University of Alberta: Study seeks to help university students combat boredom in online learning

University of Alberta researcher Patti Parker may have discovered an upside to the social isolation that has accompanied remote learning during the global pandemic: it turns out to be ideal conditions for pursuing research on boredom.

Parker, a post-doctoral fellow with the Alberta Consortium for Motivation and Emotion in the Department of Educational Psychology, put out a call in the summer for participants in a study to develop boredom interventions for undergraduate students, expecting she’d have to put out the call multiple times to get the required 30 participants. But within half an hour of posting, more than twice that number had expressed interest — and inquiries kept coming in after the registration link was closed.

“There’s a lot of survey burnout with online research this year in particular, so you don’t often get a lot of responses to participate, especially right away,” Parker said. “I think the idea of boredom is very relevant right now with online learning.”

The study, led by Virginia Tze, a University of Manitoba education professor and U of A education graduate, aims to develop a four-part online boredom intervention that will help students recognize, understand and respond to the onset of boredom, and take steps to combat boredom before it takes hold.

“Anxiety receives a lot of attention in achievement and motivation literature, and boredom is kind of overlooked, but it’s shown in many studies to harm students’ performance and motivation,” Parker said. “I think boredom is a really important emotion to study in order to support students.”

But, Parker added, boredom isn’t just something you feel — it can affect how you think and act, with highly individual triggers and behaviours that can perpetuate it.

“One of the interesting intricacies of boredom, according to control value theory, is that you can feel boredom when you’re really in control of your content and your environment, so maybe it’s way too easy for you. But you can also feel boredom when it’s way too difficult and you’re out of control,” Parker said. “It varies a lot depending on the student.”

Fortunately, there are things students can do to combat the demotivating effects of boredom whether they’re learning online or in person, Parker noted:

Recognize that there are real causes for boredom in yourself or your environment (or both).
Ensure proper rest and diet to avoid mistaking fatigue or hunger for boredom.
Minimize other distractions (such as your phone) that can seize your attention when you start to lose interest.
Correct your body posture to improve alertness.
Remind yourself of the goal beyond the immediate task (for example, needing to complete the course to graduate).
“Boredom can be all-encompassing, but you can reframe the way you’re feeling, the way you’re thinking, the way you’re sitting and paying attention, and your reason for being there,” Parker said.

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, my professor is boring,’ you could look at your own behaviours that are contributing to your boredom.”