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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.

Easy A? Perspectives from Course Evaluations


Survey form

Jan 17’s post discussed a bold student question. “Is this course an easy A?” Asked at the start of the new semester the query lead to speculation about student motivation, their beliefs about learning and grades. Then I received my fall course evaluations.

“If you want to learn about Economics she teaches it.. if you want to get a good grade take it with someone else.”

“While Dr. Paff is a nice and a good teacher for accounting and economic students, it is unnecessarily difficult. The exams and projects add up to a course that is much, much harder from her than it is for the other professors. I would advice (sic) students in an engineering major or technology-related major to avoid Dr. Paff’s section. It is not for you. She teaches well. But, to get a good grade, based on what I have heard, the other professors are marginally easier.”

“Class is not easy, be prepared to spend some time doing projects and learning concepts. The class was informative but I do not think it needed to be as hard as it was for the concepts.”

“If you want to learn material take Paff. If you [want to] make a good grade take someone else.”

My students answered the “easy A” question and their feedback got me asking more questions. This (limited) sample suggests for some students: grades and learning are unrelated, easy is better than hard, and learning and easy generally don’t go together.

Grades v. Learning. I can’t blame students for focusing on grades. They affect career, graduate school, scholarships, etc. But these statement show why Alfie Kohn’s compelling arguments against an emphasis on grades reduces student motivation. Note the dichotomy. The choice is between learning or a good grade. In their view, grades are not integrated with or a reflection of learning. Yikes! Clearly that’s not my intent. How can I do a better job integrating and making explicit the connection between grades and learning?

Easy v. Hard. What makes a course “hard”? Is it the number of assignments? The type of assignment? How much it counts? How it’s graded? How long it takes to complete? How much mental energy is required? Something else?

I don’t plan to change the number of assessments. Each one is designed to help students learn a new concept or apply what they’ve learned. But I do need to reconsider how I am helping students make connections between assignments/assessments and their learning.

Learning isn’t easy. This is a golden nugget buried in the comments. Deep down, students know learning is hard. Some want to learn and are willing to make the effort and take the risk of pushing themselves into new territories. Others would prefer to go through the motions or do only what’s necessary. (We can say the same of faculty!) Why do some students prefer easy? Are they insecure about their ability to learn? Are they worried the effort won’t be worth it? Have I made a strong case for content relevance and the value of learning?

It’s easy to write off student comments like these as uninformed complaints.  But I’d argue they offer a perspective on student beliefs and attitudes many teachers suspect students hold. More important,  these issues lie within our sphere of influence to examine with students and address. The next few posts will explore student assumptions and beliefs about hard and easy courses along these lines:

  • What instructional strategies integrate and make explicit the connection between grades and learning?
  • How can teachers help students see the connections between the assignments/assessments and their learning?
  • What practices build a strong case for content relevance?
  • What strategies help students see their efforts to learn as worthwhile?

What other questions would you ask? Please share your thoughts, strategies, and suggestions.



Student Disinterest: Who is Responsible?

Sara Briggs wrote a piece (2/7/15) for informED titled: 12 Myths About Student Engagement. The article does a nice job of providing background on engagement and identifying common myths about it. Last week I discussed #1: Engagement in Schooling v. Engagement in Learning. This post considers #’s 7, 9 & 10 dealing with student interest.  [Find the article here: ]

7. If no one responds to your questions, no one is interested.

9. If their performance suffers, they aren’t interested.

10. Disengagement signifies disinterest.

The way the myths are written, and I believe Briggs was intentional about this, suggests students make a choice to be interested or not. The language also implies teachers have little power or responsibility regarding student interest. The statements are myths because student interest isn’t necessarily a choice. defines “interest” as:

  1. the feeling of a person whose attention, concern, or curiosity is particularly engaged by something
  2. something that concerns, involves, draws the attention of, or arouses the curiosity of a person
  3. power of exciting such concern, involvement, etc.; quality of being interesting

Thus in order to be interested, something or someone must “draw attention,” “arouse curiosity,” and employ the “power of exciting such concern, involvement” in order to create interest. The myths are myths because blaming students for disinterest lays the responsibility solely at the feet of students.

If students aren’t interested in a question, the problem may be the question, not the students. It may be how the question was asked (punitive questioning, insufficient wait time). Students may not know the answer but want to find out. A culture of fear may inhibit student responses. If #9 is reordered and slightly reworded it becomes a statement supported by the literature: If students aren’t interested, their performance suffers. And #10 should be similarly edited: Disinterest and disengagement are positively correlated.

In a study of over 80,000 students at 110 high schools, researchers found that when asked why they were bored in class, 75% of students said because the material was not interesting and 39% said the material was not relevant to them (Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006).  Faculty often shrug off statistics like this by laying the responsibility (blame?) on students. This may be an unpopular position, but I believe teacher behaviors often squelch interest under the guise of “rigor.”



Jokes and impersonations aside, attending to student interest isn’t about “entertaining” students as much as it’s about engaging students through teacher immediacy and employing instructional strategies that promote interest. Schussler puts it this way: “Engagement in learning involves formulating a deeper connection between the student and the material whereby a student develops an interest in the topic or retains the learning beyond the short term” (Schussler, 2009, pp.115-116).

Faculty put a lot of care and effort into lecture prepping, activity planning, creating and assessing assignments. It’s a shame when students aren’t interested in the fruits of those efforts because immediacy and strategies to promote interest have been overlooked. Immediacy behaviors are skills which can be developed,  practiced and incorporated in teaching across disciplines.

Verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Calling students by name
  • Varying tone / vocal expressiveness
  • Asking students for feedback
  • Using collective pronouns like “we” and “our”
  • Engaging in conversations with students before and after class

Non-verbal immediacy behaviors:

  • Movement around the classroom
  • Gesturing
  • Employing sufficient wait time after asking a question
  • Eye contact
  • Facial expression

These behaviors can make a big difference in classroom climate, how the teacher is perceived and ultimately on learning. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here are three excerpts, from the vast literature on immediacy, highlighting its role in engagement, interest and learning:

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. –“Given the movement toward more accountability in higher education and a focus on improving instructional quality, college faculty would do well by developing the skills and behaviors that communicate caring and immediacy both verbally and nonverbally to increase their effectiveness in the classroom.” (p.51)

Bain, K. 2004. –“Create an environment where students: (a) learn by confronting intriguing and important problems, engage in authentic tasks, and examine their own mental models of reality—try to force students into a significant emotional event where they disprove their own “theories-in-use” and (b) feel a sense of control over their education, work collaboratively with others, and receive feedback in advance of any summative judgment of their learning.” (p. 18)

Young, M.R. 2005. –“The results suggest that active, application-oriented experience, delivered by enthusiastic faculty members who provide high personal interaction, along with supportive feedback, clear goals and expectations emphasizing learning over grades will increase intrinsic motivation and the use of self-regulated learning strategies.” (p.36)

The immediacy literature overwhelmingly supports Briggs’ characterizations of #7, 9 & 10 as myths. Student interest isn’t a choice.  Students don’t arrive to our classrooms thinking, “I’m going to be disinterested today.” Teachers can do more to promote student interest, and teacher immediacy is one way to foster it.


Bain, K. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schussler, D.L. 2009. Beyond Content: How Teachers Manage Classroom to Facilitate Intellectual Engagement for Disengaged Students, Theory into Practice, 48: 114-121.

Teven, J.J. & Hanson, T.L. 2004. The Impact of Teacher Immediacy and Perceived Caring on Teaching Competence and Trustworthiness. Communication Quarterly, 52(1): 39-53.

Yazzie-Mintz, E. 2006. Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 high school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Young, M.R. 2005. The Motivational Effects of the Classroom Environment in Facilitating Self-Regulated Learning. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(1): 25-40.