Dealing With Boring Classes

May 20, 2009

A lot of college students are wasting time when they are sitting in lecture halls or classrooms.  This is unfortunate, since you can dramatically reduce the amount of needed study time if you can actually absorb what is being presented in class.

The key here, as was the key with getting stuff done, is focusing on the here and now.  If you can do that, you should be able to pick up on most of the material being presented.

For some classes, this is a piece of cake.  You may enjoy the material, so you are interested in soaking in everything the professor is saying.  In others, the professor is passionate about what he/she is presenting, and you “catch” that enthusiasm- like a cold or something.

Unfortunately, a lot of professors are just plain boring.  Some feel that their only duty is to present the material to you.  If the subject doesn’t interest you, this can be a devastating combination.

Regardless of what you feel about these professors, you need to accept the fact that you will have classes like these.  So… how do you deal with them?

Well, one option is to skip.  Unlike most people out there giving advice on college, I am not going to tell you “always go to class.”  I have an entire article about that.

Alright, so what happens if you need to attend one of these classes?

The first thing to notice is how much of the material presented by the professor is relevant to getting the grade you want (We are talking about cases where you just want to get a good grade in the class).  In most classes, there is a lot of irrelevant material presented.

When irrelevant stuff is being talked about, zone out.  Do something else.  Do some work in another class.  Read a funny article on  Read this website.  Do a soduko.

When relevant stuff is being talked about, pay attention.  Fully.  Focus on the here and now.

This is called employing selective focus.  As the word suggests, you are selecting what to focus on and when to focus on it. 

What a shock.

As I said in the basic study skills article, your focus has its limits.  Even when you train it up, it is tough to force yourself to focus on uninteresting things for long periods of time.  By using selective focus, you are conserving your focus so that you have enough for the important stuff.

This seems like common sense to me, but to a lot of people it strikes them as being ridiculous.  Go try it out for yourself before making a final judgment.

Alright, what to do when you must focus for the entire class period?

Again, you will be able to retain the most information when you are focused.  The key, therefore, is to keep yourself focused for the entire period.

“But Andy,” you might point out, “you have been saying how doing so is incredibly difficult if not impossible for most people!”

Yes, and that still stands. 

The solution to our problem is to not force yourself to stay focused for the entire period.


Think about something you are absolutely fascinated by.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  How hard would it be for you to pay attention in a class on that subject?

Probably not that hard.

Now think about the most energetic, interesting and fun person you know.  When they talk, you hang on their every word.  If that person was talking about something agonizingly boring, let’s say examples of circumflex in Coptic script (My apologies to fans of Hellenistic Egypt), you would probably still have little trouble paying attention to what was being said.

The reason that you have little trouble staying focused in both cases is that you feel some kind of emotion in both cases.  Boring= no emotion.

When you are really into something, it is because you have constant emotional spikes.  Humor, enthusiasm, moving your body, changes in energy levels, interesting topics and drama are all examples of things that can trigger emotional spikes within you.

So, in order to just be focused on something as opposed to forcing yourself to be focused on something, the key is to generate emotion. 

Remember how I said that the easiest way to get refocused on your work was to pick up the pace?  Well, that works because you induce an emotional spike.  You feel a sense of urgency.

Here are examples of how to do this.

– Read up on the material beforehand in the textbook, on Wikipedia, etc.  Even if you don’t understand any of it, being aware of the material will help you pay attention for mysterious reasons.

– Participate in the class.  Do things like, God forbid, ask questions.


What did you say?

Ask questions?


– Get to know your professor in office hours.  You will be surprised at how much easier it will be to pay attention if you know the person.

– Take amusing notes.  I personally get a kick out of taking my notes in haikus, drawing an elaborate picture to describe the lecture or writing the exact opposite of what is being said.  These things amuse me.

– Make it a challenge to learn everything the first time it is presented.  The moment you get lost, either ask the professor a question, whisper to a neighbor or do a Google search IMMEDIATELY. 

– Use the linking and peg methods described in the memory techniques section.

These are all things that work for me.  As you can see, they all do one thing- give me some kind of emotional spike.  So long as what you do generates an emotional spike, it will work.

One thing you can do to greatly increase the amount of material that you actually retain from class is to spend 2 minutes after class recapping what was talked about.  All you need to do is ask yourself “what just happened?”


When To Skip Class

May 20, 2009

When you have a boring class in a lousy subject, you will be tempted to skip class. Unlike most people out there giving advice on college, I am not going to tell you “always go to class.”

In fact, I usually skip at least one of my classes each semester and just show up to the exams.

That said, I will advise you to make sure these three things are in place before you actually go out and skip.

1. Make sure attendance does not impact your grade in a meaningful way, if at all.
2. Make sure all the material you need is available outside of class.
3. Make sure you trust yourself to learn the material on your own.

Two and three are very important. It is one thing to skip class. It is another to drop out of class. You need to make sure that you can actually get the grade that you want in spite of not attending lecture.

The purpose of class in the first place is for the professor to teach you the course’s material. It is important, therefore, that you can access that material on your own and do what is needed to learn it.

Remember, office hours are available if you cannot figure out a part of the course for yourself. Just make sure that you avoid talk about your attendance level.