September 18th, 2008

Motivation to Make Courses Difficult


“Truly awful teaching in higher education is most often revealed by a sheer lack of interest in and compassion for students and student learning. It repeatedly displays the classic symptom of making a subject seem more demanding than it actually is. Some people may get pleasure from this kind of masquerade. They are teaching very badly if they do. Good teaching is nothing to do with making things hard. It is nothing to with frightening students. It is everything to do with benevolence and humility; it always tries to help students feel that a subject can be mastered; it encourages them to try things out for themselves and succeed at something quickly.” (p. 98)

Paul Ramsden writes those words in his book, Learning to Teaching in Higher Education. (It is an excellent book, published in Great Britain and difficult now to obtain in the U.S.) It points out something about college teaching that almost never gets discussed—the motivation teachers have to make things difficult.

I’m not even sure the motivation is explicit. I think it results from the commitment to maintain standards and standards are almost always tied to the presence of lots of complicated content. What further complicates the relationship between standards and content is that they have become linked to course reputation. You don’t establish yourself as a pedagogue of note if you teach easy courses. It’s the hard courses, the ones with really high standards, that establish your reputation as a serious teacher.

How does course difficulty benefit students? Ramsden says it doesn’t. Those who disagree would say that content in every field is complicated and students need to experience that first hand. Content isn’t going to be easy in the world of work. And then there’s a need to challenge students, to make them step up to the plate, to see if their intellectual muscle is really that strong and if it isn’t, they can be advised to opt for an “easier” field.

I’m not sure that Ramsden would dispute those points. I don’t think good teaching ignores content complexity or avoids challenging students. I think he’s after something else … making content difficult for reasons that have everything to do with the teacher and nothing to do with the students.

—Maryellen Weimer