Although there are several situations that we could find boring in life, academic exams are not something that we intuitively associate with boredom. To some students exams could be exhilarating as it gives them the opportunity to prove their capabilities, while to many others exams could be trepidatory as it could reveal their weakness, But in either case, the onset of boredom is not what most people think their children feel when taking exams.

Well, apparently most people are wrong, according to a team of international academics led by researchers at the University of Vienna in Austria, one of the largest higher learning institutions in Europe. The research, which was the first time that academics were specifically studying the phenomenon of exam boredom, found overwhelming evidence that most school students are actually very bored during exams. The study also showed that utter boredom has a negative effect on exam results.

In recent years there has been an increase in studies on boredom mainly because of accumulating empirical evidence on boredom’s negative effects on learning and achievement outcomes, including students’ motivation, learning behavior, grades, and career aspirations. Although boredom is currently a very intensively studied phenomenon, test boredom has so far been completely ignored in the research. For the first time and on an international basis, psychologists have now been able to show that test boredom does actually occur and that it clearly deteriorates performance.

The main cause was found to be that students were being both under-challenged and over-challenged during the exam. In addition, test boredom was significantly higher when the exam test scores were of low stakes and had no personal consequence for the students. The main result of the study was that a high level of test boredom had a negative effect on exam results.

The study confirmed the so-called ‘abundance hypothesis’, which in the exam context shows that boredom especially deteriorates exam performance if students are over-challenged. This happens, because all mental resources would need to be allotted to solve the task, but are only partially available because they are consumed by boredom, thus producing adverse effects on achievement outcomes.

However, when students are being underchallenged, the negative effects of boredom are likely to be relatively small because even significantly reduced resources may still be sufficient to solve the task. In other words, resources may be abundant to simultaneously process the emotion and perform the task. Studies suggest that the experience of sufficient resources can create a ‘plenty’ mindset; increasing attention toward the plentiful resource itself, but at the cost of attention for unrelated aspects.

In the study, a total of 1,820 German students in the 5th to 10th grades were examined. Questions about the extent of boredom, of being under-challenged and over-challenged and the personal relevance of the tasks were directly included in the test, between the different tasks.

From the study results, the researchers derived some recommendations for teachers and guardians. They noted that in order to combat test boredom, teachers should prepare exam tasks in such a way that they relate to the reality of students’ lives. In addition, the tasks should not be very under-challenging or over-challenging.

Parents or guardians can also support young people by starting an open conversation about possible over-challenging or under-challenging tasks at school. Especially in the case of being over-challenged at school, it is important to react quickly to avoid boredom as studies show that boredom has not only a detrimental effect on learning and performance but also on mental and physical health.

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