Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Fallacy of "Deep" Courses and Workloads


This is back on the proposal that is being considered at Trinity to change student course loads to 4 courses per semester, each worth 4 credits (4-4) and the associated change in teaching load to five courses each year with 3 one semester and 2 the next (3-2). I am writing this blog post because I am finally getting fed up with statements that I keep hearing about how some courses simply require more time than others, especially time spent outside of class. There is also an associated aspect of this, where the same people who make these statements insinuate that this extra time is needed for their courses because they are too "deep" for a normal 3 credits.

Why I am Upset

Here is the problem, you don't hear these things coming from STEM faculty. You know, the people teaching the science and math courses that most students consider to be the hardest courses on campus. The majority of STEM faculty seem to be quite happy with how things are. The push for change seems to be coming largely from the humanities and social sciences.

I guess what really offends me is that these statements imply that because I am happy with my course counting for 3-credits that somehow my course is easier and less deep. I'm sorry, but I have had many students tell me that the courses I teach are the hardest ones they take during their entire time at Trinity. My courses also keep students very busy outside of the classroom. My guess is that most of the students in my courses will spend more time on my class than on any of the other courses they are taking. In fact, when students can't do that they tend to wind up withdrawing from my course.

My courses aren't time consuming because they are full of busy work either. They are time consuming because students have to wrap their heads around completely new ways of thinking, and they have to learn to break down problems to levels they have never done before. Then they are forced to apply those capabilities and they are forced to make things work. My courses aren't fluff. They are rigorous and challenging and it is really getting on my nerves how so many faculty seem to be saying that their courses are harder than mine and hence need to count for more credits.

This doesn't just apply to my courses either. Anyone who tells you that courses like E&M, Quantum Mechanics, or Complex Analysis don't require deep thinking or much time spent outside of class clearly has no idea what he/she is talking about. They have obviously not spent time trying to picture a vector field flowing through a Gauss pillbox.

If people really want to get some data on what departments have more challenging courses, and which ones require more time and effort both inside and outside of class, there is a publicly available data set for that called They list ease as a criteria. If you scan through it for faculty with an ease rating of 2.5 or less, you will notice that STEM faculty are extremely over represented. (So is the English department.)

(Here is a coding assignment for any of my students reading this. Write a program to scrape data from I'm most interested in department and ease for this topic, though it would be good to have names so that people who aren't current faculty can be removed.)

Enforcing Work

My gut feeling is that faculty who think they need students to take fewer courses and want students to have more time outside of class really just need to find better ways of enforcing work done outside of class. The idea that students are booked solid with academics when taking five 3-credit courses is absurd. Trinity students spend lots of time doing many things that aren't academic. Give them more time outside of class and they will use it for a variety of non-academic activities unless you can enforce that they use it doing the work for your class.

The fallacy that STEM courses somehow require less time outside of class is absurd. The reality is that STEM courses typically do a much better job of enforcing that students actually do what they are supposed to do outside of class. I can give my students assignments and exercises and if they don't take the time to learn the material, they will be completely incapable of doing those assignments. No, my students don't read everything I assign. However, they will read enough to be able to write the programs I ask them to do. (Honestly, many students would probably spend a little less time on my class if they would do the reading up front instead of wasting hours trying to code before they understand what they are doing.) I know this is more challenging for many non-STEM courses, but that doesn't mean it is impossible.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that changing the number of hours/credits for a course doesn't make students do more work, and making new policies based on the idea that it will is a great way to reduce the quality of a Trinity education. If faculty want students to do more work on their course, they need to be inventive and creative and find ways to enforce students doing the required work. That is the only way to make change happen.


I'd love to hear back from anyone who reads this and is willing to say which courses they had in college that challenged them the most or kept them busy the most. I'd also love to hear why. This is especially true for Trinity students.

(Update: I would like to thank Laura Gibbs for pointing out the National Survey of Student Engagement in the Google+ discussion of this post. Ideally students should be spending 2 hours outside of classes for every hour inside of class. This survey shows that students spend between 12 and 18 hours total prepping for class. In other words, they aren't even close to the 2-hour mark. If faculty want students to work harder, the reality is that most students have time in their schedules. They just need to be forced to take the time.)

Aside: A Useful Technique

I'll close with a technique that I learned in grad school for Amer Diwan who taught a course on program analysis. This course was all about reading journal articles. I have used this approach to good effect in similar courses at Trinity. Make students show up to class with written questions on the reading. If you don't want to do questions, have them write a short paragraph instead. Base the in class discussion on the questions students hand to you when they first walk in. Have a portion of the semester grade come from the quality of what the students write for this. Call students out when what they provide sucks and shows that they didn't really put in the effort.