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What makes a subject hard or easy?

By Jennifer J | Sunday, July 24, 2022

What Makes a Subject Harder?

Jennifer J

What makes a subject hard or easy? At first glance, it seems that the answer is pretty straightforward. Our interests, likes, and dislikes dictate our understanding and perspective on a subject. Some find the unknown exciting no matter how hard it is to understand it. For them, it is interesting because it is hard. Others, like me, find something interesting because it is easier to comprehend.

According to a study conducted on 'perceived disparity in the difficulty of different subjects,' there are three factors that students usually use to decide which subjects they wish to pursue: Subject difficulty (perception), enjoyment, and usefulness (in their future). The study also stated that students often put more weight on enjoyment and usefulness rather than difficulty when selecting their preferred subjects.

Hence, choosing traditionally 'hard' topics can be an interesting decision. I was curious to know what subjects the learners of the Schoolhouse.world would find challenging or easy. As a tutor at Schoolhouse. World, I had the opportunity to conduct a general survey, and ask the learners a couple of questions.

  • What subjects do you find interesting and why?
  • What one subject do you never wish to learn and why?
  • To rate the difficulty of a subject. Is it easy or hard to learn?
  • To rate which method one uses to study the subject: Memory-based learning or finding logic.

Before we jump to the results, let us define what exactly are considered 'hard' subjects.

Perception:

Perception is the 'traditional' belief that a subject is “boring” or “easy”, usually based upon what our school taught us or, more specifically, their method of teaching the subject. For example, Math is generally taught in concise and logical steps. In contrast, Biology is often taught in paragraphs that are often factual and lengthy. These differing teaching styles translate into some bias within students.

In a study by Benjamin M. P. Cuff, the students admitted to choosing subjects based on the advice of their peers, family, and teachers. Another study conducted by the Dept of Education (University of Calicut, India) probed high school students’ feelings on mathematics. The study showed a strong association of the difficulty of Math with the dislike for Math, implying students disliked Math cause they perceived it was hard or believed that they won't be able to do Math ( Self-efficacy).

We generally use two basic methods to learn/study any subject: memorization (By heart learning) or logic ( reasoning). We rely on both the tools to learn anything, albeit their ratio might differ depending upon the subject or, in particular, how we are taught the subject. For example, numerical-based subjects such as Math and Physics are learned based on reasoning. In contrast, Chemistry and Biology are often retained by relying on the power of memorization.

Other studies were conducted to measure the difficulty of different topics in a particular subject at elementary and secondary education levels in Biology, History, and Math. From the results from all these articles, specific keywords are often used to describe the difficulty of the subject: 'complicated,'' difficult,'' require memorizing,' and 'boring.'

Relatability:

Everyone’s brain is built differently, and the Education system cannot use a defined method to universally test all learners' knowledge. Therefore, the current system prevents us from unlocking the potential of an individual learner.

Some people understand better when there is a visual representation, so teaching them without a model would make it harder for them to learn. Hence, some find cell biology (quite a visual concept) easier than calculus or electromagnetism, subjects that the students cannot visualize easily. According to one study, a hands-on approach or familiarity with the subject to the learner makes it easier to understand.

Rote-learning :

Learning based on memory is far more taxing and has a short-term application. So, you might pass with flying colors on the coming exam and then forget everything. The process is again repeated when the next exam comes along, because we are led to believe that grades are more important than knowledge.

A survey conducted on undergraduate and graduate students showed that academic performance is much more dependent on deep understanding than rote learning. We often forget that what we learn in school will help us; we probably don't need it to get a job, do well in life, or in no way directly affect us. But, having a good understanding goes a long way in our daily life. For example, knowing the country's history can offer better understanding of the country's current decision-making and help form a better opinion of the policies. What about subjects like chemistry, biology, physics or math? Where do they find a place? No one utilizes calculus or chemical reactions every day; besides, with Dr. Google helping us out, you would think there is no need for learning such concepts. Yet you need the knowledge to interpret them. You had medicine before; have you ever read the back of the prescription? Wondered what the side effects of the medication were? Or what about why some doctors suggest the medicine be taken before eating? Probably not, yet we follow the instructions blindly, never taking our time to understand them.

Results and inferences Isn't it better to learn once? Hence, we find logic a better tool for learning. It is one of the reasons why 71% of learners in the survey preferred Math over any other subjects.

The other reason that makes a subject interesting, according to the survey, is to understand our world a little better. This interest is not specific to a topic. Depending upon the individual's preference, they find biology, philosophy, or other subjects fascinating. In contrast to the first question, the second question sheds a little light on the 'problem' of the current education system. Synonyms for words like 'Memorization,' 'Complicated,' and 'Boring' are used as a reason to dislike subjects ranging from chemistry to computer languages.

Only around ~20 % of those surveyed did not loathe studying. Which then begs the question, which subjects do learners find hard? And is there a relation to their way of learning? My third and fourth questions try to quantify this.

28 learners rated 6 subjects from 1 to 5: Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, and Environmental Science. First, the rate of difficulty of the subject :
1-2: These subjects are hard to learn or study
3: These subjects are not too hard nor too easy to learn 4-5: These subjects are easy to learn.

Figure One

It is clearly seen that most learners find Math easy. While Physics is something most learners find hard or not easy to learn. Most learners prefer Chemistry and Biology in the 3-4 range, easy to not hard.

Both come averagely around the easy subject range when we plot for environmental science and computer science. In conclusion, except for physics, all other subjects are easy to learn. Still, since there is a lot of variation in opinion amongst learners in Physics, thus, it will be hard to predict whether most learners indeed find the subject hard? This was surprising since previous questions indicated a partiality to logic over rote-learning, which I believed would be translated to the difficulty of the subject. Yet, most subjects scored a higher number indicating maybe we don't rely too much on one tool to learn. Considering this hypothesis that there is no relation between the difficulty of the subject and learning of it, we will look into the fourth question: which method (Memorization or Reasoning) do they use to learn each subject.

Again, I asked the participants to rate the same 6 subjects from 1-to 10. 1-3: Learning mainly/solely based on Memorization. 4-6: Learning through Memorization and Reasoning
7-10: Learning mainly/solely based on Reasoning

Fig 2

Based on the data, most of the learners considered Math the most logical while Biology the least logical.
Incredibly, all these subjects are pretty interdisciplinary, relying on one another. For example, using math to explain heredity, chemistry to explain digestion, physics to explain walking, and many more natural phenomena. These phenomena share one trait, i.e., all of them can be explained through reasoning (solely or with little memorization, something we generally do for Math or Physics; remembering formulas), yet we still rely heavily on memorizing specific subjects. Comparing Environmental science and Computer science, we can find something similar to the above statement. We cannot clearly see a pattern when comparing the box plots.

Fig 3

But, to confirm that there might not be some association between the difficulty and learning method, I did a correlation test between the difficulty and learning method. The blue color indicates a positive association, and red indicates a negative association, while the intensity of the color and size determines the strength of the association: a paler and smaller circle means a weaker association. We will look into the diagonal row since that will give an idea of the correlation. The rest of the figure provides an association between the learning method and the difficulty of the subjects with each other.

Fig 4

Overall, there is a positive correlation between the learning method and the difficulty of the subject. There is a strong positive correlation between Biology and Physics, while a weak correlation is seen in other subjects.

This means that in Biology and Physics, more learners find Biology easy and study biology with more use of memorization. On the other hand, learners associate Physics with a complex subject and use reasoning and memorization. The weaker association might be due to high variation that can be corrected with a higher sample size.

From the tutors point of view After getting the perspective of subjects from the learners' point of view, I wanted to learn about the tutors' perspectives. 18 tutors responded to 4 questions: the first and second questions asking which subjects were the hardest and easiest for learners to understand from the perspective of tutors. The other two questions asked which subjects were the most complicated and straightforward to teach learners.

Most of the tutors believed that learners struggle with mathematics. Only a few felt that the learners also struggled in physics and biology, though the reasons for 'why' are pretty varied. Some tutors believe because of the misconception that 'Math is hard'; others believe that it is due to various concepts ( some of which are abstract ) and practice makes it a challenging subject to learn.

This might explain why the learners ( from the previous survey) found Math easy. The more one understands, the easier it becomes. And at SHW, there are more Math tutors than in other subjects; hence this could be the reason learners who took the survey found Math to be easy.

On the other hand, the easiest subject for learners was a little hard to pinpoint since the answers ranged from literature to history to science subjects such as Biology, Chemistry, etc. The reason remained reasonably consistent: because of application to the real world.

Regarding which subjects it is the easiest to teach, there is again no consistency. Though more tutors find Math over Physics easier to tutor, this can be attributed to the small data sample or more Math tutors at SHW.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this fun survey of SHW, and I thank all those who participated in it. Note that due to the small sample size, the results might not show the true nature when extrapolated. Also, since there is no specific age for the participants, the learners in the younger grade might find one subject easier than the older learners.

Conclusion:

There are multiple reasons why we find a subject tricky or easy. Still, in my experience as a learner, the lack of connectivity makes a subject very hard to grasp even when you understand the concepts.. I was a freshman taking Phy 101: Electromagnetism. Now I understood what my professor said; I certainly had no doubts, but the concept didn't sit with me. So I joined the group of students around the prof asking doubts, hoping that something wrong would be corrected. I guess I was not the only one feeling that way, but the way the student framed the question echoed with me, and the professor understood. The student said that he understood the concepts but didn't feel it. So, 'feeling' is crucial because it is the road to understanding. And probably the first steps to enjoying 'hard' concepts.

So, next time a concept doesn't feel right with you, no matter how well you understand, say it out loud.

Happy learning!

References:

Cuff, Benjamin MP. "Perceptions of subject difficulty and subject choices: Are the two linked, and if so, how?." (2017).

Gültekin, Fatma, and Neval Akça Berk. "The topics students have difficulty in understanding and learning in history course." Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 15 (2011): 2803-2807.

Gafoor, K. Abdul, and Abidha Kurukkan. "Why High School Students Feel Mathematics Difficult? An Exploration of Affective Beliefs." Online Submission (2015).

Ahmed, Ambreen, and Nawaz Ahmed. "Comparative Analysis of Rote Learning on High and Low Achievers in Graduate and Undergraduate Programs." Journal of Education and Educational Development 4.1 (2017): 111-129.

Ozcan, Taner, et al. "Identifiying and comparing the degree of difficulties biology subjects by adjusting it is reasons in elemantary and secondary education." Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 116 (2014): 113-122.

Lodge, Jason M., et al. "Understanding difficulties and resulting confusion in learning: an integrative review." Frontiers in Education. Vol. 3. Frontiers, 2018.

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