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Cognition and perception, Education, Teaching and learning

If you expect a lecture to be boring, you’ll probably end up feeling more bored

In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, merely anticipating that a lecture will be boring leads students to ultimately feel more bored.

07 October 2022

By Matthew Warren

University is meant to be intellectually stimulating, a place where people go to engage with a love of learning. So why do so many students report being bored in their lectures? There are many possible reasons: teaching style, students’ levels of motivation, or the simple fact that some topics are inevitably going to be drier than others.

Now a study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology has identified another factor: students’ own expectations about how boring their lectures will be. Katy Tam from the University of Hong Kong and colleagues find that, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, merely anticipating that a lecture will be boring leads people to ultimately feel more bored.

Plenty of past work has found that expecting to feel a certain way can influence people’s thoughts and behaviour. In one study, for instance, people who read that a comedy film was popular and award-winning subsequently judged a clip from that film to be funnier than those who hadn’t been made to have this positive expectation. However, write the authors of the new study, no-one has looked at how expectations shape feelings of boredom.

In the first study, the team recruited 121 students attending a psychology lecture. Five minutes before the lecture, they rated how boring they expected it to be, and indicated how bored they were feeling right then (they were also asked to rate themselves on nine other emotions, to hide the purpose of the study). After the lecture, they again indicated their level of boredom and other emotions.

The team found that participants who had predicted the lecture would be more boring tended to report feeling more bored afterwards. This effect held even when the researchers controlled for pre-lecture levels of boredom, so it wasn’t simply that people who were already bored continued to feel bored after the lecture.

There are two possible interpretations for these results. Perhaps having a preconceived notion that a lecture would be boring did indeed make people feel more bored. But alternatively, participants may simply have been making accurate predictions about how boring they were going to find the lecture.

To tease apart these possibilities, in another study the researchers manipulated people’s expectations of feeling bored. All participants watched a video lecture on the theory of literature, but some were first told that Yale students had rated the video as the most boring lecture of 2015, while others were told that it had been voted the most interesting lecture of 2015. A third, neutral group were simply told that they were going to watch a lecture from Yale University. After watching the video, all participants rated their level of boredom and other emotions, and indicated how boring they had expected the lecture to be.

As the researchers had hoped, participants who had been told they were going to watch a boring lecture anticipated significantly more boredom than those in the neutral group, who in turn expected more boredom than those had been told the lecture would be interesting. And, crucially, even though they had all watched the same video, the group who expected the lecture to be boring reported higher levels of boredom after the lecture compared to the other two groups.

It seems that merely expecting to find a lecture boring, then, can lead us to feel more bored. What could explain this effect? The researchers suggest that we may pay less attention to a talk we think will be boring, and this lack of engagement ultimately makes us feel more bored. We may also be particularly attuned to elements of the lecture that fit with our preconceived notion that it will be boring – a slide full of text, perhaps, or a monotonous delivery – and so this makes us feel more bored than if we had gone in with an open mind.

We already know that when students are bored in class, their grades suffer. So the researchers suggest that effort should be put in to preventing students from prematurely forming a (potentially incorrect) opinion about how boring a class is. Exactly what that kind of intervention would look like – and whether or not it will work – is clearly a topic for future study.