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What makes a course hard?

The Feb 2nd post (Easy A?) ended with a series of questions about grades, learning and instructional strategies. I fully intended to begin addressing them here. But as I dug into the literature I realized other issues need exploring.

When students report my courses are “hard,” my first instinct is to write them off as whining complaints. Then I look at grade distributions and review the number and type of assessments to try to discredit the feedback. I usually succeed, but nagging questions remain. What do students mean when they say my course is hard? What if our definitions are different? Does it matter?

What makes a course hard? Draeger, del Prado Hill & Mahler (2015) find “faculty perceived learning to be most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context” (p. 216). Interactive, collaborative, engaging, synthesizing, interpreting, predicting, and increasing levels of challenge are a small sample of the ways faculty describe rigor. In contrast, “students explained academic rigor in terms of workload, grading standards, level of difficulty, level of interest, and perceived relevance to future goals” (p.215) and course quality is “a function of their ability to meet reasonable faculty expectations rather than as a function of mastery of learning outcomes” (p.216). Their findings are consistent with previous research, match my views of what makes a course challenging, and reflect the comments my students made.

It’s clear.

We are not on the same page about what makes a course rigorous.


Does it matter? I think it does for two reasons. Clearly, if you’re concerned about course evaluations, the scores will be lower if students’ and teachers’ definitions and aims are not aligned. Beyond the ratings, the mismatched definitions, expectations, and criteria have significant implications for learning. Consider this analogy.

Monique wants to lose weight. She plans to eat fewer calories and exercise more. She hires a personal trainer to set up a cardio program. Monique isn’t very knowledgeable about weight loss physiology; she thinks less food and more cardio are all she needs. And for the short term, she has a point. Thus, she’s surprised when the trainer starts the session with ten minutes of cardio and then tells her to head over to the weight machines. Monique, despite her limited background in exercise science, says she’s only interested in cardio: treadmill, elliptical, climber, and spinning. The trainer persists and Monique begrudgingly complies. But, Monique’s enthusiasm for the program is diminished and she leaves without knowing why weight training is a hard but necessary component of the trainer’s plan.

Many students are like Monique. She’s paid good money for the trainer’s services. She knows she’s going to sweat on the cardio machines. She’s willing to work. But her expectations and understanding about exercise are incomplete. Because of this, she may not realize the trainer’s program will do more to help achieve her goals in the short- and long-term than cardio alone.  Or, she might comprehend what the trainer is trying to help her achieve, but Monique may only care about the short-term fix. Monique may not have the time (or may not value time at the gym enough) to devote an hour when 20 minutes of cardio would seem to be enough, at least for now. Monique’s goals and understanding of the process do not match the trainer’s.

Similarly, many teachers are like the trainer. The trainer assumed Monique would accept, on faith, that she has her client’s best interest in mind. The trainer believes she knows what’s best for her client. The trainer assumes Monique knows what a comprehensive exercise program looks like so she didn’t take time to explain why weight training is necessary. Notice that the story discusses the trainer’s plan, not a plan they developed together. Notice this too- the trainer is thinking like an expert, forgetting that novices see and approach things very differently.

As long as the trainer/trainee and teacher/student hold different definitions and expectations, the working relationship will produce less than optimal results and “satisfaction surveys” will reflect the mismatched priorities.

What can we do about it? Martin, et al., (2008) investigate students’ perceptions of hard and easy courses across engineering programs. Two of their strategies have broad application.

  • Consider student characteristics. Student differences with respect to semester standing, level of academic preparation, in-major v. general education course, and student major affect perceptions of course difficulty. The more teachers know their students, the better equipped we are to determine where students 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.  Teachers need to keep that in mind.

The more I read and think about what makes a course “hard,” the more it feels like we’re trying to nail jello to the wall. When we meet the needs of some, the rest may feel squished. It may not be possible to get it right, all the time, for every student. But I do believe, and the research on learning bears this out, there is value in initiating conversations with students about learning. We can’t dispel misperceptions if we’re unaware. The goal of the conversations isn’t to negotiate watering down the course, making grading easier, or lowering expectations. It’s to give students a voice and share ownership so that learning becomes more than a series of assignments reflecting only the teacher’s goals.


Draeger, J., P. del Prado Hill, & R. Mahler. (2015). Developing a Student Concept of Academic Rigor. Innovation in Higher Education, 40: 215-228.

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.


Enjoy the Ride!


Last year, I got a bicycle for my birthday. I’m sure you’ve seen cyclists wearing those clingy bike shorts, looking like they’re training for an Iron Man. I’m not one of them. When I got the bike, I wasn’t in good shape or even sure how much I’d enjoy riding. Thus, I got a “comfort bike.” The seat is bigger and you ride upright which is more comfortable for shorter distances. Since I didn’t want to always ride alone, my husband got a mountain bike. It has more gears, disc brakes, and a skinny saddle.  Mine is turquoise; the very snazzy, “highlighter on wheels” is his.

I recently brought the bikes in for spring tune-ups. The technician took one look at mine and said “Wow! You’ve logged a lot of miles. Way more than your husband. We’ll need to replace the chain. Good for you!”

That got me wondering how many miles I traveled last season. Our first ride was April 18. We rode about 4 miles. I know this because I used Map My Ride, an app that tracks route, distance, pace and time.  I rode about 80 miles between April and October. Average speed increased from 4 mph to over 7mph and since most rides were about an hour, average distance rose from 4 to 7 miles. Not bad for a casual rider / non-athlete. Before the bike shop visit, I would not have estimated that I rode that far nor did I realize just how much my pace improved.  Receiving a hearty acknowledgement from an expert made me feel great. I never thought of myself as a cyclist before!

Teachers, by virtue of our position, can do for learners what the bike technician’s comment did for me.  We can influence perceptions about our discipline and shape students’ understanding of themselves as learners. What systems and practices help students identify and celebrate their growth as learners?

Gather & Examine Data. Learning management systems collect data about time on task and other metrics. This information can be used to scrutinize learning behaviors. The data can provide insights about study behavior. Teachers can help students identify strengths and weaknesses revealed by the patterns. Data can be the basis for recommendations about timing, duration and frequency of study. This kind of information is often looked at when teaching online, but it can be used in face-to-face as well. When students know this kind of information is being tracked and used by teachers, it adds a layer of accountability; this can motivate students to work more consistently or increase time on task.

Attend to Process, not just Product. Grades reflect content mastery, not intellectual development. Grades focus on product, not process. Teachers frequently lament students’ grades-over-learning perspective. Are teachers partly to blame? One way to shift attention toward learning is to provide data and feedback about process improvement in addition to grades. Be explicit about how students are advancing their understanding.  In a large class this can be done by saying things like, “When we began this unit, I had to scaffold the entire process. I no longer need to do that.” In smaller classes, comments on papers can recognize qualitative improvement. Acknowledge an insightful comment during discussion. Recognize student effort. Informal and formative feedback can have a significant impact on motivation to learn, particularly for students who aren’t getting top grades.

 Reflection.  Kitsantas & Zimmerman (2009) developed a series of reflection questions in a document they call the SELF (Self Efficacy For Learning) form. It asks students about a variety of learning issues:

  • When you discover  that your homework assignments are much longer than expected, can you change your priorities to have enough time for studying?
  • When you have to take a test in a subject you dislike, can you find a way to motivate yourself to study and learn?
  • When you are struggling to remember technical details for a test, can you find a way to associate them together to help you remember?

Teachers can promote self efficacy and metacognition while teaching content by integrating a reflective component in some assignments.  The reflections can be fairly short and teachers don’t have to read or grade all of them.  The purpose is to get students thinking differently, or just thinking about how they’re learning, not just what they’re learning.

Collectively, data from the app and the expert’s positive feedback made me proud of what I accomplished last year. I’m motivated to ride more and work harder this season. Learning content is the destination. It’s important. But if we want to develop self-directed, life-long learners, we need to provide opportunities to practice and offer feedback about the learning process, not just grades. Because learning, like biking, isn’t really about the destination, it’s about the ride.

Reference: Kitsantasm A., Zimmerman, B.J. 2009. College students’ homework and academic achievement: The mediating role of self-regulatory beliefs. Metacognition Learning, 4:97-119.

Groundhog Day

Do you ever feel like you’re teaching in the movie Groundhog Day? Where the same thing happens every semester? I’m feeling a bit of that right now.

It’s first-exam Groundhog Day in accounting. We worked through the foundational material and students completed the first test last week. Each term I try different strategies to make content clearer, improve access to resources, provide more practice, and enhance opportunities to learn. In addition to the usual strategies and resources, I assigned practice questions as homework prior to the test. Solutions were provided. Office hours were increased and shifted to before the test.

I gave the exam… graded them… and good morning Groundhog Day! I find myself scratching my head after one of my students revealed the following:

I sat down with someone that took your class previously

and they showed me where everything is….

I now found all the helpful stuff…

Even though you went over this stuff in class I didn’t follow…

Past variations of this include “I didn’t know what would be on the test” and “I thought I understood the material.” Every term there are students who ignore advice, skip the learning resources, underestimate the challenges, overestimate understanding, and study insufficiently. Every first accounting exam triggers Groundhog Day, where students (this time about 12%) have fallen into (some might say they dug) a hole that’ll required extra effort to escape.

Recently, Maryellen Weimer blogged about Five Ways to Improve Exam Review Sessions. She provided several before-the-exam strategies. It’s a helpful piece. Before the first test I used a number of the practices she describes.

What about after the exam?

What post-exam strategies reduce the chances students dig a hole at the beginning of their courses in the future?

Offer Help. I write a personal note to each student who did poorly (received a D or F). I ask them to stop by during office hours or see me during the break to make an appointment. I promise no blaming or shaming.  It’s water under the bridge. The point is to talk about how they prepared to discern what will work better next time. Sometimes it’s about working smarter, not harder. I also make a point of reminding students they can recover from this misstep by stressing one important truth: for the outcome to change, behavior must change.

 Debrief. “Let’s go over the exam.” [Insert YAWN here] For students who did well, this is a complete waste of time. For the students who didn’t perform well, a straight review of the answers won’t advance learning much. But exam debrief can be about much more than the answers. Here’s where I reinforce the message that behavior must change for the outcome to improve next time. Examples of behavior changing information: absences and homework completion v. test scores. I let the data speak for itself. I limit post-exam debrief to conceptual issues and grading philosophy. Since I want students to visit me, I don’t review each item in class.

Peer Advice. Sometimes I’ll ask students who did very well on the test to privately (on a notecard or in an email) share their best practices. These strategies are provided to the class before the next test. Students tend to take advice more willingly from peers than the teacher.

Exam Wrappers. After the first exam is a good time to provide an exam wrapper. Essentially, it’s a form wrapped around the test. Wrappers convey the message that exams are more than just an assessment of content learning; they are also a means of teaching students how to learn. If you’re unfamiliar with them, search “exam wrapper” and Google will provide over 1000 hits linking to valuable resources provided by teaching and learning centers. I like the explanations, examples and resources at Carnegie Mellon;  Purdue and Duquesne.  My favorite wrapper question asks students to assign percentages to the amount of time they spent on different kinds of exam preparation behaviors: preparing notecards, rereading the chapter, practicing problems, reviewing notes, etc. I find this diagnostic to be particularly insightful when helping students “learn to learn” in accounting.

Allow a Resubmit. Sometimes I allow students to earn some of the points they missed by resubmitting part of the exam, though this is generally more appropriate in economics than accounting. Some might disagree with this, and it’s probably not appropriate in all settings. But because my economics exams are take home essays, if a large number of students miss points, that means the class didn’t learn the material and/or I asked unclear questions. In those cases, my priority is learning, not assigning grades. The possibility of earning a portion of missed points motivates students to go back and rethink their answers to improve understanding.

Grade-Estimator. Usually after the first exam I post a spreadsheet I developed that helps students predict their course grade. Many LMS track grades, but I am unaware of any that allow students to conduct “what-if” analysis. The spreadsheet is set up to reflect course grade percentages. Students enter current or predicted grades for the various components and then see what their grade will be. Here’s a snapshot:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 7.38.19 PM

Some students use the estimator to answer the age-old question: How badly can I mess up the final and still get ____?  I use the estimator as a diagnostic tool during office visits. I ask the student about their grades. Some cannot report them. Meaning, they are unsure how consistently they have completed homework, have forgotten exam scores, etc. This suggests they may not feel responsible or “own” their learning. When a student admits “I didn’t realize I missed so many assignments,” they are taking an important step toward self-directed learning. Improvement hinges on knowing where you stand.

Sometimes students consider dropping the course when the situation doesn’t warrant it. Other times they should consider dropping the course, and the estimator provides objective information to help them make an informed decision.

Most of my students are in their first- or second-year of college. That probably means first-exam Groundhog Day is part of the territory. But after our time together, these post-exam strategies should advance their understanding of themselves as learners. They may never record another debit or credit again, but if they learned about learning and use that insight going forward, that would be a wonderful Groundhog Day for them to repeat.

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend: Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, Marie K. Norman, Richard E. Mayer. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Photo credit: Janet Morse Church, Your Shot;