Professor, I couldn't finish the homework because I was on Metafilter all night.
February 9, 2010 4:34 PM   Subscribe

How do I stay motivated to do well in important classes that I’m not interested in?

This semester, I am taking several classes that I have to take to graduate. I can’t switch out of these classes, or take them some other time. I also need to get a 4.0 this semester in order to get my GPA high enough to get an internship that I want next fall.

The problem is that these college classes are utterly uninteresting. I can barely stay awake in them, let alone do the homework or study for the tests. I am taking a couple other classes that I really enjoy, in subjects that are interesting to me and with professors that I respect and whose opinions I care about. I work for hours on those classes, and I’m doing quite well. So I know that I have the drive and the concentration to do well, if I could just motivate myself.

I am interested in stories or tips for how to actually do well in boring classes and in situations where I do not respect the professor. I guess my real question is, how to I motivate myself to do well in these classes so that I can actually do what I want to do next fall? The every day grind of small homework assignments and mind-numbing readings is preventing me from actually accomplishing my larger goal.

Anonymous because it’s pretty clear from my profile what college I go to.

Throwaway email is
posted by anonymous to Education (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I know what you mean, and I even have my own pet subjects of my own that get all my attention.
I mean, the only advice (self-given!) that's worked for me is the old, dull adage "Do your homework in a robotic I-sure-want-that-internship-and-will-go-through-this-sewage-line-of-classes-to-get-it".
If you're like me (most people?) you don't really need to put a lot of effort into classes, like, say, history, where you have to know certain facts at certain times and most teachers generally aren't very good at telling how all these facts go together.
The way you describe these classes, too, as having a bunch of random small assignments makes me assume that it is the sort of class where it's not necessarily the case that a lot of high-quality learning is happening in them. If that's the case, just study for a nice solid five minutes, adhering each little piece of knowledge with what you already know.
For example, in my horrifically boring Public Speaking class, we have to learn about "controlling stage fright", and it's not like it requires more than a long-winded answer, void of wisdom mind you, to get a good grade in that sort of class.

All summed up: BS as much as you can get away with, but no more than that, obviously. It will be fun. I believe in you.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 4:43 PM on February 9, 2010

When you're slogging through those homework assignments, think about what you're working toward and how it will help you in the future. Remind yourself that at the end of the semester, you won't still feel the boredom of the classes but the results of the work you put in (or decided not to do) will remain with you.

That's what helps me get through dull work. I've been to two colleges; the first one I only did some of the work, failed, and by some miracle was excepted elsewhere. The whole process opened my eyes to two things:

1) If I don't do the work, I'm academically screwed.
2) Didn't really matter (YMMV with this) if I did the work ten minutes before class, the only time I got a bad grade was when I hadn't studied or hadn't done/turned in the work -at all.-
posted by biochemist at 4:44 PM on February 9, 2010

accepted... yowch. I'm in college I swear.
posted by biochemist at 4:44 PM on February 9, 2010

Can you form a study group? The pressure of having other people around, and the possibility of interacting with people who are passionate about your subject could do wonders for your motivation.
posted by fermezporte at 4:47 PM on February 9, 2010

Can you arrange little bribes and rewards for yourself? When I have a boring class that I cannot stand, I try to set up coffee dates with friends for immediately after the class; that way I will have to show up, and afterward there is an awesome thing waiting for me. This works for reading stuff I don't want to read, too: I plan a coffee date and arrive a couple of hours early with reading/homework and no other distractions, and work until friends arrive. (I am very motivated by coffee; maybe you have a similar weakness you could exploit.)

Also, do you have a list of the small homework assignments or could you get one? For my class I dislike this semester, I found it easier to set aside a weekend afternoon and power through a bunch of them well ahead of their due dates than to try and get enthused about them one at a time. (Now I am two months ahead on assignments, and it feels excellent!)

And try not to think about how much you hate the work while you're doing it! You don't have to get excited about it or anything, but boring work time drags by a lot slower if you're constantly thinking about how much it sucks.
posted by bewilderbeast at 4:49 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I tell myself that it's similar to having a boring job - and my pay is a grade. If I don't do the work, I don't get the pay.

Trust me, I've had some boring jobs AND some boring classes (including this semester - Southern Literature *yawn*). but if you only put forth the minimal effort, you'll get the minimal pay. So I make myself read the stupid books and make myself write interesting papers because i need a passing grade.

Check out this blog for some advice on how to break through the boredom wall.
posted by patheral at 4:55 PM on February 9, 2010

patheral: I love Southern Lit! Different strokes, I guess. I wish I could trade you for my Spanish class.

I have this same problem, so I feel like a hypocrite giving advice, but I really like what bewilderbeast said. Whenever possible, I set aside the work from my most-hated classes to be done in a place that makes me calm (which also happens to be the coffee shop for me). Specifically, it's not home or school, and I can get a lot done in just one afternoon so that I don't have to worry about it the rest of the week.
posted by a.steele at 5:08 PM on February 9, 2010

Sit in front - it will keep you awake and it will help the professor know who you are (this is actually a good thing). Keep your eyes on the professor or whoever is speaking. Just the effort of physically keeping up your attention will keep you awake and maybe more interested. The further back you sit, the easier it is to drift.

The more the professor knows you exist, the more s/he will care about you and care about your performance and happiness in the class. Interacting with the professor in just these minimal ways can make the class more engaging for you, and you'll get a better grade.

On a day when you have done the homework, speak up in class - more than once, if you can. As far a doing the homework, if it's a lot of reading you're not interested in, try looking on sparknotes, bookrags or even wikipedia for a summary, just so you at least know what's going on. Most works of literature (you don't say what the classes are, so that's my guess) are summarized online somewhere, and then you won't feel like a total dork in class.

also consider this - some teachers give you lots of petty crap homework because it's the only way they can think of to make people do the reading - like, do the reading and then do a one-page response paper. yeah, I hated those too. but that's what happens when the class grinds to a halt because everybody's got their chin in their hands, hoping somebody else did the reading.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:10 PM on February 9, 2010

I was a pretty bad student as an undergraduate and, to a lesser degree, in my first Master's. I had a terrible time with this sort of thing -- slogging through boring classes. When I went back for my second Master's, I adopted "failure is not an option" as my motto. For two years, I made sure that homework came first. Sure, I scheduled "fun time" and "relationship time," and so on, but I was in school full time and working 30 hours/week, and I relied on that motto to get me through. It was pretty brutal, and I had to keep my eye on the assignment that was in front of me pretty much all the time, but it got me the job I wanted, so I can't say it was a bad decision.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:17 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've made this recommendation before, but I cannot praise Study Hacks enough for this sort of thing. Browsing the archives should give you lots of ideas. I especially love his idea of a Shadow Schedule where you set aside specific chunks of time to work on the reading and homework for a particular class.
posted by peacheater at 5:24 PM on February 9, 2010

Putting up with boredom is actually a really useful thing to be able to do. A 4.0 tells people that you can consistently do well, even when the class isn't pure espresso and games of twister. Trust me, what you learn this semester is stuff that you will use in the real world.
I second Study Hacks.
posted by pickypicky at 5:30 PM on February 9, 2010

It depends why they are boring. In my experience, classes are either boring because (a) the material is too easy, trivially presented, or just plain dry; or (b) the material is actually too difficult, and I'm not able to comprehend the things that are super cool about it. What you should do is different in either case.

If (a), then I suggest you identify what nuggets of interestingness there are in it. Everything has something. For instance, if you're doing history, and it's presented as a dry set of tedious facts to memorise, watch some movies or read some fiction books from that time period. It will highlight what is interesting about then, and also give you some background to "hook" the facts into ("oh, yeah, the burning of Atlanta - I remember that part in Gone With The Wind!"). If the topic is, say, torts (sorry lawyers, I'm trying to think of something that I know I would find horribly dry) you could find sob stories of people online who are going through interesting tort-related cases. Or try to relate everything you're learning about to your life in some way. The point is to do for yourself what engaging and good professors should do naturally: find the bits that are interesting. I have actually ended up becoming very interested in topics that I originally hated this way. The other bonus is that this sort of "extra" work often pays huge dividends to your grade, by virtue of the depth you have processed and engaged with the material.

If (b), the situation is more difficult, because there is no substitute for actually understanding the material. But I find that popular books describing the coolness without the details often would help me to understand the difficult parts. For instance, I once took a quantum mechanics class that was insanely hard -- reading popular science descriptions of what the theory qualitatively predicted came in really handy when it came to doing sanity checks on my quantitative work.

tl;dr: there is something interesting about every topic. If you can hone the ability to find that thing, it'll pay dividends not only in your grade, but also in your life in general.
posted by forza at 5:59 PM on February 9, 2010

Professors often interpret boredom as stupidity: that is, if they don't get any response from their students, they will slow things down, make busy-work assignments, and generally lower the level of discourse, on the assumption that the kids must not be not clever enough to handle the interesting stuff. This is a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

And some people get jaded teaching undergrads who just sit there silent and looking stupefied. There's nothing more discouraging for a prof than spending hours prepping for class only to find that no one has done the reading, so no one has anything to say. Why bother trying to communicate subtleties to kids who won't make any effort? So starts another vicious cycle.

To break out, try being well-enough prepared in your "boring" classes to ask substantive questions; better yet, as suggested above, get a study group prepared so that several people can actively participate in class. If you start acting interested, the class might become interesting.

Also -- in the real world you're going to meet people and organizations and concepts that are exponentially more stupid and boring than any college class. Often you will have to convince crashing bores that you find them fascinating. Finding a way around or through boredom is an important part of professionalization; dealing with a dull class or two is one way to develop this skill.
posted by philokalia at 6:11 PM on February 9, 2010

If you respect the subject but not the professor, study the subject on your own time and fill in the pieces he's missing (use textbooks you feel he should, get tutoring, ask on related forums for good resources.) If you don't respect his teaching and don't get anything from it, you're still capable of taking on the subject in this fashion.

If you respect the professor but not the subject, talk to him or her about it; let him or her know that you find their teaching compelling, but not the subject matter, and can they recommend alternative sources you can review on your own time to give you a different perspective on it that might help you form that connection. You may get useful materials from this, or even some one-on-one time during which he attempts to find ways you can connect your life experience and interests to the subject matter.

If you respect neither, then you're going to have to self-motivate, and by this I do not mean "suck it up and pay attention." What I mean is this: take it on as a job, break it down into digestible chunks to keep it from feeling overwhelming, and grant yourself specific rewards at specific milestones.

For the homework, that means taking the assignment, breaking it down into milestones, then giving yourself (say) fifteen minutes of break in between each milestone. For the lectures (oh god the boring lectures), it might mean setting a goal of writing down three articulate notes every five minutes, so that you're distracted by having to track the time and you become interested in the lecture not for the subject matter, but because you're trying to draw facts out that you can write notes on before the time runs out. In short, create games and prizes and motivations that work regardless of subject matter as a coping mechanism.

Hope that helps; I've done all of these with much success, as I'm bored easily.
posted by davejay at 6:41 PM on February 9, 2010

"You can lead a horse to water" postscript: I have taught at a bunch of different colleges, and I have to say my classes at the better schools are rarely plagued by boredom. I am the same teacher, the material is the same, and I would even say that there aren't huge differences in the students' inherent cleverness. The difference is that the elite-level kids are not passive. They prepare, they ask questions, they make observations, they argue points with one another, they bring up related things that weren't in the class material, and this often results in insights that I myself had not thought of. Active engagement makes classes better, but it has to come from the students -- it's not something the professor can conjure out of thin air.

"Info transfer from brain A to brain B" is boring; education as an active process is anything but.
posted by philokalia at 6:55 PM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

This will surely be the least helpful response you get, but: find a way to make the course not so boring to you. Look into the topic and into your soul and pull out your hook. Find a reason to care. Even very dry readings are massively interesting if you can find a reason to dig through them. For me, the hook often becomes apparent when I consider the implications of things. For instance, I got very into cataloguing (at library school) because to me the choice of where you place a book in a structure is very political and fraught. So then all the reams of rules and requirements for cataloguing became a political manifesto to me. In short: find ways to be outraged by something. Righteous outrage is way more interesting than boredom.

Barring that, develop a crush on your professor. Possibly this isn't an option for you.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:00 PM on February 9, 2010

Budget your time so that you devote it more equally to all subjects. If it's not necessary to your success, don't get bogged down in spending hours and hours on something you already get just because it's more interesting. If you really like the class, look up some books on the topic that you can read once classes are over and you have leisure reading time. Also give yourself treats for accomplishing things. I do this and it works fairly well. For example, "I can watch the episode of that TV show if I finish my [insert boring class here] reading." or "I will eat some ice cream, but only AFTER I finish my [insert boring class] homework." This doesn't work for those without will power, but I don't have much and this trick still works.
posted by ishotjr at 9:14 PM on February 9, 2010

I hate study groups. I hate using other people to motivate myself. I hate the "sit in the front row and absorb EVERY WORD the professor says" idea.

For some people there is no other way than to continuously tell yourself "I have to get through this. I need this for my internship. No matter how insufferable this class is, I need to get through it. I have to have this assignment done for next class." etc, etc.

What has worked for me in the past/present (but may not work for you):
-realizing when I'm really not going to be able to pay perfect attention due to lack of sleep/disinterest/lots of other things on my mind. These days, I bring a big bottle of ice water and some (quiet) snacks to keep myself awake and occupied, hide my phone, and force myself to take notes...but give myself leeway to make a few doodles in the margins. Bonus points if they're actually related to the class.
-keeping something to do with me all the time. I don't think you really realize how much free time you have until you start carrying a book around. If I know I have to read 20 pages of a book today, I'll keep the book in my bag and read it between classes (5-10 mins before class in every class adds up!)/on my breaks at work to break it up and prevent it from being too monotonous
-break up your assignments. Work on 15 minutes for one of the classes you hate, then study for a half hour for one of the classes you like. Forcing yourself to sit down and work for 2 hours on a subject you hate, without breaks, will lead to (IME) about 20 mins of actual studying and the rest as procrastinating.
posted by kro at 9:15 PM on February 9, 2010

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