There are some teachers that can make absolutely any subject interesting. They can start talking about something and within no time at all you’ll start nodding along and locking your attention on them whether you like it or not. These teachers couldn’t deliver a boring lecture if they were tied to a chair and forced to speak with a sock in their mouth.
Then… of course, there is the opposite kind of teacher. There are some teachers that couldn’t hold a student’s attention all class if they had a bull horn and a leopard print thong bedazzled with diamonds. They’re just plain old boring. They speak boring. They act boring. They can make virtually any subject you’re trying to learn a gut wrenching pain in the butt. (Don’t ask…) They can make a boring lecture out of even the most interesting of subjects.
These are the kinds of teachers that, ideally, you should be trying to avoid. By properly selecting your classes you can usually avoid the worst of these teachers. The later you are in your education the easier this becomes. By the time you get to college you’ll run into these teachers less and less often because they have more and more trouble keeping full classes of students.
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to get out of one of these teachers classes, there are a few things you can do to make their classes significantly more survivable. By following these steps you can focus more on the content that the teacher is saying and less on how nice it would be if you just drifted off to sleep in their class.
Whenever you’re stuck with a crappy teacher, you need to make a conscious effort to reformat every boring thing the teacher says into a something that you find dramatically more interesting.
To some extent, this should be standard practice in all classes you take. In classes with boring lectures it becomes absolutely essential to keeping focused. That boring lecture can be turned into something a whole lot less mind numbing.
You may want to think about this process as translating what the teacher says into something someone a few years younger than you (or a few IQ points dumber than you) could understand. If the teacher drones out, “The mongol empire originally unified under the leader Ghengis Khan in the early 1200’s. China had lived through minor conflicts for years before that date using a strategy of pitting the tribes against each other.” Then you might think, “The Chinese were quaking in their boots as the big ol’ mongol overload started puttin’ them tribes together.”
In some ways, this strategy distorts the information you’re learning. Your goal is to look for the facts and turn them into something more resembling a story. Facts are boring but when you put them together into a story, they start to become interesting. This distortion can cause minor problems but the extra memorability the story provides usually completely makes up for it.
Think as though you’re the teacher trying to turn these facts into something worth learning.
If this is too difficult a strategy for the particular subject you’re learning then continue to the next option.
Since the teacher is boring, you need to find something you can make interesting. While I usually don’t recommend note taking unless the student really enjoys the process, this is a time when note taking can be a huge advantage.
When you take notes, you give your brain an explicit purpose in listening to the teacher speak. If you’re not writing something down on your sheet of paper then you instantly know you’re probably not paying enough attention. While you shouldn’t try to get down every word the teacher says, if keeping up with the teacher is an absolute breeze then continue trying to write down more.
This process forces you to focus on the teacher despite the lecture being boring. It gives you a clear and measurable objective when it comes to focus. If, at the end of the class, you have no notes written down then you definitely failed. If you have pages of notes written down then, whether you enjoyed it or not, you at least focused a little through the lecture. (Taking it too far can lead you to not processing the information but that’s a problem that get’s way deeper than this article. You might want to check out Q/A: How To Stop Doodling And Start Working)
The Subject – Not The Speaker
Make sure you’re focusing on the subject of the boring lecture instead of the speaker.
Focusing on a person that talks too slow or speaks in a monotone voice can be downright painful. If you want to put up with it then it’s usually best to focus as much of your energy on the subject as you can. Don’t try to hear the teacher’s enthusiasm. Don’t listen for emotional content. Listen as if the teacher is just a computer reading off something. Listen mechanically instead of emotionally.
This is a process of distancing yourself from your own emotions. Do everything you can to keep all your emotional energy on your own re-presentation of the information you’re being told. By focusing on that you can limit your distraction and boredom during the worst of it.
Through The Motions
If you’re absolutely desperate to focus then eventually, it’s best to focus on going through the motions. If you learn to go through the motions of focusing then you’ll eventually start actually focusing on the subject. It’s virtually automatic.
What do people do when they’re interested in a subject?
They lean forward in their seat. They keep their eyes on the teacher. They take vigorous notes. They make interesting facial expressions related to what the teacher is saying. They might ask questions. They actually look like they care. If you say them, you would probably guess they weren’t sitting through a boring lecture.
In some ways, you may want to focus on convincing the teacher you’re listening.
If you can’t force yourself to focus mentally then just forcing yourself to go through the motions will be able to get you most of the way there. When you go through the motions you’re giving your brain the signals that you’re trying to focus on the subject. Most of the time, your brain follows the motions you put your physical body through. Take advantage of this and, more importantly…
Don’t Go Through The Anti-Motions
What do I mean by the Anti-Motions?
The anti-motions are the motions that someone uses to not focus on a subject. If you can’t get yourself to physically go through the motions of focusing then at least force yourself out going through the opposite motions.
What do students that aren’t paying attention do?
They stare at the ground. They put their head down. They might rest their head in their hands. They doodle through the whole class. They have conversations with everyone in the class willing to talk over the teacher. They’re making the boring lecture less painful by almost completely ignoring it.
Going through these motions will limit your ability to focus. Even if your mind is reasonably focused on the subject it will never be more focused than when you’re avoiding these kinds of actions.
So… best case scenario, avoid bad teachers. That being said, if you’re not able to avoid it then use these strategies to try and minimize the damage. Heck… you might even enjoy yourself.
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