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While going through the lecture and study material on the internet, I came to realize that, in some universities in some countries (e.g. Hong Kong, New Zealand, etc) lecture materials are far more streamlined and easy to grasp.

For example, in the following universities, the teacher-supplied materials are easier to grasp as if they are prepared for Kindergarten students (in a good sense!):

On the other hand, in the following universities, the teacher-supplied materials are very hard to grasp:

I have the following questions in this regard:

  1. Why is this difference prevalent?
  2. is it because of the salary level of the teachers or is it because of policy or something else?
  3. if it is because of policy, why are their policy different?
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    The differences seem to result from presuppositions about the students' background. In part, I'm referring to background knowledge; for example, do they already understand induction or must it be explained? More important is background mind-set; do they think mathematically, so that precision and rigor are second-nature, or do careful proofs confuse them? Oct 6, 2021 at 0:57
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    Lecture notes serve very different purposes to different instructors, it may be that one is designed for engagement with the lecture, but others are not Oct 6, 2021 at 3:50
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    Hmm, you seem to be under the impression that (a) the quality or level of detail of lecture notes were consistent throughout a course (or university, or even country), (b) it were possible to assess the "difficulty" of a course by reading the lecture notes only, and (c) that "difficulty" (of lecture notes or of a course) were measurable in an objective and general way. But none of these three point is correct, in general. [...] Oct 6, 2021 at 6:00
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    [...] Personally, I find the "exceptionally hard to understand" lecture notes from Stanford pretty clearly written (since at least everything is written down in a mathematically precise way), while I find the notes from Auckland very difficult to read (for instance, I find the "definition" of the binomial distribution barely understandable - the notes don't even specify in this definition which mathematical objects the various variables are supposed to denote). (The latter point is of course closely related to @AndreasBlass' comment.) Oct 6, 2021 at 6:01
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    I was tempted, and then succumbed to that temptation, to point out that two mathematics books with the same title can be at drastically different levels -- Algebra by Don Blattmer and Myrl Shireman on the one hand, and Algebra by Serge Lang on the other hand. Oct 6, 2021 at 8:34

10 Answers 10

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(Answering title question)

Yes, studying at some universities is harder than others. This is because the curriculum is different, in turn because with better students one can also teach more difficult topics. That's why the same BSc degree from a top university is worth more than one from an obscure university, even neglecting the brand name of the university. Other factors could be that a lecturer at one university could simply be more familiar with the topic being taught than a lecturer at another university, and therefore teach it with more rigour.

There are also cultural differences. Here's a quote by Nobel Laureate Andre Geim:

[Andre Geim] started at the Moscow Technical University at the age of 17 and worked hard. He says that getting an undergraduate degree in Russia is much harder than in most western countries, because the course is more comprehensive and goes into greater depth. He says he may have learned a lot more than he really needed to, but the course was so tough that many people simply dropped out, or even cracked under the strain.

He says: 'The pressure to work and to study was so intense that it was not a rare thing for people to break and leave, and some of them ended up with everything from schizophrenia to depression to suicide. I would say that people work 10 times harder than in any UK university, even Oxford and Cambridge. Many of the things I learned I never used in my professional life, but I guess it helped develop some of my axial lobes. I used those lobes to replace the lobes I lost due to the amount of alcohol we needed to wipe out after the exams.'

One can imagine what would happen if one tried to raises standards without students who are able to deal with the material: the students would fail, many would leave the program, and the university would run a loss.

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    An excellent, accurate answer, completely in line with Soviet colleagues I’ve had. There wasn’t much accommodation academically for anything but the cream of the crop. National educational philosophies differ. Oct 6, 2021 at 2:48
  • During my BSc/MSc alone there were 2 suicides and 1 homicide in my uni. You either make it or don't survive the system - unfortunately, sometimes quite literally. It's getting better but like elsewhere, tenured positions are scarce and people mass migrate from academia. Bologna process also changed the game quite a lot, we'll see... EDIT: the quote is bit confusing - to me, Moscow Technical University would likely be the Bauman university - Geim has studied at MIPT.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 6, 2021 at 10:07
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    @Lodinn: But what fraction of students are (or were, historically) actually looking for tenured positions in academia? Indeed, given a stable population, any given professor only needs to train ONE student in the course of his career to keep faculty numbers constant.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 6, 2021 at 17:24
  • @jamesqf MIT guys did a decent write-up on the topic I'd rather not oversimplify replying. It's definitely not 1:1, some unexpected things happen as well, but currently it could be a bit on the extreme end. In the US, this crisis is quite pronounced as the linked study estimates; in Russia, it's bit different - most of the people get education to go to the private sector and only ~10-16% of PhD students end up getting a degree, to the total of ~2-3k PhDs awarded yearly.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 6, 2021 at 18:25
  • So we have plenty of MSc's but not a whole lot of PhDs and for most people academic career looks significantly bleaker than the private sector as compared to a generation or two (way back in Soviet era) before. One might think that this ensures little competition for faculty positions are not so much sought after: in part it's true, but the good positions are, and their numbers are dwindling by year.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 6, 2021 at 18:28
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Note that the notes from the University of Auckland seem to be for an undergraduate course (Bachelor's Degree), while the notes for Stanford are from a graduate course (Master's and Doctoral students). It doesn't seem surpising to me that the undergraduate notes are easier to grasp. Graduate courses are generally going to assume more background and more effort.

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    These two happen to be the only two I glanced at, and what you said seemed perfectly obvious to me. The Auckland notes seem to require not much more than (and maybe not even more than) roughly 2 semesters of a U.S. elementary calculus sequence (differential and integral calculus). Even mathematical induction is explained with examples in one place, at a level one might even see in a precalculus course. The Stanford notes are clearly for a course one would expect students to have studied some graduate level measure and integration theory, several years beyond calculus. Oct 6, 2021 at 8:10
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    Another issue is that there are different courses at the undergraduate level on the same topics, even within the same university. E.g., at my university, in the math department we have 2 intro statistics courses---one is more theoretical and the other more applied---and a number of other departments have their own statistics courses, which tend to be even "easier" (less mathematical) than the math department's applied course.
    – Kimball
    Oct 6, 2021 at 11:26
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    As someone who has studied the same course at multiple different universities, I can tell you that quality of teaching materials varies vastly between universities and departments even for similar programmes. I reckon you could probably quarter the amount of work students need to put in to achieve a degree (or 4x the amount you teach them) if you picked the best course notes from each university and compiled them into one program.
    – Nico Burns
    Oct 6, 2021 at 12:12
  • @NicoBurns: Your last sentence seems like a strong exaggeration to me. Just in order to talk about a concrete example: Both universities I've been employed with so far offer a three years BSc programm and a two years MSc programm in mathematics, and no doubt there is a considerable variation of teaching quality even within each of these programs. One can certainly get a very solid maths education at both of these university, though not anything "top-notch". [...] Oct 8, 2021 at 10:45
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    [...] But no matter which teaching materials were used, there is zero chance that any significant number of students would be able to learn the contents from the (in total 5 years) BSc + MSc programs at one of these universities in, say 1.5 years. One of the reasons for this is that by far the most time when studying mathematics is spent on understanding things for oneself - good teaching materials will certainly help, but they can't change the fact that the vast majority of the "thinking effort" still has to be done by the students themselves, and cannot be abbridged by good materials. Oct 8, 2021 at 10:46
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To answer the question in the title: yes, studying at some universities is harder than others

My answer is more a comparison of universities within the USA as opposed to around the world; nonetheless from my experience how challenging a university/department/program is depends on several factors:

  • How large/reputed the department is
  • How competitive the department is (if the bar to get in the program is higher, the department may make the classes more challenging to suit the students in that department; if you were trying to transfer in or didn't start out with much experience, the department made the "weed out" classes much harder compared to the intro classes at another university)
  • The expertise of faculty in their fields (although this may generally apply more to their research, several faculty in my undergraduate department designed and taught electives or special topics courses that provided perspective one may not be able to gain from a standard upper-division course (one example being a cloud computing course that I took in my senior year which was one of the most challenging courses I took but gave me new perspective as to what is involved in software development)
  • How much emphasis is placed on undergraduate research as opposed to just taking courses (my department fell into the latter, with not as much opportunity for undergraduate research outside of finding REU's as opposed to other universities which may take ugrad research more seriously)

I'm not sure that salary would play such a role into this. Instructors still have their own teaching styles, and the difficulty of a course at a university will largely depend on their teaching style. Occasionally, at the "weed out" level in a competitive university, certain policies may dictate how a course is to be taught or graded, but this is generally for required courses, if not just weed out courses, rather than upper-division electives from my experience.

Also from a graduate school or even job-searching perspective, companies and graduate schools know that not all departments are equal. It's been said before that a 3.3 GPA from a very good school is just as good if not better than a 4.0 from a lesser school.

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I think a very important factor is:

What is the teacher-supplied materials for?

Sometimes it is:

  • To replace the teaching for students who did not turn turn up
  • Or to get the students thinking about the subject before the teaching
  • Or to remind students of the important details, so the students don't need to take notes so can understand the background information that is covered in the teaching
  • Or even because the person doing the teaching can't be trusted to explain it.
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Not all universities have equally strong programs.

as to course material, this depends on a lot of factors, most obviously the instructor and the level of preparation of the students. Teaching philosophies and learning outcomes are also different: if you take a grad course in a department which is research-active in the area as a prerequisite for a thesis or a project, it will likely be more technical than if the focus of the unit is on another topic. It may also depend if the course is required or an elective. It may depend on the total number of contact hours, the availability of the instructor after class, etc.

Of course the best set of notes is the one you like best.

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Both instructional quality and difficulty vary considerably among universities. I don't know how it works worldwide, but the Publish or Perish paradigm at research universities in the United States and the UK (maybe Canada, too?) puts pressure on university professors to publish large numbers of papers in academic journals. Little emphasis is placed on teaching.

I personally attended research universities through Ph.D. and I can say that on the whole, I was disappointed with the instruction I received. And I got better instruction from the older professors who already had tenure than the younger professors who were trying to get tenure.

What I don't know is if instruction tends to be better at non research universities. One hypothesis is that at these institutions, professors are judged more on quality of instruction than quantity of published papers.

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Broadly speaking, there are three main factors affecting how difficult it is to study at university:

  • The student's prior knowledge and competencies before arriving at university. If all else is equal, a student who is already better at their subject will have an easier time studying the course.
  • The level of knowledge and competencies the student is expected to attain in order to successfully complete their course. If all else is equal, harder exams at the end of the course will make for a course which is harder to study for.
  • The level and quality of support the university provides for students to achieve the desired learning outcomes. If all else is equal, a student who receives more effective teaching will find the course easier to study than a student who studies the same course but receives less effective teaching.

All three of these factors vary widely even within the same country. Some examples from just Mathematics at universities in England:

  • Different universities have different entry requirements for their courses. For instance, students applying to Cambridge University must receive a top grade at A-Level Mathematics and also do sufficiently well on the the even more challenging STEP exams to achieve their place on the course, whereas students may enter other universities with lower grades and no additional entrance exams.
  • The syllabuses at different universities are not intentionally aligned with each other, so sometimes it is very clear that the requirements are at a different level. For instance, the exact same question "state and prove the orbit-stabilizer theorem" occurred on a first-year exam at one university and on a final-year exam at a different university.
  • The quality of teaching can vary wildly even between different lecturers at the same university. When I studied abstract algebra, the lecturer assigned to teach the module had such a reputation for incomprehensibility, that another lecturer voluntarily taught the whole module unofficially on the side, because he didn't want students to later take his more advanced module without a good understanding of abstract algebra.

It's of course true that these factors can be expected to cancel out somewhat, particularly universities with higher entrance requirements will tend to have a more advanced syllabus. But overall there are still very often big differences between universities.

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  • Much of it also depends on the professor. A tenured professor can sometimes be a worse teacher than a TA if the TA has focused on making improvements to their teaching style (or vice-versa). I've had some professors at community colleges who were better than those at state schools, and even within departments I had some professors that were great teachers, and others where Khan Academy taught me 10x more than the professor. Oct 7, 2021 at 18:31
  • @RobinClower Yep, that's the third one on my list. Without a doubt, what you describe is not uncommon.
    – kaya3
    Oct 7, 2021 at 18:37
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Of course it is absolutely possible, but universities may a be way too coarse level to look at this issue.

There may be large differences even between different faculties of the same university or even between individual departments within the same faculty (that will mostly concern graduate students only).

At general universities the faculties could bee to different to make any comparison meaningful (everyone expects the math for physicists, economists, social scientists, philosophs... to be different) but at technically oriented universities you will have all faculties technically oriented, all teaching introductory and more advanced mathematics but may well have different level of difficulty.

Alas, even the same courses might be taught at different levels. I know that at the Czech Technical University you can choose between A-level math and B-level math, at least at the faculties I have som knowledge about. You can only get into some specializations (like mathematical physics, mathematical modelling,...) with the harder A-level.

There are many factors that determine the difficulty and level of a course and the university itself is just on of them and by far not the most important one.

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As a graduate teaching assistant at one state university in the USA, my answer is not necessarily reflective of all universities. Instructors mainly professors and also teaching assistants with the support of the course instructor have the leverage to create new courses and edit courses. The undergraduate program and the department stipulates certain knowledge that is supposed to be taught, it is the responsibility of the instructor to teach this information. However, how the information is taught is up to the instructor.

Instructors can create new courses. There is one instructor in the Biochemistry department of my institution who created a new elective course the "Biochemistry of Beer". He teaches students how to brew beer, teaching the students about the enzymes involved in the production of beer and the enzymes involved in the metabolism of beer. This is a lab course so the students get to actually make beer. The department is happy about this because the cost of running the lab is cheap compared to running a lot of other teaching labs, the department is also happy because the students are learning enzymology by brewing beer, and this fulfills one of the professor's teaching obligations and it is fun for him.

I am a graduate teaching assistant and my course instructor allows me revamp courses. I can teach really advanced modules in the course so long as I present the information simply. I have written computer programs to show the practical application of advanced statistics concepts that would otherwise not be taught in the biochemistry major. The biochemistry program is happy that I am teaching the students advanced applied statistics concepts that they couldn't figure out how to teach, the students are happy because my computer programs make understanding the statistics concepts easy to grasp, I am happy because my employment is more secure because now the program has evidence that I am a good instructor so they would rank me higher among grad students competing for Teaching Assistanceship positions.

Also, if you checkout for example the journal of biological education, the journal of chemical education, the journal of visualized experiments you will find creative experiments developed by instructors to teach undergrads. Most of the articles in these journals are original experiments that are cost effective and easy to implement in a lab setting.

Also at my undergrad university, there was a course called Biochemistry II. We are supposed to learn about stuff like amino acid biosynthesis, but the course instructor that year instead taught us strictly about the business of biochemistry. The course instructor got terrible reviews at the end of the semester, but he wasn't too sad because he started his own company. So instructors do need to teach students certain fundamental skills in their major.

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In addition to the other answers, there is also the cultural aspect.

France has an obsession for maths that goes beyond reason. You can have up to 10 hours per week of maths in high school, for people who will be then going to study finance where their needs are hardly above basic arithmetics (but you still need to show proficiency in math at a truly advanced level).

If this was not bad enough, the "purity" aspect is primordial, so when students are introduced to new concepts, they get a big fatty definition first, some time to recover, and then four weeks later the actually sensible way to approach the topic.

This is one of the possible reasons that some topics may be much more difficult in some countries, with the equivalent curriculum.

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