Q&A: Should You Tell Students How Difficult You Think a Problem Is?

by Justin Skycak on

Cross-posted from here.


Is it worthwhile for the instructor to indicate to students where the work they are asking them to do falls on a scale of difficulty?


I would say so. One of the things I learned from experience while teaching was that the better I can communicate to students what an intended learning experience should feel like for them, the smoother it will run, and the quicker we can identify any issues that would otherwise slide under the radar. This is especially true in an online course.

For instance, one time I assigned about 15 exercises to be completed for homework, with each exercise intended to take a minute or two. But I didn’t explicitly tell this to the students. While most students completed the work just fine, there was one student who became concerned about the workload of the course. Upon further investigation, it turned out that they had a misconception about what was covered during class and spent hours trying to solve the problems in a weird convoluted way. I asked why they didn’t just post on the class forum to get help, and they said they didn’t realize they were going about it wrong. From that point onward, if I ever assigned exercises that were meant to be quick, I explicitly told the students “if you find yourself working on any of these exercises for more than 5 minutes, and definitely if it’s more than 10 minutes, then you’ve probably got a misconception that is causing you to go about it wrong and you should ask for help so that you don’t waste time grinding away unproductively.”

Of course, if you tell students not to spend too long on some exercises, you’ll also need to give them a heads up when they are expected to spend a longer time on a problem, otherwise they might misunderstand and ask for help too early.

Basically, it’s good to give students an idea of how long they should wrestle with a problem before asking for help. This will prevent them from wasting their time (grinding away unproductively), and also from wasting your time (asking for help too early).