Oberlin Blogs

Is College Hard?

June 6, 2011

Tess Yanisch ’13

One of the things high school students hear most often is that college-level work is a lot more demanding than high school assignments. Certain schools have reputations for being "harder" than others. Even in college, one of the questions people ask each other around class registration times, along with "You took this, right? How's the professor?" and "Was it interesting?" is, "Is it a hard class?"

What exactly does this mean, though? I can't speak for anyone except myself, but I consider a class "hard" if the concepts are stubbornly elusive--if you just can't wrap your brain around some part of it. A class that requires a lot of memorization can be hard, too, in a slightly different way. When there's so much information that it's difficult to absorb, retaining anything is actually pretty hard.

Most of the time, when someone calls a class "hard," I think they're referring to the time and energy they need to put into it to comprehend the subject matter and/or get a good grade. Classes with a lot of reading or many essays are "hard" under this definition. But this is subjective and varies from person to person. For certain people, string theory may be intuitive, even easy, so they wouldn't view problem sets requiring higher-dimensional math to be very hard. (These people are mutants. Awesome mutants, and given that I live on Sci-Fi Hall I probably know some of them, but that's just strange.) Other people might find theories of behavioral attribution to reflect common sense or might happen to enjoy researching differences in ethics between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. (I am one of this breed of weirdos.) That kind of interest makes a class seem easier and an individual assignment actually go faster.

In fact, I would propose that interest level affects how willing one is to work at a subject, how quickly one learns it, and how long one retains it. This is based only off my own subjective experience, of course, but I find that when I don't care about something as much, there's some kind of mental block in place--I am less willing to settle down, to really come to grips with the material, to wholly engage with what I'm supposed to be learning. I'll study, all right, and I'll probably get a good grade out of it, but I can tell that my comprehension is at a shallower level.

It also depends on what else you have going on, which affects the resources of time and energy you can easily commit to your work. I spent much of my first semester in a state of mild perplexity, thinking, "I thought college was supposed to be hard...." Part of it was, almost certainly, due to the particular classes I was taking. But I think it also mattered that I had a lot of free time. I was involved in a certain number of organized programs, but I hadn't yet carved out my friend group and so didn't have time eaten up by hanging out with people. (I think the traditional freshman-year route to making friends is to spend lots of time in large groups of people until you find the ones you're most comfortable with. But I was rather easily overwhelmed as a freshman, and as a result I kinda did it backwards--stumbling onto a small group I liked, meeting their acquaintances, and branching out from there. It's like Mom said about remodeling the kitchen: now that I've done it, I know how I should've started.)

The point of this introspection is to explain that, for my first semester, I didn't have an organic social life, and hence no serious distractions from academics. (Perhaps this means my college experience had not truly begun--but that begs the question of the purpose of college, which is a topic for another blog.) In any case, I was mystified to realize that I felt like I was spinning my wheels. At least one of my friends reported a similar sensation during his first semester, so perhaps this is common, at least among introverts.

Since then, something must have amped up, because I don't have that feeling anymore. What exactly changed is hard to say. I'm taking more upper-level courses, certainly, and they are at the very least more time-consuming than my first-semester classes. It's probably me as much as the coursework, though--while I'm still compulsive about getting work done first, I've found my social niche and am quite busy just with filling it.


So: is Oberlin hard? That depends on your goal and the classes you take. If you want to learn things thoroughly and you take classes that interest you, you might find yourself putting in a lot of time and energy, but enjoying the work. If there is a minimum of hoop-jumping, you've managed your time well, and you feel that what you're doing is useful, you probably won't feel that your classes are hard, just time-consuming.

I will say that the pace is much, much faster in college than in high school, but it's mostly notable in comparison. For example, my A.P. Statistics class was by no means boring; I worked hard in the class the whole year and was quite proud of my four on the A.P. test. In the first three weeks of Research Methods, we covered at least half of that same material. The pace didn't feel grueling in the slightest--we just spent a day or so on what would have been a full curricular unit in high school, then moved on to the next. I found my old stats notes this summer and cooed, "Aww! Baby statistics!" (We didn't even know ANOVAs then--how quaint.)

If your goal is to get good grades, "hard" depends on your department. In my Research Methods class last fall, Professor Nancy Darling showed us a spreadsheet with the number of grades of each level given out by every academic department at Oberlin. Grade inflation differs sharply by major. For instance, nearly everyone in the Archaeology department got A's during whichever semester these data were drawn from. We looked at the breakdown of grade percentages and noticed an interesting pattern. For classes that were in departments whose required-for-the-major classes satisfied Oberlin's Quantitative Proficiency requirements, the distribution of grades was usually much closer to a normal curve, with the average grade being a C or low B, than classes in other departments. These are what Professor Darling called the "science classes," though it also included the math and psychology departments. (For example, the psychology major satisfies the quantitative proficiency requirement, because of the two Research Methods statistical courses required for the major, and grades in the psychology department showed fairly little inflation.)

Does this mean that those classes are actually "harder"? It's difficult to say. (Notice a recurring theme here?) It's harder to get an A, certainly, but why is that? It could be that the departmental ethic of these departments is such that the professors prefer to grade on a curve set by the average performance of the students. It could be due to the fact that the more objective nature of these subjects lets professors set a decisive rubric for grading--right or wrong answers are fairly obvious in physics or biology--while professors in, say, Creative Writing must necessarily be more subjective.

On the other hand, I can say that my friends in the biology and biochem departments--some of the smartest people I know--have been seriously challenged by some of their classes on a level that I simply haven't encountered. I don't think I'm staggeringly more organized or more brilliant than any of them, so maybe their classes are "harder" somehow. (They certainly seem to require more memorization.) Sometimes, strangely enough, I am envious. I have not had a class that pushed me to the breaking point, to where I felt like I was struggling just to pass, and I kind of wish I would. Part of this is my own competitive spirit on behalf of my major, because if it chews me up, they'll have to admit psychology is a real science, not an easy fluff alternative. (Picture me staggering into lunch after an all-nighter waving some Great Insightful Term Paper in someone's face. "Explaining human behavior is just as hard as rearranging molecules, see?!" I croak before collapsing. They read the paper and weep at its beauty.) Some of it is an egoistic need to prove to myself that my other grades aren't just a fluke or a product of grade inflation and that the college I'm going to is genuinely challenging. And a certain element of me wants to know that I can take a really hard class--one where achievement isn't a linear function of time input and comprehension is an uphill battle--and come through it.

That hasn't happened yet, perhaps because I'm good at making lots of time for work and have a knack for interesting myself in whatever I'm working on. Having written as much publicly, now, I'm sure I've tempted fate, and the other shoe will drop--heavily--next semester. I hope I'll be prepared for it.

So again, is Oberlin hard, and if so, why? I would say that in my experience, classes at Oberlin are well-taught and there's a good support network, with professors, T.A.s, and tutors available for questions, and that if you use your time and resources well you will thrive. However, the most comprehensive answer I can give, in true liberal arts fashion, is, "It depends."

Responses to this Entry

I've now read through this post twice, and think you manage to almost fully cover a very subjective phrase "hard" in a very objective way. Congrats!

I will be finishing a post very soon on the most difficult (or hardest) class I took at Oberlin (but that doesn't mean I didn't learn from it). You're inspiring me :D

Future Obies, take note: these conversation happen all the time. Know that when you ask, "Is this class/professor/major hard?" you'll be getting a wide range of answers.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on June 7, 2011 4:53 PM

Thanks, Ma'ayan! I'll look forward to your post. :)

Posted by: Tess on June 7, 2011 4:58 PM

I would love to see that chart on grade inflation!

Posted by: Cam on June 8, 2011 7:54 PM

It wasn't a chart, just an enormous spreadsheet. Unfortunately, I don't have it. (If I had, believe me, I would've made charts and graphs and put them in the post!)

Posted by: Tess on June 8, 2011 8:07 PM

Hi Lace,

By all means come to Oberlin! There are psych majors who procrastinate a lot more than me. I'm actually sort of compulsive and not perfectly representative of the typical Oberlin Psychology Major in all respects.

Conducting research isn't necessarily required for any psych class. (It is for some of them, like child development, but you can choose not to take them if you want.) Sleep deprivation is likewise not required; I am good at managing my time and have rarely gone to bed late or gotten up early because of homework. (Sleep deprivation has ensued following nights of talking, reading, card-playing, watching The Colbert Report, and having Nerf gun fights, however.)

If you want to be a research assistant, just talk to any of the professors. My research-assistant-ness hasn't been carrying out any projects on campus, though; it's analyzing data collected eight years ago when my professor was at another college. It's a serious bucketload of data. Basically we're watching videotaped interactions and coding behavior on a number of dimensions. (I will probably write a detailed post about this later on.) We also have personality-test data on all participants. At the end of last year, we finally began running some basic statistical tests. One of the people in my group used it as her senior honors project.

For Social Psych, we had to do mini-experiments on our own. You could design your own or choose from a list. I did one where I found twenty people and had them read a description of a person and rate this person on a number of characteristics (numbered scales from dependent to independent, warm to cold, gentle to stern, etc.). There were actually two descriptions, identical except for one feature. Other people who chose the project changed race, age, sexual orientation, gender, etc. I changed social class--one description said the person had a Ph.D. and worked at a university and the other said she had a high school diploma and worked as a receptionist. Then I ran a few quick stats tests on them to see if there were meaningful differences. This didn't take long and was actually very interesting. The most procrastination-inducing thing was finding the twenty people to take the questionnaire! I eventually just accosted people in the library and dining hall.

This is my only blog right now, sorry! I'm glad you like it, though. :)

I hope this helps! Reply to this post or e-mail me (just click my name on this reply, I think) if you still have any questions.

Posted by: Tess on August 9, 2011 11:37 PM

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