November 7th, 2012

Why is it Difficult for Students to Learn the Content in Your Field?


There’s no hidden agenda here: Asking the question of what makes learning difficult doesn’t imply that the objective is to make the content easy. Material can be so watered down that its basic integrity is compromised. In the same vein, there’s no justification for making material harder than it needs to be, but the right balance between difficult and easy is not the subject of this post.

Depending on the student, the content in any field can be difficult and demanding. Part of the difficulty derives from what students believe about the course and whether they think it’s going to be hard. And part of it is a function of our intellectual homes within the academy. Those of us in the humanities frequently find courses in the sciences hard. Those in the sciences struggle in courses where they have to do a lot of writing, and God help them if it’s a poetry course.

Often we, as faculty, can’t understand why students think the courses we’re teaching are hard. We forget why we fell in love with the content of our discipline. It was clear and obvious to us right from the start. Calculus was easy, essays all but wrote themselves, and we couldn’t wait to learn more about this fascinating field. How could this be so difficult for students?

As usual, it was an article that got me thinking about the question. Joel Michael wonders why students find physiology hard. Based on some background literature, he suggests three interconnected reasons—I think they might be what makes all kinds of content difficult. First, it’s hard because of the nature of the discipline—it’s characteristics, how it relates to other fields, how it is studied, how the experts think and communicate about it. Second, the ways the content is taught can make it difficult. And finally, what students bring to learning the content, including prerequisite background knowledge, relevant experiences, attitudes about learning in general and beliefs about themselves as learners, can make learning something difficult.

To explore the validity of his model, Michael surveyed 63 physiology teachers, asking them first to respond to an open-ended version of the question and then having them rate subsets of reasons. The majority of faculty responses to the open-ended question did fall into the three categories. Survey results indicated that this faculty cohort believed that the nature of the discipline and what students brought to it were significantly more important than how it was taught. Interesting. Would students agree? A lot of research would question this lower significance ascribed to teaching approaches.

What makes physiology difficult for students may not be what makes your field hard, but there is great value in knowing what it is about your content that students find challenging. Would they know if you asked them? I’m not sure. It might be wise to start with faculty, but the picture is incomplete without student answers. And the whole discussion is a bit pointless if we don’t ask an even more important question: What helps students overcome the difficult aspects of learning content in your field?

Michael answers that question with a number of suggestions that are discipline specific but he does make one recommendation relevant to all of us. “We need to spend more time finding out what our students know and don’t know, and can do or not do, when they enter our classrooms.” (p. 39) There tends to be a huge disconnect between what faculty think students should know when they start a course and what they in fact do know. Often when we ask and discover how much they don’t know, we are appalled, almost sorry we asked, frustrated and perplexed. There’s already too much content to cover and now we need to fill in all these knowledge gaps?

There aren’t a lot of easy answers here. But I do think there is great merit in teachers and students considering the questions. What makes the content hard and what can teachers and students do to address these difficulties?

Please join the conversation by telling us what you teach, and what it is about that discipline that makes it hard for students to learn.

Reference: Michael, J. (2007). What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a survey. Advances in Physiology Education, 31 (March), 34-40.