Why College Teaching is Difficult

College Teaching is a Difficult Task: Why College Teachers need help if they are to be Effective Facilitators of Students’ Learning.

The following are ten reasons why college teaching is such a difficult task to do well. I put this list together not as a convenient list of excuses to use when assessment rolls around but rather, the list is a powerful set of reason why colleges and universities must help their faculty (much more than they do) to learn how to facilitate students’ learning. Becoming an effective teacher is simply too difficult a task to figure out on our own, even when we are willing to try.

1.    We don’t just teach content. College teaching is about helping students become well educated, contributing members of society capable of working professionally or prepared to further advance their education in graduate school.

This means we teach:

A.    Skills—including reading, writing, speaking listening, collaborating, cooperating, presenting, performing.

B.    Behaviors—including those associated with their professional goals, community involvement, civil engagement and adulthood.

C.    Content—subject matter

D.    Thinking—including critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving and thinking like a subject matter person (i.e. think like a chemist)

This kind of teaching requires great planning. When each aspect of what is taught is designed to do multiple things the planning process takes great care and thought.

2.    All knowledge is embedded in other knowledge. If teachers are to be successful they must find ways to connect what they are teaching to the background knowledge of their students. This means they must first find out what background knowledge their students have gained and then determine which analogies, examples or metaphors best connect to their students’ experiences. As students are impacted by the current popular culture and by changes in the traditional family structures they may not arrive with background experiences traditionally seen in previous groups of new students.

3.    Most college faculty were not educated to be teachers. Teaching is a highly challenging job for the best prepared professionals given how few aspects of the learning process are really within the control of the teacher—after all it is the students that do the leaning. Most colleges,  with some exceptions, place only limited value on  the teaching skills of their new hires, do not  place great value on great teaching in the promotion and tenure process, offer little support, time and money for those interested in becoming better teachers—all of which are needed to learn new methods and approaches to teaching. Most institutions of higher education make their decisions about teaching and students’ learning based on economics not on what will create effective student learning otherwise why teachers would see students only 3 of the 168 hours each week (or1.7% of the time for a 3 credit class) in class.

4.    Teachers control very little of the learning process. Although most faculty make nearly all of the decisions related to what happens in their courses ( not really helpful to students’ learning) they really can’t “make” learning happen for their students.

First, most learning happens outside the classroom when students chose to spend the time and practice needed to form more permanent neural networks— reading, thinking, reflecting, observing and writing. Whether or not students do these things is out of the teacher’s control.

Second, the desire to learn a particular content is a personal choice the student makes each day. This desire is impacted by so many factors that are beyond the teacher’s control including the  student’s emotional state, interest, importance of the material to them, relevance of the material,  and home life.

Third, is the background of the students. This includes his/her genetics, life experiences, and depth and breadth of previous schooling.

5.    Time to teach is very limited. A three hour per week college class engages the student learner exactly 1.7% of their time each week. That is all the time allocated to explain complex, difficult to understand concepts and ideas, discuss these ideas, take questions about these ideas, administrate the course/class activities and evaluate what learning has taken place. By contrast high school students are in each of their classes five hours per-week or .029% of the time.

6.    Learning is a social/emotional experience. Most learning outside of formal schooling happens in a community context—with friends, family, church, teams, clubs, organizations etc.(John Brandsford, 2000, How People Learn). Being effective in creating a classroom community that can take advantage of the natural ways in which humans’ learn is difficult even for well trained teachers. It takes skill, time, interest, risk and commitment if it is to be done well.

Teachers teach the whole person not just the cognitive mind.

7.    Helping learners to unlearn behaviors, concepts, ideas and beliefs that are in error is more difficult but necessary, than teaching students new learning (Starbuck, 1996). The neural-networks that students form from ages 0-18 can be powerful and not easily given over to new ideas and beliefs. This can be even a greater problem with non-traditional aged students.

8.    The range of the learners’ abilities from low to high, the differing styles of learning, and amount of interest/motivation a person has  for learning that can be present in any given classroom makes providing learning opportunities to all students difficult and in some cases nearly impossible to do well.(Caine and Caine 1995).
There are no magic solutions to meeting the needs of all of your students. Institutions with narrow ranges of abilities make for the likelihood of better teaching as one size often fits all.  Institutions that have a 30-40 percentile gap on the SAT or ACT between their low and high students face a tremendous challenge in the classroom.

9.    Most college students have grown up in a sense-luscious, media based culture, and it is difficult to offer students, in a traditional college classroom, a visual learning experience that competes with what they are use to (Gentile, D. A. & Walsh, D. A. 1999).

Humans are visual learners. Perhaps as much as 70% of the sensory cortex of a human brain is just the visual cortex. Images are the easiest things for the brain to remember and are central to the brain’s learning processes. Humans can switch to a brain video of their life anytime they like (A. Damasio, 1999).

Finding and developing media and visual learning tools takes time and effort if they    are to be effective tools in promoting the learning of course content.

10. Entering college students have 12 years of neuronal networks developed for school. This means they have likely developed very exacting beliefs about how teaching and learning should take place. When they experience changes in these expectations they often find them unpleasant, difficult and share their disapproval with the teacher.

This makes it harder for teachers to incorporate new methods that are more in harmony with current brain based learning theory. Teachers often get lower ratings from students when they implement new methods and approaches to teaching.


  1. This makes so much sense! Regardless of the little visual learning I have received from K – 12 grade, I am almost a complete visual learner. I can still learn non-visual, but that has to be a one on one thing. No wonder some teachers in my perception were not very desirable and I’d try to avoid them for future classes… What bothers me the most though, is I’m so confused right now when it comes to a career path. I just don’t know anything in particular that tickles my fancy….Sometimes, I hate being a well-rounded person who is only somewhat decent at everything he does.

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  3. Great article.

  4. I’m a college teacher…I really agree on these…The greatest challenges I’m experiencing right now is having extremes students. There are few smart students combined to slow learners students..If I teach fast, some students complain..If I teach slowly, the geeks gets bored and underestimating my capacity as a teacher..OMG!

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