Better to be Frustrated than Bored

Jan 23, 2017 by

For all of you who have taught students, you know that one of the rewards is seeing the “Aha moments” that students experience. One of the downsides (to instructors) of teaching online is that it is hard to “see” the reward of the “aha” in the same fulfilling way.

The reason we should care about the aha moments that students experience is that this kind of moment is tied closely to an emotional feeling. And memories with emotional attachments tend to be stronger (more memorable) than ones with no emotional attachment.

But have you ever stopped to think about what is going on right before the aha moment? Does the aha moment come after a well-organized lecture, a step-by-step example, a period of boredom, or a period of confusion or frustration?

An aha moment typically comes after a period of confusion or frustration. This means that you have to put students into that space where they are actually at the edge of what they know (the confusion/frustration space) to nudge them over to insights.

Anyways, I digress. I want to share findings from this paper: Better to Be Frustrated than Bored: The Incidence, Persistence, and Impact of Learners’ Cognitive-Affective States during Interactions with Three Different Computer-Based Learning Environments (Baker, et al, 2010).

The researchers set out to focus on cognitive-affective states that were hypothesized to influence cognition and deep learning: boredom, confusion, delight, engaged concentration, frustration, and surprise. The researchers use Russell’s Core Affect framework (2003) to map these states in two dimensions: valence (pleasure to displeasure) and arousal (activation to deactivation).

In this study, the researchers examined:

  • the cognitive-affective states the students experienced during the learning process
  • how those states persist over time (e.g. do students move from boredom to frustration more often than frustration to boredom?)
  • how the state affects the students choices on how to interact with the system (e.g. what causes students to game the system?)

While I will leave you to read the whole paper if you want all the details (the methodology involves three different interactive learning systems and three different methodologies), I think the nuance of definitions between a few of these terms is important. As defined in the paper:

  • frustration is dissatisfaction or annoyance
  • confusion is a noticeable lack of understanding
  • engaged concentration is a state of engagement with a task such that concentration is intense, attention is focused, and involvement is complete

Now let’s jump ahead to (what I consider to be) some of the interesting results. Engaged concentration was the most common state during the observation periods (60%) followed by confusion (13%). While boredom was only observed about 4-6% of the time, it was also the most persistent state (once bored, the student stays bored) across all three learning systems.

Within two of the systems where “gaming the system” was observed, a more in-depth analysis was performed. Boredom was significantly more likely to lead to gaming the system. Guess what wasn’t likely to lead to gaming the system … confusion, frustration, and surprise. Better to be confused than bored, huh?

There is quite a bit of new research being performed on the role of confusion in learning, but my gut feeling here is that confusion leads to self-insight, and learning gained through self-insight (because this is the aha where emotions are attached) should be stickier than learning delivered through other states.

Challenge: Vigilantly watch for states of boredom in your classes, and when you find them, intervene. Do something different. Put students into a space where they are challenged and maybe even a little confused. Give the learners a chance to grapple with the concepts and have those moments of self-insight.


Baker, R. S., D’Mello, S. K., Rodrigo, M. M. T., & Graesser, A. C. (2010). Better to be frustrated than bored: The incidence, persistence, and impact of learners’ cognitive–affective states during interactions with three different computer-based learning environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68(4), 223-241.

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Celebrate the Errors in Math Practice

Jan 11, 2017 by

Dear math students,

As you work through your mathematics practice, I’m going to challenge you to embrace making errors in an entirely new way. 

Many students believe that every problem in math homework should be perfectly constructed with no errors. It might look something like this:

A nicely ordered problem solution with no mistakes.


But when it’s time to study after the initial problem run-through, what does this perfectly constructed problem say? Does it coach you on remembering how you struggled? Does it remind you where you made an error? No.

When you make an error as you’re working a problem, please don’t erase it from the face of the earth. Certainly you should learn from the struggle and complete a correct solution, but record your deviations from the straightforward solution path in another color. Leave yourself notes (also in a different color) to remind you what you should have paid more attention to the first time around. Maybe that would look something like this:

Worked problem with highlights and notes to self



Sometimes you’re going to recognize but you don’t have the right answer but you’re not going to be sure what’s gone wrong. You should always try first to figure it out yourself first. This process of error analysis in a variety of different situations is key to developing problem solving skills in mathematics. Without exploration of the problem space (which happens with error analysis), your brain is just recording rote procedures without the ability to transfer those procedures to new kinds of problems. It will, essentially, stunt your mathematical growth.

Now, I don’t want you to get to the point of tears or breaking your keyboard out of anger. If you get near that stage please just ask a question (email, discussions, chat-a-friend, etc), leave a sticky note on the page as a reminder to go back, and move on to the next problem or section of problems. Just switching to a slightly different problem can not only get you unstuck, but sometimes give you insights into the “stuck” problem. 

When you figure out how to do the problem you were stuck on, make sure to go find that flagged problem (remember the sticky note?) and annotate your corrections.

Worked math problem with cross-outs and restarts and notes to self.


Now you might be thinking “why do all these error corrections and problem annotating in another color?” When it comes time to study for your major assessments, you will be able to see the places where you stumbled the first time you tried the problem. These “notes to self” are the places where you’re most likely to make the same mistake again. They benchmark places to remember to be careful and show you problem types to repeat practice before an exam.

Celebrate your errors.

Embrace the messiness.

Learn from your mistakes.

Study from your struggle points.

And be great at mathematics!

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The Deliberate Practice Experiment

Jan 7, 2017 by

For some inspiration to try a more active approach to learning, I thought I would share a short video from Dr. Carl Wieman, who is a Nobel Laureate, a physicist, and more recently a researcher in learning science. Wieman has designed and run some very elegant experiments to demonstrate the effects of active learning techniques. Consider this one:

What happens if you run two classes for a week with the same learning objectives, the same time in class, and the same assessment. Prior to the experiment, you take care to ensure that the student makeup and performance is very similar up to this point. One class continues on, lecture-style, with a veteran instructor with lots of experience. The other class is assigned a freshly-minted PhD trained to lead the students in learning via deliberate practice (an active learning strategy). The courses meet under these conditions for the exact same time.

The technique of deliberate practice takes the form of a series of challenging questions and tasks. This forces students to spend their class time thinking scientifically, discussing concepts, critiquing each other’s predictions, and engaging in problem solving.

To see how this (and a few other elegant experiments) turn out, take the 15 minutes to watch the video: Finding New Ways to Learn Science.

Really … watch the video. Student pushback against these strategies is a real issue and usually worst at the beginning of the semester. We can all use a good foundational reminder about why we continue to strive to lead more active learning sessions in our classes.

It is also well worth the time to read the very well-designed study, Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class, mentioned in the video.

Challenge: Consider the deliberate practice model described above. Where can you tackle a learning objective through a series of challenging questions and tasks instead of with lecture? Give yourself that extra nudge to try just a little more activity (or to build in just a little more activity).


Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862-864.

Reminder: You can sign up to receive the Weekly Teaching Challenge in your email or share it with a friend.

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Write an Operating System for Your Brain

Jan 1, 2017 by

Let’s face it. We all have to interact with organizations and systems of relationships in which we might not “fit” perfectly. We can choose to stay and try to thrive, or leave and find another path. Both are valid options. If you are choosing to stay, you will likely have to make minor (or sometimes major) tweaks to how you interact and function within that system. It is unreasonable to expect a system with thousands of employees or a family with 4 people in it to all change and adapt to you when you are unwilling to make changes to adapt to it.

What if you began approaching your brain like a computer system? Suppose you could load in a set of operating instructions at the beginning of every day to govern how you operate in the world around you. As you find “bugs” (character flaws) in your system, suppose you could write new code to help you begin to correct those bugs. I think we can actually do this.

Computers boot up with an operating system that tells the hardware (printer, mouse, monitor, etc.) how to function and runs the software apps. The operating system is the first program the computer loads when you turn it on. In a sense, the operating system directs everything else in the computer system.

You can write a personal operating system (POS) that directs your physical and mental functioning. The POS can be a very powerful tool to help you change behavior that is holding you back in your professional and personal life.

Here’s the basic idea:

  1. Write a set of instructions (the POS) that you want to be your governing principles.
  2. Read the POS every morning out loud.
  3. Each evening before bed, celebrate the wins from the day as you reread the POS.

Aspirational Lines of Code

Since this is you talking to your own body and brain, it’s important that you are kind to yourself. Negative instructions tend to focus on past behavior. The personal operating system should be a set of instructions on what TO do in the present and future. The instructions you give yourself every day should be affirming and aspirational. Any instruction can be written in a negative or positive way.

Here’s a line of code for running your brain:

Negative code: Don’t brag.
Positive code: Be humble.

And another line of code for running your body:

Negative code: Don’t eat crap.
Positive code: Choose healthy food.

A personal operating system should consist of approximately 5-15 lines of code that set up instructions for your brain and body. Here are several lines of code from the personal operating system I used last year, when I worked with a very large team in a leadership position:

Schedule impulsive things.
Support the leaders around you.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.
Do something scary every day.

The goal for a personal operating system is to create a set of reminders that become so well-known to you that they pop up in your mind when you are confronted with situations that run counter to your operating system.

Writing the First Draft of your POS

How do you go about creating your own personal operating system?

There are several questions you can use for reflection that will give you a good first draft:

  1. If I were to ask people around you to describe you, what would you want them to say about you?
  2. What are the characteristics of the people you you admire and look to as role models?
  3. What are the character flaws that are keeping you from moving up or into new roles at work?
  4. What are the character flaws that are keeping you from having more meaningful relationships with your partner, children, or friends?

As you identify flaws, remember that you need to find ways to write affirming statements (not negative ones) for the operating system.

Getting Feedback on the POS

This may be too scary for your first POS, and if that’s the case, just skip this step. However, it can be a really valuable way to nail the instructions that will be the most powerful in transforming yourself.

To get feedback on your draft POS, you want to identify 2-5 trusted people (friends, family members, or former work colleagues) that will read the POS and tell you what you’re missing. Ask them questions like:

  1. What is holding me back at work?
  2. What is holding me back from deepening our relationship?
  3.  What should be on this list that isn’t?

Approach the feedback you get with this mindset: I will listen to what they say without argument.

Now revise your POS in a way that you think is appropriate. You can take it or leave it with respect to the feedback you got, but you did ask for it, so I’d consider taking it if you truly asked people you trusted.

Finalize the POS

As you get the POS ready to be used, consider how it should be written on paper. Do you want your POS to be loaded from shortest statement to longest statement?

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Schedule impulsive things.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Do something scary every day.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Does it make more sense to you to group the POS so that personal and work goals are separated?

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Do something scary every day.

Schedule impulsive things.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Or maybe it makes more sense to you to organize the list so that the hardest instructions always come first.

Be humble.
Choose healthy foods.
Focus on the big deliverables.
Schedule impulsive things.

Do something scary every day.
Support the leaders around you.
Give everyone a chance to shine.
Communicate down as well as up.

Finalize the order. Print the list (you may need a few copies depending on your morning and evening routines). You might want to laminate the list (packing tape works well), mount it on cardboard, decorate it, or do something else to make it feel more like a permanent structure in your life. It’s your POS, figure out what makes sense to you.

Loading the POS in the Morning

The POS will only work if you actually READ it every morning. So you have to find a place to put it where you will have the time to read the list out loud with minimal disruption to your normal routine. Try to think of a time when you’ll be likely to be able to read the list. For me, the ideal time is when I’m drying my hair, so my list is in the bathroom. For you it could be while you wait for your coffee to brew, when you are making your breakfast, or while you drive to work.

Find a home for your POS, and make it a part of your routine to read the list of instructions every morning.

Reread the POS in the Evening

Now find a time in the evening that you can skim your list and celebrate the wins and small corrections you made during the day. Again, the bathroom might be the right place (I reflect while I brush my teeth). You don’t want to beat yourself up if you didn’t manage to execute all your instructions. The goal is to find where an instruction did actually lead you to a new behavior during the day. You want your mind to begin to deliver the correct instruction at the moment you need to hear it. For example, at the moment that you are about to brag about an accomplishment at work, “Be humble.” floats into your mind and you congratulate the team on a job well done instead of bragging. That’s a win to be celebrated at the end of the day.

Of course, you might also identify moments in the day where you could have done better, and that’s okay. You simply need to acknowledge them, and then dismiss them with the thought that you’ve now recognized these types of moments and can improve another day.

Tuning Up the POS

As time passes and jobs and relationships change, your POS will need tuning up. Don’t operate on an old POS when your life has had significant changes. The example POS I’ve shared makes little sense now that I’m self-employed and no longer working with an enormous organization with a large team to manage. I’ve revised it. You should too as your situation changes.

I would love to compile a list of instructions that people can choose from to write a POS. What are some of the “lines of code” you’re writing into your own personal operating system?

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