Editor’s Note: Pamela Fox is Coursera’s Lead Student Team Engineer.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Julia Stiglitz and I gave a talk at the
GSummit conference about motivation and accomplishment
in the online classroom.
We looked at the problems that students face, and what we can do to make it better for them.
One problem – that anyone who’s ever been a student or teacher in any setting
probably knows – is that of boredom. When I was a student in grade school and
got bored, I’d daydream or doodle and wait until something exciting happened or class ended.
Now, if I’m a student in an online classroom and get bored, I simply “walk with my fingers”
over to my next browser tab, and start browsing Reddit or Facebook or any one of those websites
that I really should block forever. Eventually I realize I completely missed the lecture and
have to re-watch it later, if that ever happens.
The topic of boredom is present in classrooms, regardless of whether it is in person or online
because it’s easy for our attention to wander.
What is boredom, anyway?
Before diving into the ways that we can try to reduce boredom, I want to answer a more
fundamental question: “What is boredom?” As I discovered, many researchers have tried to answer
that same question.
According to C. Merrifield,
“Boredom can be described as a negative affective state
associated with increased arousal (i.e., increasing HR; higher cortisol levels), and
decreased attention (lower SCL)”. Basically, it’s not a low-energy state with high apathy,
like many presume – it’s a high energy state with low attention.
One group of researchers went as far as to figure out the steps needed to induce boredom:
- Induce sensory deprivation by reducing external stimuli to a minimum
- Create monotony, by using highly predictive repetitive stimuli
- Prevent drowsiness by using stimuli with high intensity.
- Do not satisfy the need for excitement; rather use the user’s expectation to create an anti-climax.
- Avoid any novelties, changes and surprises; everything should seem in place and make sense.
- Do not mentioning a wait on forehand, nor explaining the length and reason of it.
- Emphasize the passage of time during a wait.
…And they found that it took less than 10 minutes, on average.
Now, what do those steps remind you of in the classroom? A teacher giving a lecture, of course.
In his book “Brain Rules,” John Medina asked students to report their attention levels in the classroom
and documented a similar effect of that 10 minute time mark, as well.
Reducing boredom in MOOCs
So, what can we do about this? Well, to start with, we can address the problem of duration.
Most classroom lectures are an hour long, but we encourage our instructors to break their
lectures into smaller chunks, from 3-15 minutes long.
Plus, we give students the speed up button on browsers that support it, so a 15 minute lecture could actually be a 10
minute lecture (if you’re going at 1.5, my favorite speed).
Many instructors also inject little quizzes and surveys throughout their lectures, which
puts you in a more active mode for a few seconds and break up the monotony of the lecture format.
Different lecture formats
Besides what we do across the whole platform, we also have many instructors experimenting
with their own approaches to making lectures more exciting. Here are a few of my favorite
examples of that, but I bet you have some of your own (tell us in the comments!):
Modern & Contemporary American Poetry
Instead of the traditional single-lecturer-talking format, Professor Al Fireis turned his lectures into
Socratic-style roundtables with his TAs, where they’d discuss a poem and invite poets to read theirs aloud.
They also did similar style Google+ Hangouts, where they’d include actual Coursera students in the virtual roundtable as well.
Calculus Single Variable
When I think Calculus, I think “ugh, calculus!” You too? Professor Robert Ghrist wanted to make
his students think differently about calculus, so he hand-drew visualizations of all the calculus concepts and
turned those into his lectures. Ghrist told me “the theory is that by using color, animation, and the non-threatening framing of a comic book,
we can keep people from getting too bored or too intimidated.”
Or as a student told him, “You’re one of the few who make math fun!”
You can check out the lectures here.
Interactive Programming with Python
A handful of professors from Rice taught this class, and they made it more fun by
co-teaching lectures, by playing games with eachother in the lectures (the same games we were
asked to program), and by poking fun at eachother in the lectures where they taught alone.
They were clearly enjoying teaching the class, and that made me enjoy it too.
That’s what I love about working for Coursera – we can experiment with different ways of delivering online education, we can learn from instructors doing their own experimenting, and we can learn from those experiments to keep improving it.
Now, I better finish this blog post before you get bored. 🙂