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Something I hear from students about certain instructors is a complaint that the instructor "makes the course harder than it has to be" or some variation. I'm a postdoc and my students generally really like me. I hear them say this about other instructors and I'm just curious, what is going on? I read it on ratemyprofessor or reviews of other instructors, or overhead students saying this.

The easy explanation is "the student is lazy" but I don't buy this. I generally agree with the students that the instructors they dislike aren't great instructors.

It seems to be closer to saying "the instructor is unclear". What is an example of an instructor "making something harder than it needs to be"?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 7, 2022 at 17:48

12 Answers 12

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Presumably what they mean is that the explanations of the course material are able to be understood, but they are harder to understand than alternative explanations or modes of teaching which would impart the same material in an easier way. Asserting that a course is harder "than it needs to be" generally means that you think the same learning could be accomplished with less effort and difficulty if it were presented in a better way.

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    OR that this much learning would not benefit you in a meaningful way, teaching quantum chemistry to sociologists or sociology to chemists tends to result in the university version of "I won't need trigonometry in real life". A perception of "this course does not have to go this deep, just teach us the basics and give us a passing grade for the credits" is not that uncommon, at least in weaker programs.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:20
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    Exactly, and to give an example: I myself have had many occasions where my professor's explanations seemed like - sorry to say - mumbo jumbo to me, compared to some YouTuber's that I watched afterwards. Oh how this one particular YT channel saved my theoretical computer science exam ... Dec 6, 2022 at 12:24
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    I think it's worth adding that sometimes students are correct when they say that a lecturer makes something harder than it needs to be, but also sometimes they are incorrect - not about how hard the lecturer makes it, of course, but about how hard it needs to be. "I found an easier to understand explanation elsewhere" may mean the explanation elsewhere is wrong or incomplete. As a lecturer, when something feels like it should be easier than it really is, it may be worth explaining why the easier approach doesn't work, so the students can see the point in doing it the hard way.
    – kaya3
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:29
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    @kaya3 It also sometimes means that a particular student learns better in a different way - sometimes the match between student and professor just isn't good, and it is through no fault of either party.
    – Zibbobz
    Dec 6, 2022 at 14:21
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    One of the most important skills of a lecturer is to understand how students might misunderstand, and avoid it. These are often trivial confusions. At research-focused institutes, lecturers spend their time working with those who already well understand. They have little experience with traps for those new to material. This can make them poor lecturers. Sheepdogs spend most of their time and expertise on errant sheep: a dog trained on excellent sheep will be poor. Such lecturers are only capable of teaching good students, making the material hard due to trivial teaching-mistakes in material.
    – Dannie
    Dec 7, 2022 at 12:20
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The fundamental reason is that the student is unhappy. But why they are unhappy could be one or more of the following, at least.

  1. Instructor doesn't explain things clearly.

  2. Instructor gives more detail than necessary.

  3. Too much homework.

  4. Homework not very useful.

  5. Instructor won't take questions.

  6. Instructor takes too much time with questions.

  7. Instructor follows the book too closely.

  8. Instructor doesn't seem to use the book.

  9. Exams are too hard.

  10. Exams are just wasting my time.

  11. I hate group projects.

  12. I hate solo projects.

You get the idea, I hope. Everyone that says this probably has a different reason. You can add your own. Stop when you get to 100, if you like.

Note that the statement about "harder than it needs to be" gives no information about why. That requires further exploration in the individual case or evidence from other student comments. If student comments have some consistency then they may have some validity.

Moreover, students aren't always the best judge of this in any case and their real meaning may just be "harder than I'd like it to be". Some things are hard. And in some fields (math, say) insight may only come through hard work.

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    100: I hate lists that go to 100. 101: I hate lists that don't stop at 100.
    – WernerCD
    Dec 6, 2022 at 13:23
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    89: My professor used 89% confident/credible intervals which made my life harder
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 6, 2022 at 15:19
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    @PLL, yes, I agree that the statement about "harder than it needs to be" gives no information about why. That requires further exploration in the individual case or evidence from other student comments. If student comments have some consistency then they may have some validity. Moreover, students aren't always the best judge of this in any case and their real meaning is "harder than I'd like it to be". Some things are hard. (added this to the answer)
    – Buffy
    Dec 6, 2022 at 20:32
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    To your list we can add "internet+Dr Fox effect" i.e. friendly, easy-seeming explanations about on the web. Students flock to them. More often than not, the easier explanation gets its victory by sweeping important details under the carpet. The student might conclude that the instructor made things harder than they needed to be.
    – Deipatrous
    Dec 7, 2022 at 9:33
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    I feel like this answer is correct and not complete. It’s unfortunate that most student evaluations are merely rants or praise correlated with the grade the student earned, but that doesn’t mean all of them are. The asker is trying to make an honest effort to take evaluations at face value and see if any useful feedback can be gleaned from them. This answer could possibly be summarized as saying "there’s no useful information in them", which might be usually true or true in a lot of specific cases, but I don’t feel like searching for meaning should be so quickly dismissed. Dec 7, 2022 at 15:40
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This can also relate to the scope of the course. During my bachelors, my school offered two versions of introductory statistics: one for math/applied math majors or anyone looking to take further statistics classes, and one intended as a capstone intro for majors who need to know practical statistics. However, for a period of about two years, the capstone course was taught by a professor who disagreed with this philosophy, and taught the capstone intro like it was the advanced intro. This introduced a lot of complex proofs and caused him to run out of time to cover all the practical statistical tests that were supposed to be covered.

This prompted widespread student complaints that he made the course "harder than it needed to be," because in this case the "need" was defined by the fact that this course was developed for a specific audience/scope which he ignored.

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"Making the course harder than it has to be" relates mostly to how the content is taught in class.

This can be due to a number of things on a course-wide scale or simply down to how individual lectures or topics are lain out.

Overall this may be due to poor perspective on the part of the professor. He/she never really overviewed the course content from the viewpoint of an incoming student who has all prerequisite courses successfully completed and then structured the lectures accordingly.

On a single lecture basis, it usually means a professor not arranging their lecture in a pedagogically appropriate way, i.e. building on the concepts already known to students and guiding them rationally and sensibly towards their next concept plateau.

But occasionally it also means the professor's delivery of the lecture leaves the students with misunderstandings on the concepts, their relative importance or offers ideas that run counter to the student's intuition or common sense. Here there are different causes, including:

  1. The professor may have a natural insight into this concept and assume everyone else also has - though of course they don't.

  2. The professor himself/herself has a poor grasp of the concept and is just trying to bang home some (often poor) textbook version of it with a hammer and tongs.

  3. The professor's pacing, tone and volume is not proportionate to the importance or complexity of the current content.

  4. The professor has very poor vocal projection.

  5. The professor chooses an unorthodox (e.g. interactive) approach to a topic that doesn't lend itself to such teaching.

I would say that every professor has one or two of these shortcomings when they start out in their career. To my knowledge, no university insists on professors having to take a teaching course prior to starting lecturing themselves. Yet most learn from their mistakes and the advice of senior colleagues. Many take student observations seriously (after an initial sulk) and adapt their approaches accordingly. But some will maddeningly carry on regardless and neither colleagues nor university management will intervene.

Just one final point on "making courses harder".

The best way to teach something is the clearest way from the point of view of someone not yet familiar with it. Sometimes students (and adults no less) in the euphoria of achievement can forget just how lost they were before they "got" the concept. They then have the confidence to look at the concept in another way and find they can arrive at an understanding - actually quicker, providing you already know of course - by looking at it like that. Then they try explaining it another student in "their own" way - only to thoroughly confuse that student.

Sometimes it's well to remember that the first working out of something is necessarily elaborate rather than elegant. Lessons learned with a bit of work and worry are seldom forgotten - unlike the tricks of elegance.

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    This. The only answer here that actually answers the question. Why the question is allowed to stand is another matter.
    – andy256
    Dec 6, 2022 at 21:49
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    I attended lectures at UCL where my friend would even fall asleep because of the lack of any emotion or volume in the voice of the lecturer (although English was not his first language to be fair).
    – Tom
    Dec 7, 2022 at 11:22
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    I know. Just lately I sat in on an open day by a new philosophy department. 2 lectures from 2 lecturers. One Scottish who was essentially speaking nicely to herself in the presence of a class - one strained to hear; and another from Mexico who hit the back wall with every word he spoke - one could devote 90% of one's mind to considering the merits of what he discussed. Why oh why won't universities provide more training in projection to their staff . . .
    – Trunk
    Dec 7, 2022 at 12:48
  • This. The only answer here that actually answers the question. This is, like, your opinion, man. Which is totally valid. I find this answer not wrong per se, just a little one-sided. That's why we have a voting system on SE... let's see who wins. ;) @andy256
    – AnoE
    Dec 8, 2022 at 14:11
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Sometimes this happens when a student has prior experience, and success, in a subject from a high school course. In the US, Advanced Placement courses are marketed as equivalent to introductory college courses, but college instructors covering the same syllabus will take quite a different approach than high school teachers.

As an example: in single-variable calculus we teach the concept of the derivative as a limit of difference quotients, use the limit to prove theorems about the derivative, and ask students exam questions requiring this conceptual understanding. In a high school class, there may be more class time spent on the literal "calculus" of derivatives with the power rule, product rule, quotient rule, etc.

A student may have succeeded in this high school class, thanks to the extra time spent with in class with the instructor, and the focus on mechanics over concepts. They may find that the college version, comparatively, spends "too much" time on ideas that they feel aren't relevant since they weren't relevant in the high school version. From their point of view, the college instructor transformed a subject they found easy in high school into one which they currently find hard. Hence, "harder than it needs to be."

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    This was EXACTLY the example I was thinking of as I was reading through the question, comments, and answers (my first visit to Academia today, U.S. time). I've often had students approach me after class meeting, in a U.S. Calculus 1 course when we spend one or two class meetings evaluating derivatives "the long way" (better is "by the definition as a limit") -- low degree polynomials, square root of 1st degree polys, quotients of 1st degree polys. They explain how their high school teacher had taught them an easier way to do these and would it be OK for them to use the easier way . . . Dec 6, 2022 at 19:12
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    (continuation) Of course, this isn't a legitimate example where a teacher is making the subject too difficult, at least not unless the teacher harps on it way too long as would be appropriate for the course (and "appropriate" differs according as to whether it's calculus for biology/business majors, calculus for physical science majors, honors level calculus). That said, I've certainly encountered teachers who make a course more difficult than it needs to be, and this has sometimes included myself upon later reflection after my first time in teaching some topic. Dec 6, 2022 at 19:18
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    This was, more or less, what I was gearing up to say. To offer an anecdote: I once taught an intro calc class which included a physics major in his senior year who had gotten placed out of calc via AP testing (placement, but not credit). He figured that the class was going to be an easy A, and he wanted to bring up his GPA. About three or four weeks in, after spending some time on limits, we get to the derivative, and I have them compute d/dx (x^n) for n=1,2,3,4. (con't) Dec 6, 2022 at 23:20
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    (con't) This is a somewhat tedious, but not terribly difficult computation. About 10 minutes into it, this guy looks at me like I am an idiot, and says, "You know, there's a shortcut. You just bring the exponent down and subtract one." After some conversation, I told him that we couldn't just apply rules like this without first understanding them, and that we would get to the power rule in a week or two (after a quick discussion of induction). I am sure that this student thought I was making the class far harder than it needed to be. Dec 6, 2022 at 23:21
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    I'm not surprised many users have experienced this from the teaching side! I think it comes down to the student's misconception that the course's goals are primarily calculating. This is true for many math courses up to that point in their lives. So it helps to be clear about the goals, both on the first day and any time theory is being discussed. Dec 8, 2022 at 10:26
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I've had something like this where the instructor was teaching a course in his field of expertise to a group of students completely new to the subject. But due to his extensive expertise and knowledge of the area he didn't cover the fundamentals well and just glossed over them, because for him it was so obvious it didn't really need explaining. He also used a lot of jargon he was familiar with but we were unaware of, as a result a lot of students got lost at the very start as he jumped into the more difficult stuff too early. He made the course more difficult than it needed to be by not taking the time to understand the level of the students he was teaching and jumping into material that was more advanced too early, using unfamiliar jargon and not taking the time to cover the fundamentals properly.

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  • "he didn't cover the fundamentals" Were there prerequisite courses that the students were supposed to take before taking this course?
    – Nobody
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:26
  • It reminded me of "Applied Stochastic Processes with Applications in Finance" course @Nobody. Turned out not to be applied and full of measure theoretic stuff.
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 6, 2022 at 12:42
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    @Nobody yes there were and all students had to take it to progress to this course, the prerequisite course did not cover the material this instructor glossed over in any detail, other than mentioning that we'll be learning about these methods in the next course.
    – Dave
    Dec 6, 2022 at 13:44
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    I've encountered this situation a lot with my at-home contract work. I'll have an online meeting about a certain software tool. It starts with a rapid succession of mouse clicks and menu selections that no one can follow. Then there's way too much time spent on the actual content-knowledge task I'm to do. When it comes time to do it myself, I find it's like not knowing how to open a door to a room, within which is a wall (that I don't know which) that has several shelves (I don't know which) . . . all the time was spent telling me what to do on that shelf, and I can't even get into the room. Dec 6, 2022 at 19:38
  • This is the only answer that mentions jargon. I think every field has it's own jargon to puff itself up and seem more science-y. Excessive use of jargon in an introductory course would certainly make things more difficult than they needed to be.
    – bfris
    Dec 7, 2022 at 21:21
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When I was an undergrad, professors that I thought "make the course harder than it needs to be" were brilliant people who weren't good at teaching. They didn't use appropriate textbooks, or they skipped their own office hours, or they provided no feedback on assignments, etc.

As an example, I had a math professor who spent every class period delivering his lecture while faced away from the class, writing on the chalkboard. He didn't assign a textbook. He never made his lecture notes available online. He would not let students take photos of the chalkboard. We spent our classes frantically transcribing his notes, scribbling down anything seemingly-important from his lecture, and occasionally asking for notation clarification—Excuse me, professor, is that a 1 or an i? We students coped by comparing our notes and swapping textbook and youtube channel recommendations and, on the whole, we learned the material. But it was so much harder than it needed to be.

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    Had a bloke one time who came in after a 3 week January conference cum holiday. He sat down and started reading from a very opaque textbook. We soon realized that we were on our own on this topic.
    – Trunk
    Dec 7, 2022 at 17:07
  • I took a math class with a professor who did basically everything in this answer, and it immediately came to mind as a course that was "harder than it needed to be" (and pretty much the only course of that kind I could think of).
    – Esther
    Dec 8, 2022 at 20:12
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What is an example of an instructor "making something harder than it needs to be"?

I'll quote this example from personal experience, which is unfortunately not very understandable unless you are in physics.

Basically, when we study physics at high school level, we have parameters that we evolve forwards in time using known equations. For example, we could be asked to calculate a [force] that acts on [body] for [time] producing [acceleration].

Comparatively, in quantum mechanics, there are two basic approaches. The first is called the Schrödinger picture. You are given a physical state, which you evolve forwards using the Schrödinger equation. This is relatively similar to high school physics, since the operators never change, but the physical state does.

The other picture (and historically the one first discovered) is called the Heisenberg picture. In this picture, the physical state remains constant while the operators (corresponding to the things you want to measure, like position or momentum) change. There is still an analog of the Schrödinger equation, but it is for operators, not physical states.

Needless to say, for students brought up on high school physics, the Heisenberg formulation is significantly harder to grasp. It doesn't matter that the two formulations can be shown to be equivalent - the Schrödinger formulation is simply easier to understand on an intuitive level. A student who sees Heisenberg's equation of motion for the first time could legitimately go "what on Earth am I looking at? How can this possibly be a physics equation?".

When I first studied quantum mechanics, I had the misfortune of my professor using a Heisenberg picture textbook. I had all the prerequisites - linear algebra, matrix manipulations, strong elementary physics grades - and near the end of the course, I (like most other students) still had no idea what was going on. I had no physical intuition, no sense of what the math I was doing is supposed to represent. I still got an "A" for the course, but about the only thing I learned was that the professor's math is flawless.

If you teach quantum mechanics using the Heisenberg picture, I'd say you are making the course harder than it needs to be.

Edit: to add another example, consider this answer to a bridge question on Boardgames.SE (if you're not aware, bridge is a card game).

You don't need to be an expert on bridge to see why the author's teachers said not to let the author near novices. When the novice asks "what do I do with this hand?", the author is liable to respond with "well it depends on X, Y, Z, and more besides". Meanwhile the novice is looking for "the answer". With so many more things thrown on top, it rapidly becomes confusing for the novice, making the answer harder than it needs to be.

An analog in academia could be the student asking if X is true, and the teacher says "well it depends if Y, Y', Y'', Y''' are true, if none of them are true (and usually none of them are) then X is true".

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    I'm not sure about your example, and probably it's just a matter of personal preference. When I first studied QM, I was introduced to both pictures, we used one picture or another along the course, and I didn't find the Heisenberg's picture more ostile than the Schroedinger's. Dec 6, 2022 at 10:10
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    @MassimoOrtolano good for you! As I wrote, me and most other students in my class encountered significant difficulties. I was actually rather lucky, because near the end of the semester I got my hands on a book that used the Schrodinger picture, and had more sense of what was going on as a result.
    – Allure
    Dec 6, 2022 at 10:18
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It could be because of the mismatch between reality and expectation, from my experience.

When I took Linear Algebra years ago, my classmates complained that they did not understand anything. However, it was not the fault of the instructor.

The instructor chose the axiomatic method of teaching Linear Algebra instead of the "cookbook" style. As for me, the course was indeed abstract and interesting, but not difficult. However, my friends did not think about it that way, blaming the instructor instead. They had friends from other universities, for example, who told them that Linear Algebra was easy like high school mathematics. Some of them had prior learning experience with "cookbook" linear algebra. That's why many of them expected that the course would be that easy.

All of our mathematics courses were taught in axiomatic style. Not just Linear Algebra. It is just an example.

Moreover, some people are not ready to embrace the axiomatization of mathematics. Some people don't even know about the existence of axiomatic systems. Some even refuse it think about it.

Also, the seemingly, deceivingly simple nature of the real world makes some people believe that we are trying to overcomplicate things. That is not true.

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  • What do you mean by axiomatic method of teaching Linear Algebra?
    – AtilioA
    Dec 7, 2022 at 0:30
  • @AtilioA I assume it is just how to do things versus why things are the way they are. A regular math class which focuses on calculation vs math honours which focuses on proofs. I took a calculus honours course and a linear algebra course at the same time and the honours course let me understand everything but be able to calculate nothing while the linear algebra course let me calculate everything but understand nothing. Calculus would derive everything but do nothing with it while the linear algebra would throw random procedures and values (Eigen values, determinants) without explaining them
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 7, 2022 at 1:42
  • Interesting. Linear Algebra at my university is somewhat mixed between the two, maybe leaning towards proofs a bit. Calculus on the other hand is around 90% calculation/algorithms and you can pass with high scores without really understanding the underlying concepts. I have to say I prefer the former approach. It taught me to be more rigorous with mathematics.
    – AtilioA
    Dec 7, 2022 at 11:57
  • @AtilioA: To me, the axiomatic method of teaching linear algebra suggests working with abstract vector spaces, rather than focusing exclusively on a few examples of vector spaces. You can find this approach in books like Curtis's Linear Algebra: An Introductory Approach and Axler's Linear Algebra Done Right.
    – Vectornaut
    Dec 8, 2022 at 21:00
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    @Vectornaut I would like one of those as a night course for adults.
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 11, 2022 at 20:28
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Because teaching is hard, and people who are experts in a topic often aren't actually very good at passing that knowledge on.

In my experience, the biggest failing is usually due to not getting the level of detail right for the audience, and that comes down to two factors.

  1. If you don't focus enough on the things which are the building blocks for everything else they need to learn, they'll struggle to learn. An expert instructor will often gloss over important information, because to them, it's so basic that they forget it needs to be said.

  2. If you focus too much on the things which aren't fundamentals, they'll be confused and overloaded. An expert instructor will often elaborate on more advanced aspects of the field because they find it interesting, forgetting that their audience don't yet have the grounding to keep up.

Getting that balance right is one of the most critical skills for anyone doing teaching / training work.

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    agreed; and there is another facet to this. Even if the instructor correctly focuses on the indispensable building blocks, students may not yet see that yes, this will turn out to be the fulcrum for everything else, and thus feel that the instructor is wasting their time. One solution is to say regularly: this will become essential to our arguments in Lecture 6, but actually as a student I disliked this, I was like "I trust you, just get on with it"- but many of my fellow students were not like me in this regard.
    – Deipatrous
    Dec 7, 2022 at 9:38
  • Yeah, that doesn't help either... since not everyone learns effectively in the same way, some of them will find that the advanced stuff helps put the basics in context, while others will find it overwhelming. Dec 7, 2022 at 23:41
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I guess a concrete example is fine:

The definition and theory behind the derivative is considered tricky, and complicated, by students. The list of rules on how to compute the derivative is considered easy.

Students tend to prefer this is how you calculate, and solve problems on the final over this is the theoretical reason why we actually care. Students are much happier with learning to be meat computers, rather than having an actual understanding of the theory.

I think this can explain the comments on the evaluation. So, one easy way out is to always follow up theory with a concrete example where this is used, and make sure this example is from some older final. Real-world examples are much more abstract than 'the final which is gonna be in 2 weeks from now'.

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In a comment, @Garandy replied:

There's an art to teaching well that a lot of professors don't bother to learn or put into practice - making an effort to write clearly during presentations, having prepared slides when possible, utilizing real-world examples to illustrate theory, etc. Beyond that, though, there are professors that pride themselves on their class being "hard" and do nothing to make the content more accessible to students - often times because it was "hard" when they took it, and they can't fathom why their students couldn't all learn it as well as they did.

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  • @Garandy feel free to post this on your own and I'll delete this community wiki. Since it's an answer, it belongs in an answer box, and extended comment-answers have been moved or removed. Just hoping to save your content. Cheers.
    – livresque
    Dec 9, 2022 at 3:08

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