It was soon after my son enrolled in a local junior college that I realized something was wrong. Success, which seemed to come so easy to him in high school, was suddenly out of reach. In fact, he was failing every course! I quickly learned that in high school he did not have to exert any effort and was taught to simply memorize material.
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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?
It is difficult to teach if students are unprepared to learn. In a 2013 Faculty Focus reader survey, faculty were asked to rank their biggest day-to-day challenges. “Students who are not prepared for the rigors of college” and “Students who come to class unprepared” finished in a statistical dead heat as the #1 challenge; roughly 30% of the respondees rated both challenges as “very problematic.”
This is an important question because so many institutions now offer regular courses in shorter time frames. It might be a course offered in a monthlong summer session or one taught in January between regular-length semesters. It’s also important because there is a perception among students that shorter courses are easier. How could you possibly do as much work in a four-week course as in a 15-week one?
This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.
Room 10 was often an uncomfortable place. I dreaded having to walk in there. Room 10 felt a bit like Hell’s Kitchen and my teacher, Mrs. H, was the Gordon Ramsey of chemistry teachers, to use a current analogy. Was the teacher really that mean and the course that tough? Yes, she was mean and AP chemistry was one difficult course. Mrs. H’s handwriting was atrocious, and by today’s standards, she didn’t create a supportive learning environment. Despite all this, I noticed that the best students at my school signed up for AP chemistry with Mrs. H. I hesitated before signing up for the course, but something drew me to the experience.
When it comes to college students and studying, the general rule most first-year students hear goes something like this. “For every one credit hour in which you enroll, you will spend approximately two to three hours outside of class studying and working on assignments for the course.” For a full-time student carrying 12 credits that equals at least 24 hours of studying per week.