November 9th, 2016

Courses That Are Hard, but Not Too Hard: Finding the Sweet Spot


student studying late at night

I have been doing some reading and thinking about hard courses. Courses need to be challenging, but when they become too hard, students stop trying and little learning results. So how do we find that sweet spot between hard and not too hard? More importantly, how do we create that sweet spot in our own courses through the decisions we make about content, assignments, and exams?

Teaching Professor Blog Finding that perfect balance is not particularly easy or straightforward. Course and instructor reputations are linked to rigor and high standards. Nobody wants to be known for teaching an easy course. Fine. Courses should have rigor and high standards, but how much and how high? There’s a tacit assumption that rigor and standards can always go higher, as well as a concern that both have declined.

There’s research on hard and easy courses that’s relevant here, most of which gives students more credit than many faculty do. Students do not prefer easy courses. Consider the findings of a study based on interviews with students in several STEM fields. The interview questions were straightforward: “What has been your favorite (least favorite) class?” “What makes a class easy?” “Do you prefer easy classes or hard classes?” Student comments were placed in one of four categories: 1) easy courses students disliked; 2) easy courses they liked; 3) hard courses they liked; and 4) hard courses they disliked. “By far the majority of participant responses…fell into the category of hard classes that students liked” (p. 107). They used adjectives like “challenging” and “difficult” to describe these courses, and were more likely to offer positive than negative comments (70 percent to 30 percent).

However, “for each student there appeared to be a demarcation line…that professors could cross by making their courses too difficult” (p. 109). Once that line was crossed, opinions of the course and instructor quickly changed to dislike. The too-difficult courses had grading systems students perceived as unfair, tests that were too hard, homework that was graded harshly, and feedback that was difficult to interpret.

Some of the student comments were revealing. When exam averages are very low, even when a student scores above that average, there’s a feeling that he or she is not doing well in the course and not understanding the content. A tough fact needs to be faced here. If students have made a good faith effort to study for the exam (granted, not all do) and teachers have made a good faith effort to teach the content, yet most exam scores are still less than 50 percent, there’s a problem.

So how do we find that productive place between hard and not too hard? For starters, we need to look for it purposefully, not arrive there by accident. And then, wherever we think we might be on that hard–easy continuum, we need to find out if that is, in fact, where the course resides.

The authors of the study recommend that we give students opportunities to work on content in class and then listen closely to their conversations. Are they working hard, experiencing some frustration, but finally figuring it out? How much effort are they expending?

We also need to ask our students. This can be done informally when they show up during office hours or for help sessions: “Tell me about your learning experiences in this course.” “How many of them are positive?” “How challenging is this course?” “What’s your biggest frustration in learning this material?” “How confident do you feel about learning this material?”

Feedback can also be solicited with a short series of questions attached to exams (sometimes called exam wrappers; see July 29, 2010, blog post): “Rate the overall difficulty of this exam.” “Was it harder, easier, or just about what you expected?” “How long do you think you would have to study to get an A on a test like this?” “List any questions you thought were impossibly difficult.” “Predict your exam score.” Graded exams should be analyzed for the most frequently missed questions. How was that material covered in class and/or the text? Why was the question missed so often?

We should also talk with colleagues, informally sharing with those who teach the same course and more formally in departmental discussions of standards and rigor. Do we need to be more consistent across courses?

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

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

  • Perry W Shaw

    Thoughtful and practical. Thank you Maryellen. I am reminded strongly of Csikszentmihalyi’s material on “flow”: When teachers present students with appropriate challenges and expectations which stretch their skills in areas of felt concern and need, there is a high potential for promoting deeply significant engagement and learning.

  • Peter DeCourcy

    Interesting discussion. It might be interesting to apply Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory here to clarify between different aspects of “hard” courses. Issues like grading and testing fairness are hygiene issues in a course, likely to cause only dissatisfaction. Contrast that with high academic rigor which would be more like Herzberg’s motivator, more likely to cause satisfaction once hygiene issues are resolved.

  • Andrea Leatherdale

    Thank you for your timely article Maryellen. I am a teacher of a notorious “hardest course” in the program that I teach. I am often confronted by students who challenge the intent behind the rigour in the course, and I am constantly looking for that “sweet spot” as you address. I have been teaching this course for nearly 15 years and have made significant adjustments to the curriculum design over the years based on student feedback, currency, relevance and experience, in search of this moving target. I describe it as a moving target because from student group to student group, semester to semester, the students’ needs and expectations are constantly changing. It is difficult to make curriculum adjustments based on a previous semester’s feedback – sometimes the new changes made don’t meet the current students’ learning needs. I am in a unique position this semester in that I am teaching the same course, over three days, to three different classes of students. Every class has a unique set of student dynamics and I am challenged to land on that continuum at the right sweet spot for each each class, each student. The consistency in approach, design, and assessments that you mention is one essential ingredient that I am attempting to maintain, but I also try to remain sensitive to the individual learning needs of students. My experience is showing me that a “one size fits all” approach in curriculum delivery is not effective, yet consistency is necessary – truly a balancing act. As you pointed out, this approach has to be purposeful and not by accident. However, on the basis of the “moving target” observation that I have observed, sometimes new discoveries about the curriculum are made in-the-moment due to the variables in student (learner-centered, pragmatic) experiences. I have often been taken by surprise on student exam performances that have shown below-average results on the same exam that produced excellent results in a previous semester. Being prepared to take the sour with the sweet, and then learning from that experience as teacher without losing motivation, is also a test of teacher resiliency!