An exam hall might not be the first place you’d think of as a boring environment – what with all that pressure to succeed – but a new study suggests it is actually a very boring place for students, so much so that it can affect the scores that they come out with.
The study, put together by a team led by researchers from the University of Vienna in Austria, surveyed 1,820 German students aged between the 5th and 10th grades. It’s the first time that boredom in exams has really been closely looked at.
A statistical analysis of the survey results showed that boredom during tests occurred at a significant level across students. A high level of boredom during tests was more likely when the exam lacked personal relevance to the students, and was also linked to a negative effect on exam results.
The researchers have proposed an ‘abundance’ hypothesis for this boredom, suggesting that tediousness sets in when students are either over-challenged (the test is too hard) or under-challenged (the test is too easy).
“In order to combat test boredom, teachers should prepare exam tasks in such a way that they relate to the reality of students’ lives,” says educational psychologist Thomas Götz from the University of Vienna. “In addition, the tasks should not be very under-challenging or over-challenging.”
The abundance theory goes like this: If students are under-challenged, completing the test is simple for them, which then leads to boredom – but the scores aren’t negatively impacted. Over-challenge students, on the other hand, and the difficulty of the tasks also triggers boredom, using up cognitive resources and thus leading to lower grades.
This association between boredom and being over-challenged or under-challenged has previously been reported in the classroom, and the researchers are encouraging parents and guardians to have conversations with their kids about times when they’re finding work too difficult or too easy.
The study plays into earlier research on what’s called the control-value theory of achievement emotions – specifically that students need both control (over their academic performance) and the perception of value (the feeling that the work is important) to find motivation and avoid boredom.
There’s an argument to be made that boredom can be useful to us as human beings – not least in cultivating creativity – but it shouldn’t be happening in exam environments, especially if it means students are getting lower grades than they otherwise would.
“A large number of studies already show that boredom has not only a detrimental effect on learning and performance but also on mental and physical health,” says Götz.
“With our work, we are now expanding the view to a central area in the everyday school life of children and adolescents, namely exams.”
The research has been published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.