a brain break and research has shown that movement improves focusing in students. Really try and consider how you can get students to move around whilst relating it to what you are currently doing. Again, the reward will be a participating and active class.

  3. Motivate your class

    I know, you’ve all heard this one before. But motivation can really be the ignition for a passionate class. There are a couple of things we can do to motivate students.
    A. Create a useful and relevant learning experience. Asking our students to think about ideas and concepts will always work better if we can connect them to the subject by showing them how it will affect or impact them. Asking for their opinions and involving them in conversations is a good way to personally involve your students and a good way to motivate them.
    B. Provide options. Rather than asking, or telling students to complete a certain task in a certain way, give them a range of options. Allow students to choose one task or method from amongst a selection of suitable options. This will not only create a sense of individuality but it will cater to different students’ learning abilities.
    C. Accommodate group interactions. Working in groups can help students stay on task and motivate them to participate actively.
    D. Incorporate games and activities into the lesson. No one likes to sit around doing boring work. Students are no exception. Involving students in something active offers a greater chance of achieving higher levels of engagement
    E. Break tasks into pieces. Sometimes no matter what activities you try-out, the tasks themselves are just way to difficult to successfully hold the attention of the entire class. Try breaking the lesson into smaller chunks. Have the students focus long enough to complete part of the task, then take a brain-break and return to the project to finish. Small pieces of information are easier to process, comprehend and retain than large chunks are, doing it in smaller chunks will build confidence, which is motivating.
    The other side to this is that you can also teach students how they can break down larger tasks into smaller manageable pieces. This is a skill that is important to have that a lot of students lack, which results in that they feel overwhelmed. Teaching them how to break down tasks can tackle the overwhelming feeling.
    F. Integrate technology into learning. Technology is not a subject; it is an ingrained part of life in the 21st century learner and it needs to be integrated into our teaching and exploring of topics. Getting students to use technology in order to achieve certain tasks is one of the best ways of creating high levels of engagement, and multiple learning outcomes. Examples include providing students with videos, podcasts, automatically marked tests, to foster creativity and create an environment for personal exploration.

Final note

At the end of the day, you know your students the best. There are fantastic teachers that create a show for each and every class, whereas others are more calm and methodical and manage to capture all students. Let your personality shine through. That’s how I remember all of my IB teachers during my diploma years. They were all brilliant, but they all had their own way to captivate me.

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