Water Runs Downhill, and School Is Boring
By Bryan Caplan
Lately I’ve been reading everything I can on how people feel when they’re in school. The evidence is thin, but confirms the obvious: Most people find school super-boring. The High School Survey of Student Engagement is probably the single best source.
HSSSE asks two direct questions about boredom: “Have you ever been bored in class in high school?” and “If you have been bored in class, why?”
Two out of three respondents (66%) in 2009 are bored at least every day in class in high school; nearly half of the students (49%) are bored every day and approximately one out of every six students (17%) are bored in every class. Only 2% report never being bored, and 4% report being bored “once or twice.”
Responses to the second question provide insight into the sources of students’ frequent boredom; students could mark as many reasons for their boredom as were applicable. Of those students who claimed they were ever bored (98%), the material being taught was an issue: more than four out of five noted a reason for their boredom as “Material wasn’t interesting” (81%) and about two out of five students claimed that the lack of relevance of the material (42%) caused their boredom. The level of difficulty of the work was a source of boredom for a number of students: about one third of the students (33%) were bored because the “Work wasn’t challenging enough” while just over one-fourth of the respondents were bored because the “Work was too difficult” (26%). Instructional interaction played a role in students’ boredom as well: more than one third of respondents (35%) were bored due to “No interaction with teacher.”
These results barely change from year to year:
Over four years of HSSSE survey administrations, student responses have been very consistent regarding boredom. In a pool of 275,925 students who responded to this question from 2006 to 2009, 65% reported being bored at least every day in class in high school; 49% are bored every day and 16% are bored every class. Only 2% reported never being bored.
Students’ reasons for their boredom are similarly consistent in the four-year aggregate as well. “Material wasn’t interesting” was cited by 82% of respondents and “Material wasn’t relevant to me” by 41% of respondents. Thirty-four percent of students said that a primary source of their boredom was “No interaction with teacher.”
This is all very consistent with the Gates Foundation finding that boredom is the single most important reason why kids drop out of high school. And on reflection, the boredom is probably even worse than it looks. School is a sacred institution; you’re not “supposed to” talk bad about it. As a result, many students probably succumb to Social Desirability Bias by downplaying their malcontent.
Doesn’t fit your first-hand experience? Remember: If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably part of the small minority that actually enjoys academics. When you were bored in school, you were probably bored because the schoolwork was too easy. For most students, however, the problem is fundamental. Schoolwork bores them because they don’t like the content.