Some students told me that computer science is too difficult; other complained that software engineering is too demanding with so many things to do. Sometime the difficulty comes from what students believe about the subject whether they think it is hard or easy. Some students find all science courses difficult when others struggle in just few courses. From the faculty's point of view, many professors do not understand why students think the courses they are teaching are difficult. Many forget that the reason they teach math because they love mathematics or they teach economics because they love those theories. It was obvious about what they love so they do not understand why students think these subjects are difficult?

After many years of teaching, I think students who find it is hard because of their lack of prerequisite foundation. If they did not do well on that subject in high school, they may not like it in college. It is their bad experiences, their attitudes about the subject, and their beliefs about themselves that make the learning difficult. However, it is also possible that the ways we teach can make it difficult for them too. What makes a subject difficult for students may not be that the field is complex, but it could be about the materials that we teach make students find it difficult. My questions are how do we know which reasons and what can we do to help students overcome the difficulty in learning the subject?

I think we need to spend more time finding out what students know and do not know when they first enter our classrooms. We need to go over the basic foundation first to make sure that everybody is on the same level before we start with the course materials. Another way is to ask them to see if anyone need help, we can set aside some time to help them rebuild their foundation or possible recommend them to take remedial courses. If we are sincere and direct, they will understand. I often told them: “I love to have you in my class and I like to see that you succeed. This course requires a lot of math, especially calculus. I think if you would take the foundation of calculus course before taking this course you would do very well.” Or “I am willing to spend the next two weeks to review basic foundations, anyone who need help please come to see me after class for tutorial. I like to see all of you do well in this course.”

There is often a gap between what professors think students should know and what they really do know. By ensure that everybody has the same level of knowledge will help the course proceeds much better. Sometime when professors find out how much students do not know, they are frustrated since there are a lot of materials to cover for the course and then they need to support those who do not have the needed knowledge. Many would refuse to do that and rather fail the students than help them since there are others that need to learn in class. However by doing that, they make students feel that they are failures and eventually hate the subject.

When I was young, I did not like math. One high school teacher did make a difference in my life. She was willing to spend extra time to help me after class. She gave me several exercises from easy to hard to rebuild my foundation. She often encourages me by saying: “I know you are smart, I know you can do this and just put in additional efforts you will do fine.” Because of her extra efforts, I did well in math and science and eventually become a scientist. I owed everything to her and since then I believe that teachers can make a difference in students' lives as well as make a difference in the world. That is why I also become a teacher.

I know that it is not easy to teach a class when students' levels are not the same. It is also much easier to teach in college than in high schools or elementary schools where there is a much wider gap in student's knowledge and motivation. In college, students are already selected but there are still some gaps and it is the professors' role to fill those gaps. I think with extra efforts from both teachers and students, we can all overcome these obstacles and make learning a more pleasant experience. Together, we all can make a difference in the world.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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