Learning and New Vistas Often Require Effort, and That’s OK
On a recent family hike, we tried out a new trail. Winding four miles through forests of Douglas firs, oaks, and ponderosa pines, it switchbacked, climbed, descended, and wove through verdant vistas. Not all in the party were enthralled by the natural splendor, and I had to contend with complaints that the “walk” was too strenuous. Were there flat trails with some beauty around? Sure. Those rarely afforded the views that our climbing earned us. The parallels to classes, our students’ attitudes, and teaching dogged me the entire trip.
Academics love to learn. We teachers are often enthralled enough with our subject matter that we enjoy talking about what we teach. We also tend to be lifelong learners. Especially if it has been a long time since we were in college (but even if not), it is easy to forget the trepidation with which many students face classes. Even when it is a course in their own major, attending class and doing the work of learning—reading, participating, writing, completing assessments—can all be fraught with stress, boredom, and complaints. Taking a course as part of a general education requirement can be even more difficult.
Sometimes it is not just the content or the skill building of a course but also how the course is designed that brings complaints. Perhaps the student has to partake in active learning exercises. Maybe there are weekly assignments and the course is highly structured with multiple items or activities due every week. Sometimes there may even be a lot of homework or pre-reading that a student has to do before coming to class. Many of our courses will have many of these components that, akin to the altitude gain of a hike, can foster displeasure. How, then, do we alleviate the discomfort?
First, we have to believe in why we are doing what we are doing. Just as I believe that physical activity, family time, and frolicking in nature are important, so do I believe that a college education is important. There is a lot of evidence to support all these beliefs (yes, even the nature frolicking part). Health psychology shows that social support, relationships and nature are associated with better health outcomes (Gurung, 2019), and college graduates still fare better than non–college grads on variety of indicators.
Second, we have to make sure we convey why the class (or hike) is important. It is not enough to believe it ourselves, but we have to convince our students of why the class is important. This relates to both the importance of the content and the skills and activities that are part of the course design. One key way to emphasize the former is to take pains to demonstrate the applicability of the concepts being taught. Students may take a course because it’s a college or major requirement, but that fiat should not be the sole reason. Let’s make them see how the information can be useful in life. Let’s design assignments that make them apply the knowledge they are gaining and practice the skills we want them to develop.
Finally, structure is important. Few readers will need convincing on the value of classwork, but some may be wary of certain forms of pedagogical structures and activities. Students report enjoying passive learning, and they like flexibility and fewer or no deadlines. But whereas students will say they do not like active learning, objective measures of learning show that courses taught actively are more effective (Deslaureirs et al., 2019; see here for a summary). Similarly, while choice and flexibility are good things and can increase motivation for learning (Svinicki, 2004), structure is also important. In fact, a recent review of inclusive teaching practices showed that a highly structured course is one of the most important tools in the inclusive teacher’s arsenal (Hogan & Sathy, 2022). Structure helps build clear expectations and provides a clear guide to what will happen when—two factors good for classes and hikes.
I can understand my family member wanting the hike to be easier. Hikes are leisurely activities, after all, but not all trails can be easy. Not all the wonders of the world can be driven to or accessed on even paths. Life isn’t all flat trails. Furthermore, reaching a new vista will often entail more challenges.
Society has perpetuated a myth that learning is easy. Many students expect learning to be easy and at the slightest difficulty look to blame the instructor, the material, or their own inherent shortcomings. Just as stress is not always bad and how we appraise a stressor can make all the difference (e.g., seeing an exam as a way to demonstrate your knowledge, not as a test of your ability), so too being alright with learning being challenging can help us rally our forces.
Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(39), 19251–19257. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821936116
Gurung, R. A. R. (2019). Health psychology: Well-being in a diverse world (4th ed.). SAGE.
Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press.
Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Anker.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.