College students are complaining courses are too hard; professors claim standards are actually declining. Both may be right—and adopting learning strategies backed by scientific evidence could ease student stress without lowering rigor.
In October, The New York Times reported that New York University professor Maitland Jones Jr. was fired after some students signed a petition saying his organic chemistry course was too hard. That sparked a flurry of commentary arguing that college students aren’t working hard enough, are being coddled, or are less resilient than they used to be. Another argument is that some courses—like organic chemistry—are supposed to weed out students who can’t hack it.
Jones’s students aren’t the only ones complaining. A survey of 1,000 undergraduates found that 87% said a professor has made at least one of their classes too difficult. Two-thirds said the professor should have been forced to make the class easier.
One big part of the problem is that especially in recent years, our K-12 system isn’t preparing students for college-level work. While the problem existed before the pandemic, remote learning has exacerbated it. Scores on the ACT were dropping for four consecutive years before hitting—with the class of 2022—the lowest point they’d reached in three decades. More anecdotally, Jones told the Times he noticed a “loss of focus” about ten years ago. Since the pandemic, he added, students not only don’t study, they don’t seem to know how to study.
There are signs that high school standards are slipping. As reported in The American Scholar, for example, one high school teacher astounded sophomores in her honors English class when she showed them midterm essays from a decade before. They couldn’t believe students in 2010-11 had read 11 books by January, when they had read only two. Nor could they fathom how kids had managed to write such complex essays in just one exam period; they themselves took the exam over many days and were told in advance what kinds of textual evidence and analysis to prepare.
Students feel stressed
Even if colleges are also lowering their expectations, students are still feeling stressed. A survey of 2,000 undergraduates found that 75% struggled with anxiety and/or depression during college. In response, some colleges are providing 24-hour virtual mental health care or bringing therapy dogs onto campus.
But that may not be enough if, as Maitland Jones says, students don’t know how to study—which, after all, is ostensibly why they’re in college. Nor is it enough to blame the K-12 system for not teaching study skills. We need to find a way to help the millions of undergraduates who are currently flailing.
Professors want to help. Jones has said courses like his shouldn’t be designed to weed people out, and “every single student in that class was capable of success.” He recorded his lectures at his own expense and offered an alternative section focused on problem-solving. But for many students it wasn’t enough, a fact Jones attributed to their lack of effort.
College instructors could be more effective in helping students if they look to scientific evidence about how people learn. That evidence shows that a number of simple strategies are powerful—perhaps especially something called “retrieval practice.”
The idea is that if you try to recall information you’ve slightly forgotten—perhaps by answering multiple-choice questions or writing about it—you’re more likely to remember the information and be able to retrieve it when you need it. A recent meta-analysis of 50 experiments found the strategy improved learning across all education levels and content areas.
Simple techniques can have powerful effects
At a conference some months ago, I heard a professor of cognitive psychology named Shana Carpenter describe using retrieval practice with her students by assigning them quizzes to take after class. At first they grumbled, she said, but eventually they realized the quizzes were helping them learn.
Other simple techniques could have similar effects. For example, college instructors could give students the beginning of a sentence and ask them to finish it with three different conjunctions: because, but, or so. That’s part of a method described in The Writing Revolution, of which I’m the co-author. Although designed for K-12 classrooms, the method could also be a teaching aid in the college context, even if students already know how to use those conjunctions (as I hope they would). The rigor of the activity depends on the content.
For example, a philosophy professor could give students the following “sentence stem” to complete: “Immanuel Kant believed that space and time are subjective forms of human sensibility, but _____________________________________ .” Students would need to retrieve complex information they may have slightly forgotten and put it into their own words, providing a powerful boost to understanding and retention.
A history or literature professor might have students create “storyboards,” summarizing an event or novel in four to six “boxes.” Students would need to decide which elements are most important, divide the story into chunks, and identify key turning points—again, retrieving and analyzing information and putting it into their own words. This idea is borrowed from a brilliant framework for teaching history, the Four-Question Method—designed, like The Writing Revolution, for K-12, but adaptable to the college setting.
Other strategies backed by cognitive science are summarized on a website called the Learning Scientists. All could be adapted by college instructors who want to offer useful support to struggling students, whatever the subject.
Why these strategies aren’t being used
But unless they’re teaching cognitive science, most college instructors, like most teachers and students, are unfamiliar with these strategies. If they do know about them, instructors may feel college students should be able to study independently—to quiz themselves, for example.
But students are much more likely to reread and highlight text than to close a book and ask themselves questions about what they’ve read. Even if they know about the advantages of self-quizzing, they may not do it on their own, because—like many strategies that work—it’s challenging, and it can make them feel unsuccessful.
College instructors may also believe, like some K-12 teachers, that having students recall factual information is a waste of time. They may assume students are already understanding and retaining that information and prefer to focus on more sophisticated aspects of learning—as Maitland Jones tried to do in his problem-solving section. But, again like K-12 teachers, college instructors may overestimate what students comprehend and remember. And if learners don’t have accurate factual information about a topic stored in long-term memory, they can’t think critically about it or “problem-solve.”
Perhaps someday, students will have become familiar with these learning strategies before they reach college and use them automatically. A small but growing movement is working to familiarize K-12 teachers with principles of cognitive science that they don’t learn about during their training. But until that happens, college-level teachers should make the effort to incorporate these strategies into their instruction. They may find that students they dismissed as lazy or unmotivated are actually eager and capable once they’re given the kind of support they need.