I Told my Students That The Assignment Would be Challenging

Every semester, I get the same question from my students: “Will the assignment be easy?”. Many Professors get annoyed at this question. I have heard many comments along the lines of “When will the lazy students put on some effort? I’m not going to make it easy for them!”.

And when the students ask, Professors remember the assignment they crafted, and often say: “It will be easy if you study”. I have a different point of view -even when students study, in many cases, the assignments will still be challenging. So when they ask me, I tell them “No, it [the assignment] will be hard”. And I say that even when I crafted it to be (in my opinion) easy and suitable for their level of knowledge.

Why? Well, let me tell you a story.

It was my first semester, the second week (or so) of the first year of my undergrad. I had attended the Lecture and wrote diligent notes (i.e. five pages of excruciatingly detailed handwritten notes). I had also revised the content before the Tutorial. Nevertheless, when the practice sheet was released during Tutorial time, I felt panic. I had all of the concepts in my mind, my very detailed notes, and yet no idea on how to start solving the sheet.

But eventually, the practice sheets stopped being “scary”. And several years later, when I was reorganising the boxes of notebooks from my undergrad, I found those sheets again. I browsed a bit and chuckled when I remembered how hard they seemed to be back then. Now, the knowledge of how to solve them was natural (and even basic!) for me.

But that wasn’t my “waking point” in this topic. When I was around my fourth year (my Engineering degree was five-years long), I was waiting at a bus station when I saw a friend’s sister waiting there. She was also studying the same career but was only in the second year. Polite small-talk ensued until she started complaining about a programming assignment. I don’t remember the specifics, but she described this convoluted solution that had required far more time than the allocated by the Professor. But when she asked my take on the problem, I offered a concise and simple solution, achievable in a couple of lines of code.

Of course, she was stunned and “didn’t think about it before”. And while the assignment had been troublesome to her, after four years, it was relatively easy to me. Was that because of the technical knowledge only? I don’t think so. My friend’s sister was very competent, but she was still a junior programmer, facing those problems for the same time.

Fast forward to current times, when I see the students facing a piece of assignment or practice sheet. They had a single lecture, possibly quick-read the material, and when they scan the sheet, they panic because they don’t know how to solve it. Add to the mix the instructor claiming “it is easy, you should know how to do it”. What is the first thing students think? “I’m useless”, “This career path is not for me”, and the classic “I’m not good enough”.

I believe that this is a complex problem caused by intertwined reasons. Let me elaborate first.

  1. Students are Expected to Know. We teach students not to fail -that they are expected to know. But we don’t tell them that the knowledge is acquired while walking the long road of the course. We don’t tell them that yes, after 20+ years of experience, there are things that you -o mighty Professor- still don’t know. Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating for free-passing students that don’t meet the bare minimum knowledge. I’m stating that we should teach them to be comfortable with not knowing, and prepare them on how to learn.
  2. Experience can Wash Away the Complexity. We forget the pressure they feel. I’ve been there. Probably, you’ve been there as well. You read it, and think “but I should know this!”. And when that dread settles in, regaining enough clarity of mind to produce a high-quality solution is tricky. You need professional experience to go over that situation, to brush off the moment of not-understanding. But our undergrads are juniors on their field: they haven’t learnt (yet!) how to overcome that.
  3. Students don’t know how to “troubleshoot” themselves out of a problem they don’t understand. As seniors (or more senior than them), we assume that we can solve something. We recognise that it is okay not to understand it with a first, quick read. We no longer get alarmed over that fact. We probably have some internal “steps” that we follow to work through that. These steps can be learned or developed from our own personal experience. But then again, an undergrad doesn’t know those steps yet: we never taught them and never allowed them to learn them either!

So when my students gasped at my confession that the assignment would be, indeed, challenging, I explained my reasoning. I told them it was going to be hard because they will be facing that topic for the first time in a marked assignment. That they will feel pressured about getting it right, and that all of that will affect their concentration. That even if they practised enough, having a strict time limit would make that even more difficult. And that it would make them nervous.

But honestly? Between you and me? The assignment was easy. It was straightforward, and every item was walking them right through the solution. They just had to study the topic and prepare. But I acknowledged their problems. I didn’t brush them off.

And after the submission, one student contacted me and thanked me. I was puzzled, but he thanked me for “understanding their point of view”. Because if I had said that the assignment was easy, that would’ve translated as more pressure for them -it is easy, and you don’t know it. I would’ve been saying “you are not enough”.

Yes, of course. Some students don’t even bother reviewing the lectures or practice the topics, and they will complain anyway. And there are those others that have a natural talent and quickly produce very advanced solutions. But those are the exception, not the rule. I’m discussing the average undergrad that studies and puts effort but still faces some issues.

We can encourage them to learn those steps needed to overcome the “I’m not understanding”-moment. And doing that requires an effortless thing on our side: acknowledging their problems. It is just a matter of being willing to stand in their shoes, just for a little.

PhD on Software Engineering. Academic at RMIT University. (Australia). Soft Eng, Agile, TechDebt. Operational Research enthusiast. Assoc Editor for rOpenSci.