The Problem With Assessing Instructor Difficulty

The Problem With Assessing Instructor Difficulty Featured Image

When I hear an instructor described as “easy,” I start to wonder what that really means. Today, I want to analyze the idea within the context of my own teaching.

Table of Contents

I Am an “Easy” Instructor

Sometime in the past year or so, I found myself earning the reputation of the “easy” educator. Not only have I overheard students describe me that way, but it’s also evident in my online presence. Specifically, my current difficulty rating on RateMyProfessor is a 2.8 on scale of 5. And to contextualize that score, I have the lowest difficulty rating of the folks who teach the same courses as me, which includes scores like 4.4, 4, 3.7, and 3.4.

When I think about what makes an instructor “easy,” I get a little confused because I teach the same course with the same material as the other instructors previously mentioned. In other words, the content is practically identical. In fact, as far as I know, we share all of the same formative assessments (i.e., homeworks and projects). The only difference being in how we teach and how we handle summative assessments (i.e., exams). So, the material itself has no bearing on the difficulty rating.

Therefore, when I look at my own teaching, I start to wonder about what makes me “easy.” Are my summative assessments not rigorous enough? Is my approach to pedagogy more conducive to learning than my peers? Or, is it something else? Today, I want to examine the idea of easiness a bit in the context of my own teaching.

Defining Instructor Difficulty

To understand what makes an instructor difficult, we have to sort of put ourselves in our students’ shoes. From the students’ perspective, there are variety of things that they want to achieve, so difficulty is probably associated with their ability to achieve those things. Let’s look at a few examples.

Students Want to Get Good Grades

To start, grades are a massive part of the education landscape, so I would imagine students value them heavily. Therefore, if it is hard to get a good grade with a particular instructor, then that instructor must be difficult.

Looking at the way I run my classroom, I would say that it is probably easier to get a good grade on average—just based on some of my policies.

Where this gets sticky is that many of the ways in which I ensure students do well in the course requires students to sacrifice more time and effort. For instance, I let students resubmit projects until they receive a grade they’re satisfied with. That may require a much bigger investment of their time than they otherwise would need to complete the course.

This also gets a bit sticky when we start to talk about pedagogy. For instance, I use a lot of community-based teaching practices like peer instruction and think-pair-share to guide discussions around computer science topics. These force students to not only think through the ideas but also to communicate them with their peers. As a result, students understand the material much better than if I lectured them. I would suspect that knowing the material better would make getting good grades easier.

Ultimately, if difficulty is a function of the ability of students to earn good grades, then I’m definitely an easier instructor.

Students Want to Get Jobs

Because so many students go to college to get a job, I would imagine that students would perceive courses to be more difficult where the content is more theoretical than practical. Therefore, if the instructor doesn’t attempt to integrate real-world examples in their teaching, then students are going to perceive them as a difficult instructor.

One of the ways that I run my classroom is in a very practical manner. Often, I joke about the material we cover because so much if it is impractical. I like to imagine that this helps students engage more with the material because they believe I value their future prospects, which I do.

Then, over time, I try to integrate more real-world applications into my courses. Just as an example, I’ve recently been trying to move over to more modern tools like git and VS Code over tools like subversion and Eclipse. Likewise, I try to tie my classroom activities to real-world discussions you might have in a team meeting on the job.

Ultimately, if difficulty is a function of the ability of students to see how the material connects to their future work, then I’m certainly an easier instructor.

Students Want to Explore Their Autonomy

For a lot of students, part of going to college is being on your own for the first time. Therefore, I would imagine that students would perceive courses to be more difficult where the environment doesn’t grant them their autonomy. Therefore, if an instructor doesn’t give students the opportunity to explore their autonomy (e.g., by giving more open-ended and ill-structured assignments and activities), they would perceive that instructor as more difficult.

One of the ways that I allow students to flex their autonomy is by not making attendance a part of the grade. That way, students can choose how they use their time.

Perhaps a more interesting way for students to explore their autonomy is through a newer open-ended project that students can choose to complete as an exam replacement, which I call the Portfolio Project. In general, the point of the project is to have students make their own software component following our design constraints. However, they can choose any topic they’d like, of which examples are listed here. This actually satisfies both students’ need for autonomy and their need for practical applications.

Ultimately, if difficulty is a function of the ability of students to explore their autonomy, then I’m certainly an easier instructor.

Pushing Back

With all that said, the concept of difficulty is a weird one that I would love to explore as a subject of research. Even now, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of being an “easy” educator. To me, it has an overall negative connotation, but it’s also unclear what it even means. After all, the following seems like a lot more time, effort, and risk that I’m exposing to my students than most educators:

  • Deferring the decision of attendance
  • Providing additional open-ended assessments
  • Allowing for repeated submissions
  • Opening discussions between peers

Yet, students find me to be the easiest instructor. I hope that speaks to my excellent teaching and not to my lack of rigor, but who knows. This seems to be a problem that other educators have experienced as wellOpens in a new tab..

At any rate, it’s about time I wrapped this article up. Thanks for taking the time to check out my work. If you want to read more articles like this, check out the following:

Otherwise, take care! I’ll see you next time.

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

Recent Teach Posts