Study: When math class is boring, students lose interest in related careers

July 1, 2022

Teens are most turned off by classes that are too difficult.

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A study co-authored by Professor Anastasiya Lipnevich has important implications for encouraging students to pursue math-related careers. (Credit: Getty Images)

An international team of researchers has found that boredom has a negative effect on high school students’ aspirations to enter math-related careers. This boredom had more of an impact when the students considered their math classes to be too difficult, according to a study published in the Learning and Instruction journal in March. 

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Professor Anastasia Lipnevich (Photo courtesy of Lipnevich)

“If a student cannot approach the task, if it's too complicated, then the student has a high chance of being bored due to overchallenge,” said co-author Professor Anastasiya Lipnevich (GC/Queens College, Educational Psychology). “As a result, they did not choose a career in which mathematics is required,” Lipnevich said. 

The study cohort was made up of 753 German students in grades nine and 10. The students, about 15 years old on average, were given questionnaires that quizzed them on their degree of boredom and the perceived level of difficulty in their math classes. They were then asked about their career aspirations and if they wanted to pursue careers in math fields. The questions were based on a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 5. 

The students who felt overwhelmed had lower math-related career aspirations, the team reported. “So, if a student is overchallenged with mathematics, chances of going into that domain are really low,” Lipnevich said. 

Interestingly, she said, when the students were underchallenged — meaning they were bored with math curriculum they thought was too easy — their motivation to enter math fields was unaffected. “So, when the kids complained that the subject was too easy, it was not as detrimental as when they complained that the subject was too difficult,” the professor said. 

The findings highlight the importance of activity-driven learning that keeps students’ attention, said Lipnevich, especially during a time when so many are learning remotely.

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“Trying to prevent boredom is a very important mission for all of us educators, and this is a struggle in the remote learning environment,” she noted. “Getting students more involved in activities, fostering a positive, open learning environment where students have to actively think about the lessons — and not, ‘Here is your worksheet and go work on it’ — it's this constant monitoring, constant formative assessment to check in with students to make sure that you’re operating at their level.”

This includes offering a curriculum they find valuable, say reading a book on a subject they find interesting, she said, or doing an exercise that relates to a job field they show interest in. 

“So the take-home message is that teachers should be monitoring if a student is lost, or feels bored and distracted because he or she is overchallenged when the task is consistently difficult,” Lipnevich said. “The earlier we intervene, the earlier we can prevent this cycle, and then we can get students to go into those career fields in mathematics.”

The findings are consistent with similar results from a series of studies, co-authored by Lipnevich, that examine socio-emotional effects on student learning. 

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