The subject matter of a course, in itself, might be perceived as having an inherent level of difficulty based on an array of factors, such as the degree of abstraction of the concepts to be learned or the experience students have in their prior educational history.1,2 Some topics are widely recognized by students as more challenging, such as biochemistry, calculus, and thermodynamics. Research has demonstrated that effective design and delivery can overcome the difficulty perception. Wyse3 found courses identified by students (at the 100 and the 300 levels) when asked to describe the hardest class you have ever taken have the following characteristics:
- Students have low prior preparation in the subject
- Students have a low level of interest in the subject
- Students perceive the course to have a high workload
- Students perceive the class to be fast-paced
- Students find the importance of the course to be unclear
- Students report a lack of alignment between the course content and the summative assessment(s)
- Students describe a low level of support from the faculty teaching the course
- Students identify the subject as requiring a high cognitive demand
Effective design and delivery can improve students’ experiences to the extent that they perceive a class as far less difficult than expected and find they enjoyed it.3 It is also possible for the design and delivery to be neutral in effect on difficulty, or to increase the student’s perception of a course’s level of difficulty. Courses not traditionally viewed as particularly difficult can become difficult experiences for students through poor design and/or delivery.
Design incorporates the content, sequence, structure, and resources provided to or required of students. Examples of design elements include course materials, textbooks, syllabi, programs of study, technologies, etc.
Delivery represents the procedures, activities, and engagement of faculty and support personnel to facilitate student learning. Design and delivery are complementary and interactive with one another, as seen in Figure 1. Together they are powerful tools for determining the student experience of course difficulty.
Active learning has been widely proposed as a solution, which has the contradictory traits of both increasing difficulty in terms of placing greater responsibility on students for their learning, and decreasing difficulty by providing a carefully structured and highly faculty-engaged experience. Wyse recently found, “When students are provided with a high degree of support in their learning, perceived difficulty decreases.”3 (p. 12) Wyse explained, support, in the forms of effective course design, alignment between content and assessment, and a fully engaged faculty member has the potential to dramatically impact student perception of course difficulty.
Students are interested, “in courses that push and challenge them, with outcomes that are attainable through appropriate support.” Students find value in the challenge of difficult courses if they are well designed and delivered:
This desire for an appropriate balance of challenge and support indicates the students are not opposing a high workload or looking for an easy out. Rather, they are looking for higher-order thinking on content that matters and a low-stress environment that enables all students to engage in learning, a ‘just right’ or ‘Goldilocks’ level of challenge and support.3 (p. 12)
About the AuthorBernadette Howlett, Ph.D. is an author, consultant, and educator who teaches evidence-based practice as an adjunct faculty member. She has been the Director of a research institute and also a Chief Research Officer of a medical school. She was an associate professor and research coordinator for a physician assistant (PA) studies program. She is currently an affiliate faculty member with the Kasiska Division of Health Sciences at Idaho State University contracted to design and teach courses in evidence-based practice as well as interprofessional practice.
Evidence-Based Practice for Health Professionals, Second Edition is a resource for health professions students, residents, and practicing professionals. It explores the basic concepts of evidence-based practice with a clinical emphasis. This text gives readers the knowledge and tools to make self-informed, evidence-based decisions, and to communicate effectively with professionals in the pharmaceutical, medical device, and nutraceutical industries.
- Mundfrom, D.J. (1991). Estimating course difficulty. Retrospective These and Dissertations. Iowa State University Digital Repository. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd
- Hoyt E. The hardest college courses. FastWeb 2014 Nov. 12. https://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/the-hardest-college-courses
- Wyse, S.A., Soneral, P.A.G. (2018 Dec). “Is this class hard?” Defining and analyzing academic rigor from a learner’s perspective. CBE Life Science Education. 14(4):ar59. DOI:10.1178/cbe.17.12.0278