March 16th, 2016

It’s Not About Hard or Easy Courses

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student with pile of books

Now here’s an argument I haven’t heard before: Improving your instruction makes it easier for students to learn. If it’s easier for them to learn, they won’t work as hard in the course, and that means they could learn less. It’s called offsetting behavior and we can’t ask students about it directly because it would be disingenuous for them to admit to studying less when learning becomes easier.

Teaching Professor Blog Gee, I’m not sure exactly where to begin. We could start with what’s making the course hard. As Stanley, Delmontagne, and Wood point out in the offsetting piece, students may be finding the course hard because the instruction isn’t very good—not well organized, unclear explanations, content seemingly irrelevant, and poorly constructed test questions. Or, students may find the course challenging because the content isn’t easy and the instructor has high standards.

No doubt, ineffective instruction makes the students work harder, but what are they working harder at? Is it learning or cleaning up the clutter so that learning can proceed? And what about the conditions for learning created by poor instruction? Frustrated, angry students are not kindly disposed to the content or the teacher. Poor teaching does not usually motivate more learning. I just can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that poor teaching merits preserving because it makes students work harder. What’s the more salient issue? Whether students are working hard or whether they are learning the content?

The automatic virtue associated with hard courses is something we don’t explore as deeply as we should. I absolutely support courses with rigor and standards. I am not in favor of easy courses or easy A’s. However, when it comes to hard courses, there is a point of diminishing returns. The College Teaching article referenced below provides just one example of what’s well documented in the research. If students are convinced there’s no way they’re going to succeed in a course, the bulk of them stop trying, and that certainly effects what they learn in the course. Moreover, if the teacher has made a good faith effort to teach, the students have made a good faith effort to learn, and a majority of students are still failing or doing poorly, that’s a hard course whose virtue should be questioned.

I’m also troubled by the motivation behind making courses hard. It isn’t just (or even usually) about better learning experiences for students. No, it’s about the reputation of the course and its instructor. Even if you teach at an R1 institution where instructional sins are often tolerated, the one to avoid is teaching a Mickey Mouse course. What’s the definition of a hard course? It’s one overflowing with dense, complicated content and one with high standards, meaning few students get A’s. Is learning front and center in our thinking about hard courses? I don’t think so. Learning is assumed, which means it isn’t thought about much or at all.

Then there’s the easy courses—the ones we worry about are those with fluffy content and far too many students getting A’s. The ones we should be worried about are those where teachers are doing all the learning tasks for students. If teachers answer all the questions, solve the problems, provide the examples, do the previews and reviews, give students their notes and PowerPoint slides, and prepare the study guides, they’re doing those things that develop the skills students need to master the material at those levels we associate with deep learning.

I really don’t think hard or easy should be our default thinking mode when the issue is course quality. That leads us to dubious conclusions and directs our attention away from what matters most. What students need are not hard or easy courses, but course experiences that result in lots of learning—where they master the material, further develop the sophisticated learning skills necessary for lifelong learning, and where the encounter leaves them breathless to learn more.

References: Stanley, L. E., Delmontagne, E. M., and Wood, W. C., (2016).  Offsetting behavior and adaptation: How student respond to hard professors. Journal of Education for Business, 91 (2), 90-94.

Martin, J. H., Hands, K. B., Lancaster, S. M., Tryteen, D. A., and Murphy, T. J., (2008). Hard but not too hard: Challenging courses and engineering students. College Teaching 56 (2), 107-113.

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  • Steve Markoff

    There is benefit to making the learning difficult in certain ways and doing this BY DESIGN. The term for this is "desireable difficulty". Knowing how and where to introduce "desireable difficulty" is actually part of SOUND teaching, not a sign of poor teaching.

    Easy learning is like writing in sand – here today, gone tomorrow. We now know from much research that desireable difficulty adds to the depth of learning, the durability of learning and flexibility of learning.

    Those who are interested might want to read or listen to the book "Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel.

  • Mr. Physics Teach

    I would say that a major problem, that has rarely been discussed in Education schools, is the fact that at the secondary level, someone "higher up" or something is choosing courses (or writing books) in which too much is required to be covered. In other words, how can a physics teacher properly teach a book which has 39 chapters when he or she only has two semesters to teach it–and this is not the teacher's fault. The teacher is asked to cover the material, and is EXPECTED to cover the material. The material is difficult, and truth be known, it should be spread out possibly in 4 or 5 semesters–so that the teacher could proceed with more rigor and detail, and yet at a pace slow enough that the students don't get left behind. But, this isn't what happens. In the stereotypical "hard courses", the teacher is asked to cover an astounding amount of material–and difficult material, at that. In truth, it is usually an UNREALISTICALLY large amount of material which is expected to be covered (by people much higher than the teacher).

    • xiousgeonz

      … and then people wonder why students just try to memorize their way through instead of understanding.

      • Mr. Physics Teach

        I agree, and it also creates "cheating pressure" upon students which is not good for ethics or personal morality. Students often feel pressure to find old copies of the tests from previous years; or use graded homeworks from past students; or search the internet for problems that have been already worked out; or they might copy each other's solutons. I think that the honest, principled student, who refuses to use shortcut methods, is often left by the wayside in modern math/physics education. It seems that only "genius-level" students who were trained from a young age by a "father-professor" have any hope of honestly succeeding in the modern higher-education system when it comes to sucessfully proceeding through the "harder courses" like high-level mathematics or high-level physics. And this is especially true when considering that most students who major in these subjects tend to be required to take several of such courses each semester if they want to graduate within a reasonable amount of time.

        • CFS

          Your comment about too much material is certainly true. In an introductory course I have very little to say on what is covered. The board of regents declares what has to be included in the MCO, and this has to be covered in two semesters. Really, three semesters are more realistic for this amount of material. But then again, there are so many other courses students have to cram into four (in reality five to six) years, the intro courses cannot take more time anyway. Now, while the textbook grows unnecessarily with every new edition, I can and do leave out a lot of material, as long as the MCO is covered. And I can put more emphasis on certain material and less on other.
          There is another problem, however: In some non-science degrees students essentially do not have to study or do not have to study much. When they have to fulfill their science requirements, some of them just do awful, because they have never been asked to study hard. A freshmen science lab or basic science lecture then becomes the most difficult course in their whole career; they need to pass it with just a D, because they take it at the very end and need it to graduate. And there are of course always some students in certain sports teams who just refuse to study and who must then bare the consequences.
          But of course, making courses either easier or more difficult without an educational reason (not for a desired grade outcome!) is nonsense, and advocating bad teaching is totally absurd. If you are a good teacher and your students do well in your course you should be proud of yourself. If the students have all As, because they do not have to do anything, then there is a huge problem.

  • S. Wicks MS RN CNE

    Doesn't the designation of either a "hard" or "easy" course usually rest with the reputation of the course given by the past students? Isn't that usually based upon how well they understood the 'teachings' and reciprocally their earned grade? I'm wondering is this has more to do with the student culture rather than the level of instruction. Perhaps if teachers can unlock the culture, learning will ensue.

  • T. Cola PhD

    I'm not sure where my courses would fall here… I think it truly depends on if I'm teaching new students or teaching a course requiring prerequisites. I do agree that handing students a stack of slides and exam guide deprives them of many experiences that enhance learning… Especially when it comes to deciphering the main concepts. Note taking and Reading through the material in context to answer a concept question are skills that students often don't have…. And guess what teachers, it's not their fault!

    It's not a big secret, the lecture is still alive. But we don't realize, that lectures were more effective in our day, because we had to listen to take the notes. We had to come to class to listen. We had to read the chapter to get the material that wasn't covered in lecture. We had review our notes groups to make sure we got them all, because everything was not written in chalk or on the overhead. I rarely used my original lecture notes to study because they were messy and needed to be completed.

    We give lectures like our instructors but forget that it was not just the lecture that drove our learning experience. We cram more and more details into a bunch of slides and race through them. Somehow, technology, PowerPoint and videos, are viewed as superior. The best lesson I ever learned was when I left my thumb drive home. I had to teach with markers and a white board, I was so intimidated at first. At the end of class, the students unanimously agreed they enjoyed that lecture more than any other. (I spent a lot of time on my lectures… And the off the cuff was your favorite… Take about ego taking a dive.)

    I listened, I still depend in the trusted PowerPoint, but all may courses have some sections that I teach the old fashioned way. I do have to give the modern students a worksheet with partial notes, because they don't have note taking skills. (BTW: I generally give students incomplete slide notes as well so they have to fill in the blanks when I lecture.)

    Favorite quotes from my fellow teachers, "Put you pencil down and listen, don't waste you time taking notes while I am lecturing." 3 hour of a lecture and students are supposed to make comment on the stack of slide you handed out while you lecture. Notes enhance retention.

    Favorite study tip, "Highlight your notes." As if a student will learn by highlighting those 200 slides…. How about taking 5 minutes to help them highlight in a meaningful way to help them identify key material or concepts.

    I tell my students, "If an instructor has presented the material in a way that you understood, gave relevant assignments and gave clear expectations, they have met their minimum duty to the students. The LEARNING is up to you the student. When you don't understand, it is your responsibility to seek help or ask questions. Hopefully, most of your teachers will go above and beyond. But no matter how good your instructor is…. THEY can only design a course to assist and enhance learning, but an instructor can never LEARN for the student."

    I love teaching freshman students… 85% of my time counseling students is spent helping them modify their study techniques. "Studying" is an action verb that requires action and if "Reading" was the same as studying we would not need a separate word. I would rather have more students get As, Bs and CS because I helped acquire study skills than to lower the bar.

    I also think that if a student is doing the work and somewhat engaged, it should be as hard to completely fail as it is to make an A. A and Bs shouldn't come easy, but you should really have be disengaged to get an F. Of course, some classes I do better than others.

    While I am biased to my subject, the most important skill that a student can learn is how to learn effectively regardless of the instructor, topic or mode of instruction.

    So, are you hard because you have a tough subject? Do you have clear expectations? Is it that your students are not up to par? In stead of lowering your expectations, how about incorporating different learning approaches into your curriculum?

    Are your exams consistent with the expectations that were conveyed to the students? I'm am surprised by the instructors who do not bother to run an item analysis when using a scantron. For me, this is a reflection of my performance and identifies items for which I need to improve the way the material is presented or create an assignment or activity to reinforce the concept.