November 25, 2008

Students find it difficult to pin down College’s toughest course

[img id="77050" align="alignleft"] For first-year Andrea Wan, Honors Calculus isn’t just a class. It’s a battle.

“The first week’s problem set alone took me 17 hours, and that was working with three other people,” she said. “The professors all tell us that once we get the hang of proofs, the class will be easier, but I’m starting to wonder if that day will ever come.”

Wan said it was the complicated material, and not the workload, that made the course challenging. She could count on one hand the days when she walked out of class with a firm understanding of the concepts.

But Wan’s calculus may be another student’s Ulysses. And as students pored over time schedules once again last week, the debate continued: What’s the hardest course in the College?

Associate Dean of the College Jean Treese pinpointed a few legendarily tough courses.

Treese said that while many of her advisees complained about the hard sciences, the 150s sequences of music theory and the philosophy department’s Logic course stick out as the toughest courses.

He also cited econometrics, Introduction to Biochemistry, and just about every course offered in computer science.

“This is a highly subjective question, but from what I remember from my advisees over the past years, the complaints have been highly concentrated in a couple of classes,” he said.

Some point to hard data to support their claim that they’ve taken the hardest class, such as drop rate and GPAs.

But University spokesman Josh Schonwald said answering the question is more complicated than just figuring out which course has the highest drop rate.

“The droprates reflect not only the difficulty of the class, but also the social and political influences and the caliber of the students themselves,” he said. “Take the language course Urdu for example. Students register because they’re interested in the language or the culture. But they take it for a few weeks and realize either that it’s too hard or that the time commitment isn’t worth a language spoken by so few people. Or some students walk into the class just having no idea what to expect and turn out to be really surprised. So even though more than half of the students who originally register drop out of the class, it’s no indication that Urdu is the hardest class.”

Fourth-year Anne Tretin was careful to distinguish between classes with harder material and classes that she struggled with the most.

“There was such a discrepancy between U of C academics and my own preparation from high school. I remember sitting in [general chemisty] thinking ‘A mole, where have I heard that term before?’ I also had to learn to read scientific journals on my own, which wasn’t something I’ve ever been held accountable for. So that was a big adjustment.”

Tretin said that biology majors agree on the difficulty of physical chemistry. “That’s probably the class I hear the most whining from.”

Both second-year Chelsea Bingiel and third-year Sam Asare agreed that math makes classes difficult at the U of C.

“If you understand the theoretical calculus, it’s just a leverage that you have against all the other students in the class,” Asare said. “Physics is easier when you’re good at math.”

Bingiel noted that discrete mathematics was her hardest class. “I have this friend who is just brilliant in math, and yet she failed, and when I say failed, I mean failed instead of a B-, Paul Sally’s class in Honors Combinatorics,” she said.

Wan, the first-year in Honors Calculus, said that some courses may be more difficult than others because they stray further from traditional high-school teaching methodologies.

“The reason why [Honors Calculus] is exceptionally difficult is because it is geared towards first-years who have done well in math in high school, and many come here only to realize that they know nothing about conceptual math. So on top of learning new material, we have to learn a new method of learning.”