I just finished my first semester teaching. The class average was about 88% +/- 9. This seems high to me. The class is normally taken by third and fourth year students. I don't want to push the current grades down, but I don't know if I should make the class just a little more difficult next time I teach it, or how to make it more difficult if I should.

I don't have a lot of information about how the previous professor ran the class, but based on his syllabi I probably covered about twice the number of topics he did. So I assume he spent more time on each topic and covered them in more detail. I don't know how much I could do that, I feel that it's important to introduce the topics I covered, and attempting to add more detail to each topic would take up time I might not have.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to know if a class if difficult enough, and how to adjust the difficulty?

  • 2
    @AzorAhai-him- Standard Deviation.
    – user137
    Nov 30, 2020 at 17:36
  • 17
    Why do you want lower grades? Nov 30, 2020 at 17:37
  • 7
    Have you asked the previous professor, or others in the department, about the expectations?
    – Anyon
    Nov 30, 2020 at 17:38
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    Grades aren't going to tell you whether you're properly preparing the students for future work. You need to think about the learning objectives for the course. First, are the learning objectives appropriate as part of the degree program that the students are in. Second, assess whether the students are achieving those objectives. Nov 30, 2020 at 17:57
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    @user137 Then your question is at odds with your goals. If everyone is scoring well in your class, doesn't that mean they're well-prepared for future coursework? I don't know about the MCAT, but the GRE is just the SAT, round two ... Nov 30, 2020 at 18:10

2 Answers 2


You are asking the question incorrectly. The grades alone don't tell whether the course is too easy. After all, upper division students have already proven themselves in earlier courses and the ones still there should be better "on average" than those in the first courses.

To improve the question, ask yourself what it is necessary for students to actually gain and know from your course. Ask how you are measuring that. Ask whether the students, by your own measurement techniques actually have demonstrated that knowledge. If the answer is that they are learning the material then giving out lower grades "on average" just disadvantages many of them for no reason at all.

But if their answers on exercises or exams indicate that they aren't learning the material then it might be that higher grades is disincentivizing them to study hard. In that case you need to provide proper incentives. That might be things that lower the average, but it might be other things as well.

For some, but not all students, a bit of "stick" will get them moving. For others, carrots are much more effective.

But the point of it all is learning, not grading. If your grades don't measure learning then you have a bigger problem than you think you do.

But the main question is answered by comparing your syllabus to the requirements of the course and the field and making sure that you are fairly measuring that the students are able to demonstrate competence.

And, if you do conclude that it needs to be more rigorous, then the ways to improve things is to give more assignments, readings, exercises, whatever, depending on the field. Make them harder, require better solutions, etc. Learning requires hard work, just as does excellence in, say, athletics.


Whilst learning is the desired outcome and is therefore the primary consideration (rather than any particular set of grades), you are correct that an unusually high average grade can be an indicator that a course is presently too easy for the level of the students that are taking it, and there is scope for more ambitious learning expectations. You may be able to get some guidance by looking at other courses, and especially by speaking to the "Head of Education" in your faculty, or in the university overall. Bear in mind that a high average mark can have other causes, such as especially strong or hard-working students, or particularly good teaching of the material. Nevertheless, if you look carefully at the content of your course and the quality of the students, you may be able to determine whether you are giving them material that is insufficiently challenging.

One effective method you can use to diagnose whether a course is difficult enough is to simply ask your students how that course compares with their other courses. I have used this method very effectively over years of teaching, both during and at the end of my courses. In particular, after your course is completed, and the grades have been sent out, you can ask your students how their grade on your course ranked compared to their grades on their other courses (e.g., was it their highest grade?) and ask them their impressions of how easy/hard they found the course compared to their other courses. The advantage of this comparison is that it "controls" for the students and their general effort level. There can be some logistic difficulties in contacting students after the course is completed, but you can send out a message and hope for response.

I use a method like this to calibrate my assessments appropriately to the class. At the end of every class-test I do a straw-poll where I ask the students to tell me whether they felt that the section of the course they just completed (and the assessment that went with it) was: (a) easier than expected; (b) at about the level they expected; (c) harder than expected. For timed class-tests I also ask them whether the time allowance for the test was: (a) too short (i.e., they wanted to write a lot more); (b) about right; or (c) too long (i.e., they had left over time they could not use effectively. A simple show of hands lets me know the general consensus of the class, and this has been very useful for me to recalibrate assessments, etc., in order to get my courses to the level of difficulty that I want.

Assuming that you decide you want to add more to the course, you will first need to decide whether you want a broader scope, or more detail within the existing scope. Personally, I generally prefer to give high levels of detail at the expense of scope (to avoid superficial presentations of topics) but I have seen some courses where the lecturers go the other way. Any change you make to the course is going to require your time, so ultimately you will have to determine whether your time is well spent on this exercise. In my experience, if you are teaching a course again and again, a high initial time investment can pay off in the long term. (Contrarily, if you are teaching a course that will soon be discontinued then it probably is not worth the effort.)

  • OTOH, the straw-poll can be thrown off easily. I remember getting comments from some communications majors that my first-semester Spanish course was harder than their toughest senior-level communications class (in reality, the level had been brought down a bit from where I was used to teaching it at other universities). I just replied to them that that's more likely an indictment of their program's rigor. Dec 2, 2020 at 4:22

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