As a parent and a school administrator, I am saddened at times to see the view that my own kids have about schoolwork. Homework is seen as the pursuit of arbitrary points and compliance with a teacher’s request rather than a learning experience. I am fortunate to have two children who are motivated to succeed. They can’t stand to lose points, and they expect the highest grade possible. Notice I didn’t say they love learning and growing in their skills and interest. I said they like to succeed and they see homework points paving the way to success like floating stars in a Mario Brothers video game.
In most of our classrooms, the currency for students is points and letter grades. Currency in our everyday lives is what we use to give something value. Without it, we sometimes struggle to see a purpose in doing. Students believe that points are valuable because we have marketed them that way. Along the way, we have decided that points are so powerful that giving and taking them away can motivate students to learn and be a responsible citizen.
Recently I had the opportunity to read the book Drive by Daniel Pink. The premise of the book was to investigate what motivates us as humans. His findings were contrary to the traditional carrots and sticks method of rewards and punishments similar to the giving or taking away of points. He found three aspects that any task must have in order to motivate and engage: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
I believe these qualities need to be applied to our development of homework and classroom tasks. First, tasks should have student ownership or autonomy in how to complete the assignment. As my math teachers move forward with the new common core standards, we are working to shift homework away from multiple problems that repeat the same task to open-ended experiences that allow students to construct their own path to a solution using previous learning. This is different than simply allowing students to choose between a poster and a PowerPoint presentation. Mastery relates to our own perception of our ability to complete a task. Before engaging in a task, we need to know that the level of difficulty is within our skill set. If an assignment is too easy, our students don’t see the point, but if it is perceived as unsolvable, they tend to give up without an attempt. Since developing collaborative content teams, we have worked to reduce “busy work” assignments such as crossword puzzles, word finds, and “drill and kill” worksheets. Many of our teams have adjusted their grading to focus on the process a student engages in to complete an assignment instead of just focusing on right or wrong answers. The last aspect of motivation to consider is purpose. Does the assignment help students create meaningful connections between the content learned and their own lives and career interests? One simple way to ensure that the assignment is focused on a specific learning goal or objective is to include the goal at the top of the page and take time to explain the purpose to students rather than just reviewing the instructions.
It has been exciting in my building to watch teachers make this shift in their approach to homework. They are energized by students asking what they need to do to improve rather than how much a task is worth. Points are no longer the main goal. Grades still exist and are important, but they seem to take care of themselves when the students are interested and engaged.
Last week I tweeted out a request for teachers to find some students willing to write about needless boredom in schools and received a number of replies. (This is a follow-up to my student survey results.)
Sarah, a high school teacher in NJ, collected some great writings. Here are excerpts from two of her 9th graders.
If I ever asked a large amount of students to give one word to describe school, I think that about 90 percent of them would simply say: boring.
Fortunately, in the past I have always had fairly good teachers that kept me interested. However, I remember one of my seventh grade teachers being possibly the most boring person I had ever met. Every day our class schedule was the same: read the chapter -> complete worksheets -> copy down immense PowerPoints for the rest of class. Everyone I talked to dreaded going to that class where we had to learn to write fast and continue writing even with hand cramps. I never really learned anything in that class, I just memorized information, took a test on it and then forgot everything. Imagine that cycle for an entire year. It was tremendously boring.
For other teachers, I recommend not making your students copy 20 slide power points with size 8 font~ Sincerely, every student
Ways to keep students (or at least me) interested:
- Change up the outline of the class. Do fun activities so that students have something to look forward to in class.
- Speak to the students about the topic. Try to stay away from making the students read about the topic because 99 percent will just skim the material and say that they read it. (I am guilty)
- Interact with the students one on one.
- Try to incorporate students' at home lives with the class. For example, I love how Mrs. G uses Twitter in class! It's a great way to connect with the students on a more personal level.
- Only give homework when absolutely necessary. I know that I sound like I am only saying this because students (including me) don't feel like doing it, however, there is a real reason. Unless the homework is a fun activity, most students will try to get it done and over with as fast as possible, even if it means doing in incorrectly. Doing homework incorrectly is worse than not doing the homework at all because when students put false information on homework, it becomes engraved in their knowledge.
Why Am I Bored?
1. PowerPoint. Yes, I agree that PowerPoint is a very valuable tool, but this only applies in certain situations. When a teacher writes paragraphs upon paragraphs on a single PowerPoint slide, and then proceeds to read them all verbatim to "teach" the class, I completely zone out. To engage their students, a teacher needs to talk to us like we're people. We need examples, and relatable stories that provide the information a permanent residence inside our minds.
2. The Never-Ending Videos. I think that videos are a great tool for teachers to utilize. With sources like YouTube readily available, it is easier than ever to pull up a video on any topic imaginable. However, when a video is more than 20 minutes long (when I say video, I mean something informational, not a movie), it gets harder and harder to pay attention, and easier and easier to spiral downward into the abyss of boredom. Videos, in my opinion, should be used in moderation.
3. The Lackadaisical Attitude. Personally, I feel that if a teacher seems to have no interest in a subject, neither will I. It is so much harder to pay attention when a teacher seems unenthusiastic, and I can't even begin to explain how much more interested I am in class when a teacher really cares about what they are teaching.
How to Avoid Boring Your Students (For Teachers)
1. Like I said before, use PowerPoints wisely. Use them as a guide instead of a word-for-word of what you're going to say.
2. Use relatable examples. Show funny (not too lengthy) videos that somehow correlate with the subject material, and make the information more memorable for your students.
3. Make class enjoyable. Throw around a ball for students to answer questions, or have a little friendly competition.
4. Even if you're having a bad day, try to be positive. You attitude, whether it is unenthusiastic or constructive, tends to rub off on your students.
5. Engage all your students. Even if only one student is raising their hand, try to call on other people, who may not have their hand up, to answer questions. If they do not get the answer correct, try to guide them towards the correct answer instead of just saying, "No," and skipping to another child.
How to Avoid Boredom in Class (For Students)
1. Ask questions. Try as hard as possible to think of logical questions that will benefit the entire class. This will stimulate your mind, and (hopefully) keep you focused on the subject material.
2. Be open-minded, and give each class a chance. Maybe last year your English class was the quintessence of boredom, but that doesn't mean that English this year will be the same. Keep a positive attitude towards all your classes until you have enough time to form a logical opinion of them.
3. Raise your hand! Even if you are really doubtful of your answer, there is still a chance that you are correct. If you are wrong, a teacher could explain your mistake and make the correct answer more memorable.
4. If you are not actively writing, try not to have a pen or a pencil in your hand. This leads to doodling and thus, zoning-out.
5. Keep your head up. Resting you head on the desk will make you focus, but not on class. Instead, you will be fighting boredom, and lack of sleep.
Just a note: This post is not in any way meant to point out all the faults of teachers. Teachers are people too, and of course, like any other person, they make mistakes.
Words of wisdom from our clients.
And please, teachers, take special heed on the PowerPoints. This was the #1 disliked practice in our student survey:
Too much text on each slide; and reading directly from the slide.
It is not easy to admit that our approach might be needlessly boring. (Please don't write me and say that there is always boredom in life; I simply won't post it. We're talking about needlessly boring and improvable teacher practices here.) That's why I encourage you to use the video/audio function on your phone and watch or just hear yourself and ask: if school weren't required, would people happily sign up for and keep coming to such a class? Lectures got so boring at MIT that attendance dropped to 50 percent in many of them. Why go, given that the course ID online and the Internet has a million resources?
Here is a practical suggestion: either take voice lessons or do a thorough study of effective monologists, comics, storytellers and public speakers; watch good TED Talks; go to Toastmasters; sit in on a teacher who has great classroom presence in your building, etc. The typical teacher use of voice is not very effective: too much of a monotone, poor use of silence for effect; little crescendo and diminuendo, etc. -- leaving aside the quality of the lessons and assignments. (How odd that voice lessons aren't a core course in teacher prep.) In short, as I keep saying, there is much in our control that we can do to improve student engagement and achievement.
PS: Here -- AE Student Survey 2013-2014 -- is a PDF of our SurveyMonkey student survey, for the many people who requested a look at the questions.
Grant Wiggins is the co-author of Understanding by Design and the author of Educative Assessment and numerous articles on education. He is the President of Authentic Education in Hopewell NJ.