Boredom – it's a growing problem that's competing with the college curriculum, and one that has given way to a breed of new technologies and educational engagement strategies that claim to evade the classroom of its presence. But a debate has emerged around whether technology is distracting students, is the college undergraduate curriculum too overwhelming given our modern advancements, or is student boredom a symptom of a larger issue facing higher education?
We posed this question to Dr. Lorenz S. Neuwirth, professor of biopsychology at SUNY Old Westbury (SUNY-OW), a liberal arts institution recently recognized as one of the top public colleges in America. With an average class size of 22 students, SUNY-OW uniquely offers an intimate academic experience for its 4000 students, compared to some national colleges with much larger class sizes, where faculty have openly shared stories of students looking up pictures of sliced bread rather than following the lecture.
Even at a smaller college, however, Dr. Neuwirth finds students are struggling more today with a higher education environment than they were just five years ago. In this article, we explore five reasons why this may be happening, and offer suggestions where educators can step in to help students and advance this timely and important discussion.
1. College Readiness
Students leaving high school today are at times under prepared for the college-level curriculum. That's what Dr. Neuwirth sees happening as students transition from high school into the college classroom. "Compared to high school, where there is more passive learning, less integrative concepts and class discussion, and increased repetition of a topic in a single class, slowly building on a few main points within an entire term, a college curriculum is very different. Faculty may drive a single point or many integrative points home in one week per course module. Additionally, the college curriculum has many, often times up to 12 or 15, weekly course modules in a single semester," he says. "Students may have difficulty working with less repetition and engaging in more active learning and rich discussions within the curriculum."
"Students need to seek, learn, acquire, and use new skills and professional behaviors that are required for college-level learning, future employment, and success."
Dr. Neuwirth suggests that this may be due to a “conceptual gap” in transitioning from high school to college educational expectations. He explains that the conceptual gap may be attributed to many factors, but says ultimately college is intended to increase and encourage a student’s independence to explore and develop an appreciation for a particular discipline, and acquire new skills and professional developmental behaviors that are required for college-level learning and the global job market post-graduation. Thus, the increased difficulty in gaining such independence through assimilating to more active learning to meet the demands of the college curriculum may very well be where new educational interventions need to take place.
"Students need to seek, learn, acquire, and use new skills and professional behaviors that are required for college-level learning, future employment, and success," he says. "They may not truly grasp that concept yet." He goes on to emphasize that, while students may be excited about their education as they enter college, they may not see college as a place where they can advance and thrive both academically and professionally at the same time, and the transition could take upward of two years for them to adjust.
2. New Social Pressure
Dr. Neuwirth argues that this under preparedness for college-level learning reinforces a socialization issue, where students might not yet realize that the purpose of a college classroom is to socialize amongst their academic peers and future professional networks, while they also engage one another in meaningful, enriched, and timely discussions. This makes the faculty a critical facilitator of building meaningful early career preparedness to support college students beyond the classroom. However, Dr. Neuwirth says at times these discussions may not occur as often as faculty would like.
"Most students bar themselves from intellectual classroom discussion because of social pressures such as: being afraid of giving a wrong answer, not having enough background knowledge to support an argument, fear of sounding or being perceived as less intelligent than their peers, and often times students face social anxiety issues in general," he explains. "These social pressures, I believe, are central to students' under-engagement in faculty driven curriculum."
"This is a very real self-conflict of balancing their education and self-esteem in college, as it is their ticket to success post-graduation. Faculty must be very socially conscious of our student’s needs where this is concerned."
He describes students who are far more comfortable engaging with him and other professors outside of the classroom, but who remain silent during lecture, and attributes it to a cultural shift in how the current generation of students perceive failure. "Students do not want to feel socially embarrassed or appear to be less intelligent in this higher learning environment," he says.
Dr. Neuwirth argues that students today are more culturally pressured by being successful, finishing college, starting a career earlier than prior generations, and being skilled in technology and ready to integrate into the workforce post-graduation, and most are employed in one or more jobs while going through college to pay for their degree. Such internalized views of "being perfect" and "workforce-ready" to independently achieve such career success, can be counterproductive to the student's educational experience and it may not generalize into the “real world.”
He also finds that students struggling with their newfound independence once they enter college may have difficulty in adapting to and accepting faculty learning-based positive corrective feedback (i.e., in developing ideas, writing, critical assessment, etc.). "They're having difficulty making the necessary adjustments from their perceptions in order to succeed in the college environment," he says. "They often fear difficult course content and immediately think failure. This is a very real self-conflict of balancing their education and self-esteem in college, as it is their ticket to success post-graduation. Faculty must be very socially conscious of our students' needs where this is concerned."
3. Lack of Focus: The Pop-Tart Experiment
Conversely, it seems, some students may be less focused on or uncertain of how to achieve such academic success during their undergraduate tour. Time and again, beyond digital distractors, Dr. Neuwirth sees students come to class fiddling with things in their hands – food, makeup, and many other distractors – which he knows takes away from their ability to remain attentive and on task during a lecture.
"...since less note-taking by hand is done today, as a byproduct of technological advancement, students may be attending, engaging, and retaining less information in the classroom..."
One of Dr. Neuwirth’s senior students, Steven Bostick, conducted a study to determine if some other variable could deter students from engaging in cell phone digital distractions during class. So, at the beginning of two days of class, Mr. Bostick handed out a pop-tart on one day to students and monitored their classroom behaviors, when comparing to a no pop-tart day during Dr. Neuwirth’s class.
"Mr. Bostick found out that eating a pop-tart or preoccupying a student’s hands with any other object could compete with cell phone usage in the classroom," Dr. Neuwirth says. "When they finished consuming the pop-tart, they went back onto regular cell phone behavior. This was intriguing as it brought light to the issue that since less note-taking by hand is done today, as a byproduct of technological advancement, students may be attending, engaging, and retaining less information in the classroom, which may be a precursor to what others view as boredom. It may be prudent in today’s generation to increase, promote, and support note-taking behaviors more than ever to compete with cell phone usage in the classroom."
"It may be prudent in today’s generation to increase, promote, and support note-taking behaviors more than ever to compete with cell phone usage in the classroom."
Dr. Neuwirth cites the work of the late Dr. Nathan Azrin, whose research on Habit Reversal Therapy in Applied Behavior Analysis found that certain behaviors that are less desirable could be replaced with more desirable behaviors once the trained behaviors are reinforced (i.e., in our proposition an increase in notetaking, and a decrease in cell phone usage behaviors, would be reinforced by better grades in class). Reinforcement could thus re-establish a functional note-taking behavioral habit in today’s students. In this simple experiment, it was the pop-tart that distracted students from their habitual cell phone usage. "But instead of a pop-tart in their hands, it's got to be pen and paper or actively typing notes on their tablet or laptop," Dr. Neuwirth says.
"Instead of a pop-tart in their hands, it's got to be pen and paper or actively typing notes on their tablet or laptop."
4. Under-Engagement in Note-Taking
Mr. Bostick’s Pop-Tart experiment shed light on a key problem: students who come to class with preoccupied hands are less likely to take good notes. "If they do anything else but some form of relevant note-taking with their hands, it is going to compete with their ability to learn," Dr. Neuwirth explains.
"If they do anything else but some form of relevant note-taking with their hands, it is going to compete with their ability to learn."
He describes a classroom where students today are merely looking at PowerPoints and glancing at their textbooks rather than reading them; however, assuming that these activities alone will help them retain the information necessary to pass the course is insufficient and arguably can set students up for misguided expectations and failure. He argues that this is one of the greatest challenges college students face in shifting from a high school learning environment to a college one; just because supplemental learning materials are provided to facilitate their learning, these resources do not replace note-taking, nor do they have the same value.
"Students may not realize the purpose of note-taking and may try to rely on searching the web for information," Dr. Neuwirth says. "Taking notes in class Note-taking organizes your thoughts and the new information that you're acquiring. It gives you a template to actually store, reference, and further access and build upon that information for later use."
"(Note-taking) gives you a template to actually store, reference, and further access and build upon that information for later use."
Dr. Neuwirth emphasizes that notes can be typed on a laptop or written by hand – but in either case, the point is that the notes be good and not simply copying the lecture verbatim or distracted by something else simultaneously. "Seeing may resort to believing, but looking is not sufficient to knowing and learning," he says.
5. Academic Technology Gap
Dr. Neuwirth describes a unique era we're living in. "Even with today's advancement with technology," he says, "there's still a large majority of students who go through college and don't know how to use the basics, like Microsoft Word or Excel, for writing and quantifying information about the world in which they live."
He explains that what he calls an “academic technology gap” is very different from digital literacy: while most students understand how to use technology efficiently and intuitively – to play games, find answers, and meet people – it appears they're selectively preferring to use certain technology that is easier to use or perceived as more relevant to them. "Students may say, 'What's the point of learning this? I'm never going to use this when I get out of college,'" Dr. Neuwirth says. "That self-perceptive barrier keeps them from academically growing. It is at this very point in the conversation that faculty can make a huge and lasting impact with their students through an active discussion on the applications of a college education to successfully approach their future."
"It is at this very point in the conversation that faculty can make a huge and lasting impact with their students through an active discussion on the applications of a college education to successfully approach their future."
He emphasizes that students who resort to easy answers and smartphone applications are further removing themselves from the academic arena of college and workforce preparedness. "It makes their knowledge more subjective rather than objective," he says. "They prevent themselves from scrutinizing what is real, unbiased information, versus anything out there that often times are highly biased, misreported, and often misguided."
Four Suggested Solutions For Faculty
1. Set students up for success:
If college readiness is a concern for a student, additional resources should be sought. Dr. Neuwirth mentions SUNY-OW and many others have highly effective programs that help students transition into a college-learning environment from a high school one, which students should be made aware of sooner than later.
2. Reinforce the importance of note-taking:
Dr. Neuwirth recommends that, on the first day of class, students be explained the importance of note-taking and how to take good notes. "Knowing that up front, and then utilizing programs like Flipd, helps keep students to stay on the right path," he says. Considering the Pop-Tart experiment, students need to be preoccupied with the academic task at hand, instead of something else.
3. Encourage success through overcoming failures and meaningful discussions:
“Life is less interesting if everyone succeeds," Dr Neuwirth argues. He emphasizes that students need to be eased into an academic culture where failure is part of their path to success (i.e., shaping their success through gradual approximations) — where they become increasingly comfortable with participating, receiving feedback, and accepting honest critiques or failure in order to recognize what needs to be addressed to achieve success.
4. Close the technology gap:
Permitting students to skim for superficial information undermines the purpose of higher academic pursuits. "Students shouldn't assume the top hits on any search engine must be the most important document related to what they're asking about," Dr. Neuwirth says. Setting the bar higher forces students to dig deeper, beyond what is easily accessible and comfortable.
Dr. Lorenz S. Neuwirth is deeply devoted to finding new and creative ways in advancing undergraduate student education through technology in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. Neuwirth is a developmental behavioral neuroscientist with over 10 years of training in both applied and basic research understanding how environmental contaminants alter brain development causing social, emotional, and intellectual disabilities.
As a scientist, he is passionate about increasing and engaging underrepresented minority students (URMs) in STEM fields. Dr. Neuwirth actively mentors undergraduate students to genuinely consider careers in the STEM fields and to obtain an enriched experience at SUNY-OW to critically evaluate the world with an objective lens. One such example, Dr. Neuwirth was recently awarded a Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) grant, through which he provided the students he mentors a unique opportunity to be trained in neurosurgery at the undergraduate level.