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What’s Boring Marketing Students?

What's Boring Marketing Students?

Riley Dugan, Ric Sweeney and James Kellaris

Marketing Students are Bored

It is often said that each generation has its song, three minutes that encapsulate the era. In the 1960s, many songs could lay claim to this mantle, but that tumultuous decade may have been best captured by Bob Dylan’s classic, “Blowin’ In the Wind.” With lyrics that speak to civil rights struggles and the horrors of war, the song personifies the heaviness and seriousness of the era’s engaged youth. 

The song that best personifies today’s college student is the ironically titled “Very Busy People” by The Limousines. Rather than war and civil rights, the lyrics detail young people plagued with ennui. When they manage to get out of bed, they busy themselves with their voluminous digital music libraries and watch the same movie over and over again. 


Despite the wealth of information made available by digital technology and the comforts afforded by modern life, many of today’s marketing students are simply bored.

Boredom as a pervasive feeling is a relatively recent phenomenon. Our forebears didn’t have the luxury of boredom; crops needed to be harvested, factories needed to be staffed, danger and disease loomed frighteningly. There simply wasn’t time to be bored. Classical literature provides us with the trope of the superfluous aristocrat who spends all day in insipid idleness, but boredom was a foreign concept for the majority of people.

Today’s marketing student is certainly no stranger to boredom. Whether it’s digital distraction or something more existential, such as a feeling that there is nothing great left to accomplish, many college students seem to be unexcited about what’s happening in the world around them. Not surprisingly, this feeling of boredom is evident in the marketing classroom. Students checking their phones, stifling yawns or staring vacantly into oblivion are familiar sights to the vast majority of marketing professors. While previous generations may have viewed college as a time for exploration, many of today’s marketing students view college as four years that must be endured before they can start making money.

To provide insight into the causes and consequences of boredom in the classroom, we recently conducted a survey of business students from public and private universities. The results of our research were extremely interesting: Although the majority of students indicated that they sometimes felt bored during their classes, a significantly higher percentage of marketing majors (versus non-marketing majors) say they often experience boredom in the classroom. Marketing majors were also more likely than non-marketing majors to find quantitative courses (e.g., marketing research, statistics and analytics) boring. 

Marketing majors were also more likely than non-marketing majors to make external attributions for their feelings of boredom. They don’t believe it is their fault that they are bored, rather it is someone or something else in the classroom that contributes to their feelings of boredom. Sometimes it’s their classmates who, because they don’t participate in class discussion, create a more boring environment. Other times, it’s the classroom environment itself, marked by large lecture-style auditoriums or antiquated technology. However, according to our respondents, it’s often the professor who contributes to a boring environment. This happens when the professor lectures too much, or when the pace of the class moves too slowly for students’ liking. Whatever the case may be, these results might be explained by some interesting psychological differences between marketing and non-marketing majors. For instance, marketing majors score higher in the personality trait called “need for arousal,” which may help explain their persistent feelings of boredom.

Regardless, the downstream consequences of boredom can have deleterious effects on marketing professors and their departments. Marketing majors are more likely to punish the professor when they felt bored by slamming them on course evaluations. Moreover, students are more likely to tell other students not to take a class with a boring professor, which has financial ramifications for departments that often have to justify their budgets on the basis of enrollment.

However, while the natural reaction from professors might be to assume that these results are “sour grapes” from less-than-dedicated students or, like the students, externally attribute the evaluations to their colleagues, the truth is that we can mitigate these feelings of boredom in how we structure our classes. For instance, marketing majors are more sensitive than non-marketing majors to whether course content is perceived as relevant to their career goals. Furthermore, just as marketing majors have higher needs for arousal, they are also more open to new experiences, which implies that they may be more receptive to professors trying new pedagogical strategies in the classroom. Hands-on, experiential exercises that simulate some of the experiences they will face in their entry-level jobs would likely be perceived positively. Breaking up lecture halls into various activity centers and encouraging Socratic, small-group sessions might be particularly appealing to marketing students.

We do not advocate devolving marketing instruction into “edutainment,” but we believe more effort should be made to align content with different learning modalities and trends in industry.

Like the protagonists in “Very Busy People,” bored marketing students have many distractions competing for their attention. It’s incumbent that we use the marketing classroom to gain and hold attention, stimulate interest and provoke engagement for the benefit of boredom-prone students. Boredom is the enemy of learning. Overcoming it would serve the best interests of students, higher education, employers and the marketing profession.

Riley Dugan is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. He is actively involved with the Fiore Talerico Center for Professional Selling at the University of Dayton. His research concerns personal selling, sales management, and issues in sales and marketing education.

Ric Sweeney is an associate professor-educator at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business, and is the immediate past chairman of the American Marketing Association’s Board of Directors.

James Kellaris is the James S. Womack/Gemini Corporation Professor of Signage and Visual Marketing at the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business.