Teaching Makes a Difference in Whether Students See Classes as Easy or Hard

It’s a common recognition on college campuses that one course might be an “easy A” while another strikes fear into the heart of even the most capable student. But what exactly makes some classes easy and others hard? Teaching technique seems to have something to do with it.

In a recent study, researchers at Bethel University asked students in introductory and advanced biology courses about the factors that made a class easy or hard.

Across both levels, students agreed on some factors that made a course easier. These mostly had to do with the teaching methods used. Easier courses tended to:

  • Offer more opportunities for faculty support
  • Be designed in a way that put the student at the center of the course
  • Gradually build up to more advanced skills and concepts, a technique known as “scaffolding”

Students at both levels also agreed that easier courses were ones that they’d been adequately prepared for by previous schoolwork.

However, there were also some differences in how students evaluated introductory and advanced courses.

For introductory courses, students saw hard courses as those that moved to quickly, had heavy workloads, or weren’t relevant to students’ goals. In advanced courses, factors like the complexity of the material and whether exams tested material that had been covered extensively in class were more important.

These results show that pedagogy makes a big difference in whether students see a given class as difficult. For example, courses that are thoughtfully designed to develop students’ skills gradually and provide learning support are likely to be evaluated as “easier” compared to more haphazard courses that cover the same material.

By the same token, an “easy” course isn’t necessarily a bad one or a waste of time. If it effectively teaches all the relevant concepts and skills while giving the perception of being easy, that just makes it well-taught!