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Opinion: Are college classes too hard for students? Alarming numbers say 'yes.'

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 11/19/2022 Frederick Hess

The New York Times recently sparked a heated debate about academic rigor when it reported that New York University had fired a professor after students complained he was too tough.

Maitland Jones, a professor of organic chemistry and a co-author of a respected textbook, was dumped by NYU after 82 students in Jones’ introductory organic chemistry course signed a petition saying the course was too hard and their grades too low.

An NYU spokesman responded to the ensuing outcry by insisting that Jones had been “hired to teach, and wasn’t successful,” pointing to poor student evaluations and a lot of withdrawals from Jones’ class. Meanwhile, Jones asserted 60% of the final grades in his last course were actually A’s or B’s, only 19 of 350 students had failed and the real problem was that students simply didn’t study enough.

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University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman, author of a terrific book on college teaching, offered a revealing window into the clash. Noting that Jones has taught at NYU since he retired as a Princeton professor in 2007, Zimmerman recalled that a relative who had taken the professor's Princeton class had insisted “that Jones was the best teacher he ever had, hands down. ‘He was the person who taught me to think,’ the relative (wrote (o Zimmerman) after Jones’s dismissal hit the press.”

Is Jones an example of an uncompromising, overly demanding college culture? Or have colleges become so lax, and campus leaders so cowed by their students, that simply maintaining reasonable expectations can now put a professor’s job at risk?

What students say in new survey

On that point, a new survey of 1,000 four-year college students by offers illumination. While these kinds of surveys should always be treated with appropriate caution, the results are provocative, especially against the backdrop of the NYU's dust-up with professor Jones.

For starters, 87% answered that they’ve thought at least one class was too difficult and that the professor should have made it easier; 64% said this was the case with “a few” or “most” of their classes.

While the students said they tended to respond by studying more or asking for help, 8% reported that they had filed a complaint against the professor. When it comes to challenging classes, 18% said the instructor should “definitely” have been forced to make the class easier (48% said “maybe”).

The most eye-catching finding, though, was what the students reported about their work habits. Most said they’re making an effort in their studies, with 64% reporting that they put “a lot of effort” into school. But, remarkably, of the students who answered they’re putting in a lot of effort, a third said they devote fewer than five hours a week to studying and homework – and 70% said they spend no more than 10 hours a week on schoolwork.  

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14 hours or less of studying per week

A decade ago, in "Academically Adrift," NYU sociologist Richard Arum and University of Virginia sociologist Josipa Roksa raised concerns when they reported how little work many college students were actually doing. They found that students were spending, on average, only about 12 to 14 hours a week studying, a decline of about 50% from a few decades earlier.

Arum and Roksa also found that, of the students they followed, a third didn’t take a single course in a given semester that included more than 40 pages of reading per week.

In 2011, Arum and Roksa fretted, “What if at the beginning of the 21st century many colleges and universities were not focused primarily on undergraduate learning, but instead had become distracted by other institutional functions and goals?”

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The larger concern when it comes to NYU’s sacking of Maitland Jones is that we’ve normalized a college culture where students imagine that studying 10 hours constitutes a full week’s academic work.

Whether or not students have other interests or responsibilities, treating college as an expensive multiyear holiday isn’t good for students, colleges or the taxpayers who subsidize much of this activity. And it’s insulting to all those young people who routinely put in 10-hour days waitressing, driving trucks, working construction and otherwise keeping us fed, clothed and housed.

Frederick Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on K–12 and higher education issues.

Frederick Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. © Jay Westcott Frederick Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Are college classes too hard for students? Alarming numbers say 'yes.'


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