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.

  • Jim Doyle

    The "hardest" course that I teach is General Toxicology. I think that the main factor that makes this course difficult is that it is an upper-level multidisciplinary science course. There are prerequisites of Anatomy, Physiology and Organic Chemistry and students are expected to understand basic concepts in these disciplines and apply them in this course. I think that the main problem with students applying this prior knowledge is that they learned it at a superficial level (e.g., ability to recall information to answer multiple-choice questions), if they learned the material at all.

  • Anne Chevalier

    I teach chemistry, both freshman level non-science for nurses and sophomore/junior level organic for biology majors. What makes it difficult is almost the same for either.

    For the freshmen, they come out of high school thinking that memorizing and being able to reproduce something (the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) is all there is to learning. Chemistry at the college level requires higher order thinking and the students have to first acknowledge that memorizing is not enough. After that, students have to put in a great deal of effort in learning how to think in a new way. We do some in class, but the majority of learning at this level has to be outside the class. This is where the other difficulty arises. This requires a commitment of time and so many students either don’t want to give up other things (TV and other forms of entertainment are hard to give up) or they can’t (work and/or family require huge time commitments).

    For the organic course, it is much the same except that thinking requirements have heavily advanced up the chart and yet the memorization load is very high. Additionally, organic is probably the greatest time commitment of any course they have yet encountered. Spending the time needed requires falling in love with the material so that you won’t stop searching for relationships and connections even when you feel like you have learned enough.

  • Elita

    I teach Anatomy and Physiology to all first year students in our faculty. And in their second year, I teach the same set of students either pharmacology or pathophysiology, depending on their program of specialization. I find that my nursing and kinesiology do much better overall than my general health sciences students, probably because they understand how these subjects fit within their program. Many of the general health sciences students don't know what they want out of a uni degree and so probably are not are motivated to learn.

    I also make sure that I provide lots of concrete 'real-life' examples when at all possible and students do appreciate it. I also highlight relevant news articles and find short movie clips o illustrate various aspects of the amterial that I'm teaching.

    • Ron

      I also teach A&P, but at a community college. What my students seem to find most difficult are: (a) the total amount of material (terms, processes, etc) and (b) the intricate details of the physiology. They also seem to have problems integrating across systems.

      I use case studies to make this information more clearly applicable to their programs (mostly nursing) and their lives.

      • Elita

        I love case studies!!! That's what my students do in their biweekly tutorials and they really enjoy and appreciate it. We try to time it so that case studies are based on recent lecture materials. It also makes students study their lecture material every other week because they are quizzed on the case studies during their tutorials.

        Ron, do you make up your own case studies? I use the Uni of Buffalo collection but would be interested in other sources.

  • Terry Pawl;ak

    Most students have a "pattern" in learning. Changing this type of behavior can be time consuming, especially in a class or 30+ students. The question arises: "Do we teach to the level of the majority of the students", or "Do we teach the subject material?" A good instructor utilizes a combination of both approaches.

    Most students want to get a "good" grade and they also hope that they will learn something along the way. Trying to remove the stigma of grades in the learning process is always a dilemma for instructors. We continue to try different methods in this quest for higher learning.

  • Diann Martin

    I am a nurse educator and students struggle with a very high volume of content and curriculum crowding. As an applied science, nurses need knowledge from a variety of fields, skills and competencies to perform patient care, and professional attitudes and behaviors to provide a caring service to patients. The application aspect is often a challenge. I think that simulation is improving but there is still a very big issue in healthcare education at this time. Difficulty is due to volume, complexity of content and the need to apply the information. Diann Martin, PhD, RN

  • Saadskhan

    I teach my College's only critical thinking course and it has a reputation for being a 'Hard Course". Students are bewildered by the concepts themselves but more importantly are forced to come out of their comfort zones in terms of how they used to think. My students come from working class backgrounds and they are often shocked that what they hear on the radio or read in the papers can be wrong, twisted and skewed. They take a lot of granted and accept a lot of things that ought to be questioned.
    I ask them to take this course with an open mind. Those who do so feel blown away by the fact that there is whole new world out there, revealed by critical thinking, but those who wont leave the comfort zone, find themselves struggling to explore new ways. It is hard to change adults in terms of their thinking, but I can only try.

  • Sharon C

    I teach Mental Health Nursing and I believe that students come to this course with many incorrect preconceived notions about the course material and topics. It is difficult for them to relearn the research supported facts. I think general anxiety about caring for clients with a mental illness may also be impeding their ability to grasp the material. I think high school material was also memorized and students have incorporating content material and extrapolating to practice.

  • Jan Bone

    I'm teaching a 12-week online English 102 course in 1st year comp at a commuter school I've started running a series of Blackboard forums during the research paper-writing unit…30 pt credit for posting a question -on each -and then I come in with a teaching-type of answer that (from tracking) most of the class reads. I find this is working well – forums on "what scares you about the research paper?" and "sources" – what do you want to know most? I've also developed a group of FAQ files, and post these up on Blackboard under "Research Paper Dox" – so they're available 24/7. I have FAQs on Interviewing, Research Paper format, permission slip for interviews, progress chart for YOUR PAPER, (a sort of calendar) they fill in as the semester progresses.

  • Andi

    I teach lower division English composition. Although this is a course that most every college student has to take, I find that students have difficulty overcoming their previous experience with writing. They often begin the course believing that they are terrible writers. I overcome this by building their confidence in the first paper. I give them a scoring rubric that I stick to religiously, pick on the grammar (things they have complete control over) and go easier on content and leave encouraging comments. Of course, they have to still write an essay that conforms to the requirements, but by giving them super specific details as to what I am looking for, it removes the mystery of how to get a good grade. These students also have to submit their essays to a portfolio reading where their essays are read by other instructors in order to pass ENG 101. I have some of the highest portfolio success rates. Also, I tell my students from the start to think of me as their writing coach, rather than a teacher wielding a mighty red pen, and I let them know that the comments I leave will be specific and direct, yet exactly what they need to fix in order to pass.

    • Nikkele

      Andi, this was great. I teach lower division Comp as well and encounter these same issues. I let students know that we are part of a team and that we are to work together to fulfill the goal of them becoming good college writers. Students are intimidated by writing, so I do my best to show its relevance to their lives and careers. That usually generates more interest because they see the usefulness and therefore become more engaged.

  • Kathryn W. Kemp

    Some students complain that history has "too many facts." They have fewer problems when they see that understanding the relationships among points of information is the true nature of the study of history. They also benefit from understanding that all items of information are not equally important, but they sometimes need help to develop this skill. They show visible relief when told that while chronology is very important, memorizing a long list of specific dates is not required. They are reassured when I promise to tell them if any specific date might be expected to appear in a test. I am careful to introduce an interesting anecdote by explicitly stating its connection to the central topic: "This shows how people felt about…" or something of the sort. I also use "air parentheses" the way some people use "air quotes" as an additional signal that some part of the material is of lesser significance. I imagine that the perception of a course as a large collection of discrete facts to memorize is not limited to history.

  • Diane

    I teach Graduate level courses in Instructional Design and serve as an advisor for dissertation learners.

    It seems to me that Maryellen's article pointed out the need for addressing prior learning/entry level skills, and then ended with a question about what it is in a particular discipline that makes it hard for students to learn. Instructional analysis related to identifying prior learning/entry level skills is one conversation; instructional strategies related to our students learning any particular content is another entirely different conversation.

  • Greg

    My rant & rave for this week…..

    Great article. WOW! For me this opens up a huge thinking can of worms. And has for years for many of my colleagues at my former college, I suspect. I previously taught a first-year math course to Trades & Technology students, which was basically an in-depth review of high school algebra, trigonometry and some slightly more advanced functions. The first semester course (not so much for the second semester course) seemed to be a real struggle for many students, and I know I sprouted more than a few grey hairs wrestling with cause and effect determination, changing teaching strategies and motivation issues, to name a few. I'm betting that most folks recognize that the difficulties do not just lie in the discipline-specific area – it's more complicated and diverse than that. Here is one possible interpretation of what makes this first-year math course difficult, and what strategies might help students overcome the difficulties:

    – ask students directly what works for them and does not work for them. e.g. preparing for a math test and incorporate the appropriate results and suggestions into your teaching
    – poll your students periodically about: the class overall, content, teaching methods, self-perception of success. – if you are using an LMS, creating, administering and summarizing a survey or poll is a no-brainer. but be prepared to respond to the feedback.
    – use lots of smaller, more frequent assessments worth fewer grades, instead of only a few, larger, more heavily-weighted tests and assignments. this enables the gradual but consistent ramping up of progress and success.
    – practice, practice, practice. math needs to be learned and reinforced by DOING. provide lots of extra problem sets for practice and test preparation. mock tests, or take home assignments will help.

    – my students were a diverse lot: younger and older than me, fresh-out-of-high-school, previously employed FT for decades returning to school, multiple nationalities, backgrounds and cultures. It can be a real challenge for a teacher. using only one strategy or approach to teaching won't work.
    – be open and honest with students. and with yourself. be flexible. be empathetic. listen.
    – demonstrate the practical application side of the content. once my students saw this, many of them immediately take a new interest because they link it to their future course of study and occupation

    – the most important issue my students identified in the math course was why? if there is no perceived practical value of the topic, what's the point?
    – each problem in every problem set has to have a real-world application. I asked senior-year instructors for sample problem sets that were specific to the trade or technology. The overwhelming response provided with me years worth of practical problem sets and homework. for many students, this changed EVERYTHING.

    – pay attention to the knowledge level and skill set of entering freshman students. do they really have the college-level entry qualifications? No? then place them in upgrading or remedial type classes. Don't use the first year class as a revenue-generating dumping ground for students that are not yet ready for post-sec level courses. this does more harm than good in the long run. Use pre-test screening to stream students into the appropriate course of action.
    – sponsoring agencies need to take a close look at their assumptions about what works and does not work for injured or unemployed students returning to school for the first time in several years. Saying "Make it so." won't make it so.
    – these are not discipline-related issues that a teacher can resolve, but they do play a part in what makes this course difficult for students

    End of rant. Thanks for a great article! I'm back to work already. 🙂

  • Cameron

    I teach non-majors general biologyat a community college, and my biggest problem is the lack of reading and writing skills that my students have. Biology is like learning a new language, and if you are a poor reader, then this just compounds the problem for the student. Thenif the student is a poor writer and trying to put into words "how a process works" this is often too difficult, and it is hard to judge how much the student has learned based on her/his writing.
    We do not have pre-reqs for our general biology, so we are in a classroom with a mix of low, medium, and high ability students. It is often difficult to keep the attention of the students with higher ability when focusing on students at the low end of the scale. It is not always the amount or difficulty of the content, rather it can be the academic skill level of the students.

    • Melissa

      I would say almost the same thing about my typical class, but it is intro astronomy for non-majors. The "new language" problem is a big thing in astronomy, too. I'm at a large public university, and the mix of student abilities is also a factor. In addition, astronomy has quite a bit of math, so I have to deal with a lot of math anxiety from the students.

  • Cynthia Johnson

    I teach Principles of Accounting I and II — a sophomore course required for all business majors. Many of them come in with a preconceived notion that it will be hard. From the very first day I let them know that is isn't that you need so much intelligence to "get it" — what they need is HARD WORK. Students just cannot learn the material by watching me in class. They have to learn it by doing it themselves. Most of our students work AND have a family to take care of. They just don't have the time to devote. They cannot just memorize how to do a problem — they need to understand why you do it "this way" because in another circumstance the problem would be worked another way. They are used to memorizing, not thinking.

    • Daryl Close

      You have made the most critical point in answering the forum question: hard work. Our culture–and, unfortunately, K-12 education is often complicit–teaches students that each person possesses "good at" genes and "not good at" genes. This is a pernicious cultural lie that must be aggressively refuted. Not surprisingly, math, spelling, music, and sports are frequently identified by children, parents, college students, and *even faculty*–who should know better–as being things that "I'm not good at." These are all skills. They require practice, and lots of it. If a college student "isn't good at" math, there's a simple reason: he/she is NOT PRACTICING ENOUGH! Asian cultures have obviously figured this simple fact and consequently don't tolerate poor math performance in school children. And guess what? It works! Do the darn homework until you get it right! Short of brain trauma, there is simply no excuse. Geoff Colvin addresses part of this culture lie about inborn "talent" and "intelligence" in his book, _Talent Is Overrated_ (Penguin, 2008). Amy Chua's _Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother_ also addresses this cultural lie (regardless of what one might think about her attempts to counteract it).

      • I agree – I find I am constantly reminding students that learning is a skill, like playing a sport or a musical instrument and it requires plenty of practice. I prefer using "practice" over "hard work" as many students are able to connect to the idea of practicing, whereas hard work may make them shrink away.

  • KAB

    I teach Art History and have a lot of the same issues as Cameron – a mix of low, medium and high ability (as well as a wide mix of interest level in the first year classes). In addition to writing, communication skills and specialized vocabulary, many of my students have difficulty with visual memorization – which surprised me at first, since they live in such an image-saturated world. But above all, the students who do well, I've noticed, make a commitment to their studies and have discipline.

    • Melissa

      I teach art history as well. One thing I can add here is that success is directly related to attendance in my art history course. Being there – engaging in the material outside the confines of the textbook – makes for better students at all levels. In my survey courses, of course attendance is an issue.

      Also, I have noticed how students identify the problems they are having falls into a pattern. I don't find the subject interesting seems to be a common refrain for nonmajors. For art majors, it's the claim that they don't have time to study,

  • I think that our approach at learning and how to instill learning needs to be addressed.__Students are after, a product of our educational system and societal perspectives on learning.__As we can tell based on the different learning theories, there are many schools of thought on how learning happens. Unfortunately, these become policy, even when some of the researchers in this area didn't have contact with teachers or classroom situations. Many of them are influenced by political philosophies that bias the perspective of the researcher on how they can see learning taking place.____Learning is a life-time endeavor and it applies to all fields. We learn what we consider relevant and use. We learn what we can relate to our life experiences. Are we teaching this way? Are we teaching students to seek learning opportunities to grow as individuals or are we just teaching them to "pass" classes?____We can't hold students accountable, nor measure their performance effectively, if they are constrained by a system into boxes that don't really give them a chance to explore what true learning is. Teachers are also constrained on how to teach.

  • Helen Gordon

    I teach second-degree nurses. I think the difficulty comes from the way some people teach. Some people blurt facts, do not relate these "pearls" to clinical practice and assume that students can make the linkages. Which of course st not the case. We must teach for relevance and we much teach to facilitate making linkages in the material, esp. from clinical to the classroom. We must KILL PowerPoint because it does not encourage students to think.. Just because someone says it, it is not teaching. My suggestion: Read Brain Rules by John Medina.

  • cognitioneducation

    I teach a variety of psychology classes at a 4-year liberal arts college, and regularly think about what makes my classes hard. Motivation and misunderstandings certainly rise up; when I take deliberate steps to foster my students' sense of control over their course experience, grades go up (I base my approach here on Self Determination Theory – I've written about how this theory relates to education here:…. Students who come in to an Intro Psy class with an anti-science bias and/or who think Psych is only all about Freud struggle in the first weeks when we cover research methods and bio psych. On that note, the third thing that makes an Intro class hard – no matter the subject matter – is indeed a student's specific background knowledge. It's harder to build a new schema than it is to modify an established one, a point I discuss in detail here:…. Within a discipline, as students progress through their major requirements, the difficulties change. In Intro they establish a basic set of knowledge, then in upper division classes they have to think critically about that knowledge. As someone else mentions above, if students don't have previous experience with critical thinking, they will struggle, and need tips on how to do it. The skill just doesn't come naturally to all folks, and not all folks are taught it either. Keeping in mind motivation, level of background knowledge, and basic reasoning abilities when building a course really helps with meeting students where they are at, and engaging them so they can rise up a notch. Of course I can't and don't reach every student all the time, but I do reach quite a few, and I love it when students stick with me all four years and realize at the end of their tenure what my method has been across classes.

  • Bill Goffe

    An excellent companion article to this one is "The "Curse of Knowledge" or Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails" by the physicist Carl Wieman:… . He's both a Nobel Laureate and U.S. Professor of the Year (given for teaching). Here, he makes excellent points about how we experts have a very difficult time understanding novice (i.e. student) thinking. He even references brain scans that shows this difference!

  • Vasudha Joshi

    I teach Business Administration to under graduate and post graduate students in India. My students have not learnt to think critically and the biggest handicap is no exposure to the reality of large business organisations. The students hope to join the world of business on the basis of their degrees but that is difficult so far as good organisations which practise what theory teaches are concerned. I keep thinking that a little sandwich course, an internship will help the students very much but that is also difficult to arrange.

  • I teach history to non-majors. Right now I am teaching ethics to engineering students – from a historical perspective. The class is required of all first year engineering students. So, I am working with multiple difficulties in my student population. First, they tend to be more comfortable with science and math. Second, they are new at the college experience and most simply don't have adequate study skills. Third, the assigned readings are much above the high school level, so students who weren't comfortable with reading histories don't have the necessary skills to read past the "facts and figures" in order to determine relationships and arguments. No clue about critical thinking, that's for certain.

  • Cheryl A Williams

    Unfortunately it is much easier to teach within the milieu that secures a surface approach to learning…..lecture does that and many teachers still use this method… is far more difficult to create a subject-centered classroom rich with a discovery of meaningful context that students and teachers can both unearth together….that is what inspires deep learning. I teach medical nursing and most students have learned to adopt a surface approach to progress….until entire curriculum adopt a college wide approach to a concept-based mastery model to revolutionize new approaches to learning…old habits are hard to break for students and teachers alike

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  • Farida Mehrhoff

    I teach anatomy. What I understood after few first several semesters of teaching is that we should not expect from the students to "hold" the knowledge from previous classes. Yes, they have it… somewhere deep in their brains. Unfortunately, very deep… and our first task is to refresh it by providing some videos or hand-outs containing a short basic information from the previous classes that they will need while learning new material. It will reduce our frustration, save our time, and help the students. Thanks.