EducationHigher Education

Deriding ease

In yesterday’s Required Readings, librarienne pointed us to a profile of a community college professor, Dr. Eduardo Vianna, which described many challenges facing community colleges, many of which are shared by those of us teaching at “non-elite” four year institutions as well.  The article highlights various topics that we at School of Doubt think and write about a lot, like students struggling with complexity, lack of recognition of the value of their classwork, issues with the current model of education, etc.

The article presented these problems and identified how some of them are being addressed though of course we’re all still working on that.

Two quotes made me pause as I read though:

Professors at elite four-year colleges can trust that students share a bank of references, that they will understand principles of critical inquiry, that they will appreciate conceptualization for its own sake.

I taught at an elite college as a visiting professor for a few years.  While it is true there was less of a struggle with some of the issues identified above, it is by no means true that they are simply absent.  Many of my students did not enjoy taking the required science classes I taught for core credit and would resist just as much as the students I currently have from less privileged environments.  The major difference wasn’t that they “understood principles of critical inquiry” or “appreciate[d] conceptualization for its own sake,” it was that they had to be more inventive in coming up with excuses for why they didn’t do the work – most didn’t have jobs or families eating away at their time. My current students will at least have practical matters that prioritize over their homework to avoid the “hard stuff” rather than video games and parties.

That being said, heck yeah the students at the elite school were much more prepared to do that kind of work than the students at my current institution.  I could trust that when absolutely forced to do the work, as in “you’re going to fail if you don’t,” they could manage with limited supervision as the tools were already in place from their previous education.  The ease they could employ was very useful in that I could provide more possibilities and choices to the students to engage them in something they found of interest, rather than all students doing the same thing so I can more closely monitor and foster skill development in the class.  That kind of ease is very valuable in allowing a flexible and varied education, though it is by no means necessary to ensure a strong foundation in the skills of critical inquiry and conceptualization.

The second quote:

Dr. Vianna, who was also there, asked students if they, too, felt stuck at times. One student responded that no, he did not, things came easily to him. Many of the others rolled their eyes.

This one is the one that really gave me pause.  The set-up, where the idea is to allow students to express their own uncertainties and process the idea that learning isn’t easy, leads to this put down.  A student who may well be bragging is met with derision for being able to do the work.

One of my first students at my current institution came by last week – she graduated a few years ago and is attending a challenging professional school and is enjoying it very much.  She was a high performing student and would have fit in well at the elite school I mention above, but couldn’t afford it.  She was telling us about her first year and how it was different from our school, and she expressed the worry that her study habits, which clearly had always worked, didn’t seem to be enough especially when compared to the others in her group.  She reads and remembers extremely well and learning is easy for her.  This is likely because she has trained her memory to meet her needs over the course of her education.

When did it become a bad thing to learn easily?

Rather than rolling their eyes, why are the other students not asking WHY?  What can you tell me to make MY learning easy? Working with the students to identify why it’s easy for some, which could be an inherent feature or may indeed be a skill that can be shared, could help many students see where they could work on building skill sets for themselves.  It would also help the student with the skills hone them as teaching something is a very valuable way to learn more.

Learning often isn’t easy, but it’s not a bad thing if it is.  Let those students become leaders and teachers themselves instead of making them question if they’re doing it right.

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. December 28, 2014 at 5:33 am —

    Well, if learning isn’t easy for you, then somebody who goes on about how easy it is for them can seem like bragging. If learning comes easy to you, then you often have a hard time understanding what takes your classmates so long and especially as a teacher it may lead to a lack of empathy for your weaker students.
    I once completely lost track at maths. And I’m glad for it. Because I was a “learns easily” student. It was the one and only time during all of my education that I felt a sense of despair, that I feared the upcoming test, a situation very familiar to my classmates, a situation very familiar to many students.
    So, yes, I can understand students who roll their eyes at the student who says that they learn easily. Not becaise learning easily is a bad thing*, but because everybody is supposed to learn easily.

    *Not to deny that bullying of smart kids happens. Maybe if we didn’t treat the kids who have difficulties like failures they wouldn’t retaliate against those held up as shiny examples often through no particular effort of their own.

    • December 28, 2014 at 10:00 am —

      Oh I certainly understand students’ reacting to bragging that way. I’m talking more about how we teachers should change the culture to make it less of a competition and more of a cooperative, such as in active learning, to take advantage of the ease of some to help the others. There would still be some of the issues you mention of course. I also think students who explain things to each other can reduce the despair factor, as their explanations may make more sense and still hold that “feeling our way through” vibe that teachers who are experts can’t always remember. But stigmatizing students who learn easily, by holding them up as abnormal or bragging, won’t encourage them to help or the others to be helped.

      Of course the idea that learning should be easy across the board is also highly problematic and as a generalization is wrong.

      • December 28, 2014 at 12:48 pm —

        Oh, I’m totally with you on cooperative learning, which simply rocks in heterogenous groups.
        No, we shouldn’t stigmatize students who learn easily. We also shouldn’t hold them up as model students for things that are mostly out of their control anyway.
        It’s a difficult line to walk. I have a kid in second grade who learns easily. She started school early and she’s still at the top of the class. That’s a good thing. And she doesn’t do much for it. Actually, our biggest school related problems are to get her to do the required work when she doesn’t need it in order to understand the subject. And of course many adults are totally enchanted by her and praise her. And she starts to feel superior. That’s not a good thing.

        • December 28, 2014 at 9:46 pm —

          Yeah definitely not…that path can lead to undergraduates who think they deserve good grades for “being smart,” or students that are totally unable to cope when they hit a wall later in their studies because they don’t have any strategies or discipline for working through things they don’t grasp easily. This can happen as late as graduate school :p

          • December 29, 2014 at 5:07 am

            Don’t you tell me…
            I sleepwalked through highschool. College was a different thing. I can still get very good grades if I bother to sit down and do some work, but I also need somebody to regularly kick my ass so I’ll sit down and do some work.

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