Editor's Note: This article launches a new column in the newsletter. I'm picking pesky issues without easy answers and inviting individuals to share thoughts about them. Lolita Paff launches the series with thoughts about how teachers and students define hard courses. --MEW
If you asked students to tell you what makes a course hard, what would they say? Would their answers be the same as yours? Would it be a problem if they weren't?
What makes a course hard?
Draeger, del Prado Hill, and Mahler (2015) conducted campus-wide surveys, focus groups, and interviews to ascertain students' definition of academic rigor. Students explain hard courses in terms of workload, grading standards, level of interest, and perceived relevance. These results contrast with faculty definitions (Draeger, del Prado Hill, Hunter, & Mahler, 2013), which focused on active learning, meaningful content, higher-order thinking, and appropriate expectations. These findings confirm my experience: Teachers and students are not on the same page when it comes to what makes a course hard.
Does it matter?
This mismatch has significant implications for learning. Let me explain with an analogy.
Monique wants to lose weight. She plans to eat less and exercise more. She hires Carmen, a personal trainer, to help her with a cardio program. Like many people, Monique believes less food and more cardio are all she needs. And for the short term, she's right. The session starts with ten minutes of cardio, but then to Monique's surprise, Carmen takes her over to the weight machines. Monique protests—she wants to burn fat. Carmen persists and Monique begrudgingly complies, but with disappointment and less enthusiasm. She finishes the session without understanding why weight training is a necessary part of successful weight loss programs.
I have a lot of students like Monique. They've paid good money for my classes. They're willing to work, even to sweat. But like Monique, their expectations and understanding of what's required are incomplete. Monique and Carmen aren't on the same page and neither are my students and I.
Carmen does know what's best for her client, just as teachers know what's best for students. Carmen's the expert and assumes Monique understands that and will accept the plan. Carmen doesn't think there's a need to explain why weight training is necessary. She also doesn't develop the weight loss plan with Monique, which would have given her a great opportunity to explain why the plan needed to include weights. Carmen—and many teachers—think like experts, forgetting that novices see and approach learning very differently. If teachers and students understand “hard” courses differently, that bodes poorly for the relationship between them.
What can teachers do?
Martin et al. (2008) investigated students' perceptions of hard and easy courses across engineering programs. Two of their strategies have broad application.
- Consider student characteristics such as semester standing, in-major versus general education courses, and majors. The more we know about our students, the better equipped we are to determine where they are in the learning maturation process. “The key is determining what an appropriate challenge is for a course and for a particular group of students. The more an instructor interacts with students, the more likely the instructor is to notice the overwhelmed or bored students” (p. 112).
- Emphasize content connections. Applicability of content is an important filter students use to gauge course rigor. “Real” and “relevant” are the levers that push students to work harder and longer. Content needs to matter to students personally or professionally.
There is value in initiating conversations with students about learning and how that relates to definitions of “hard” courses. We can't dispel misperceptions if we're unaware. The goal of the conversations isn't to negotiate watering down the course, make grading easier, or lower expectations. It's to give students a voice so that what makes a course hard is understood by everyone and the definitions move closer to being mutually acceptable.
Draeger, J., P., del Prado Hill, & Mahler, R. (2015). Developing a student concept of academic rigor. Innovation in Higher Education, 40
Draeger, J., del Prado Hill, P., Hunter, L. R., & Mahler, R. (2013). The anatomy of academic rigor: The story of one institutional journey. Innovative Higher Education, 38
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