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Winning the War on the Five Types of Boredom

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk... If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself. - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

When designing training materials to engage employees, boredom is the enemy.

It takes a brave soul to stare the beast that is boredom straight in the eye. Educational researcher Dr. Thomas Goetz and his team did so in 2006. They went into the lab to produce an in-depth study that highlighted four types of boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, and reacting.

Their mission wasn’t over. Just seven years later, those brave pioneers went back into the fold. This time, they discovered a fifth species of tedium: “apathetic boredom.”

Their findings are essential material for instructional designers. These insights are a valuable weapon in creating effective learning experiences. Educators can use them to engage employees and improve results.

The thing is, we know from studies that when you make people take part in a dull activity, they will find it more boring than if they choose to take part. Most workplace training is obligatory – it isn’t a choice. This means the emphasis is on employers to make sure that training isn’t dull.

Analyzing boredom

It's well worth trying to understand the five types of boredom. It'll give you a better shot at not boring your learners. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Indifferent boredom is not always a bad thing. It can be a part of relaxing, and doesn’t involve the restlessness that can make boredom such torture.

  2. Calibrating boredom is an unpleasant feeling of not knowing what to do. You're not motivated to find something better to do. But if something better comes up, you do have the energy to pursue it.

  3. Searching boredom is a more proactive form of ‘calibrating’. The boredom makes you unhappy, so you look for other things to do. However, if you don’t find something, it may lead to…

  4. …Reactant boredom. This is when you become tense, fidgety, and desperate to escape. You may become angry and blame those responsible for putting you here.

  5. Apathetic boredom tends towards a depressive state. It makes you unhappy, but deprives you of the energy to find a way out.

You can analyze someone’s state of boredom by plotting it on a graph. One axis is “arousal” (whether the person is calm or fidgety). The other is “positivity” (whether the feeling is good or bad).

For example, a learner who is very negative but quite calm is likely to have “apathetic boredom.” Someone who is both negative and fidgety is “reactant.”

When you're bored, it means you're suffering from a combination of a lack of emotional engagement and a sense that you're trapped.

When your learners aren’t feeling it

Perhaps your employees are generally eager and engaged. Still, training in areas such as compliance can feel like a chore. Those employees see learning as nothing more than a box to check, and they don't look forward to it.

You should nip this feeling in the bud right at the start of training. Answer the question, “why should I care?” even if nobody’s voiced it. Find a fresh angle on the learning outcome. Something that will be meaningful to your audience. Or, if you can’t make the outcome sound sexy, then put a spin on the learning process. This is where gamification can help.

Think about your learner’s sense of focus. According to Psychologist John Eastwood, lack of engagement happens when we can’t focus our attention on something to do.

“People try to connect with the world,” says Eastwood. “And if they are not successful there's that frustration and irritability. Then they fall back into lethargy.”

A bored person might have too many options, or not enough. Ensure that your training materials include an element of choice. Make it easy for your learners to pick one and to get started.

When your learners feel trapped

Choice affects that feeling of being trapped, too.

In one study, researchers gave participants a boring task to do. The researchers

compared their levels of boredom to those of a group who had actually chosen to do the task. The first group – the ones who didn’t choose - reported higher levels of boredom.

Providing choices gives your participants the impression of purpose and freedom.

Another way to stop your learners from feeling trapped is to orientate them in their lessons. Provide a ‘map’ of what is happening. Tell them how long the lesson is, what the landmarks are, and what will happen at the end (for example, a quick quiz).

If you set clear expectations and indicate that there will be ‘a way out,’ your participants are less likely to feel trapped and become bored.

Five problems, many solutions

The five types of boredom are an ongoing challenge for instructional designers. But it's a fascinating challenge.

Knowing that boredom is the enemy puts the onus on you to innovate, connect, and respond to your learners. An inspirational idea can create a positive, engaging atmosphere for the whole classroom.

Exciting stuff, right?


Are you looking for your Gandalf the White to support you in the fight against boredom? Hit us up!

Words by Joshua Schlag, Marketing Manager at Mindspace

Art by Brock Lefferts, Senior Art Director at Mindspace


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