Brain gain worth the struggle in difficult classes

Published by Rachel Arceo on

Why take a hard class when you can take an easier one? The challenge of a difficult class can quickly become a significant, meaningful accomplishment with long term personal, physical and career benefits, even for students who tend to struggle.

Bonnie J. Ford Health, Nursing and Science Center is home to several challenging courses.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Though sometimes difficult, these are the classes which increase the brain’s neural networks and may increase neurons. In other words, these classes offer students a chance to process information into schemas that are likely to improve thinking and learning capabilities in their future. These classes also open up more lucrative career options. 

The Mainstream spoke via email with four different instructors from four different challenging classes. Professors below share their perspectives, tools and advice to help students navigate the difficulty of their demanding subjects. 

A common theme between all of the instructor interviews is that class time is likely not enough to succeed in the harder courses; regular communication with instructors after class hours is needed.

Shauna McNulty, associate professor of science, suggests studying smaller portions consistently for anatomy and physiology students.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Anatomy and Physiology (instructor interviewed: Shauna McNulty; prerequisites: Chemistry 104 or 112 or 221 or 241) 

Shauna McNulty has taught anatomy and physiology since 2012; she has taught at UCC since 2017. McNulty along with Lisa Edens, is one of two anatomy and physiology instructors presently in UCC’s science, technology, engineering and math programs.  

McNulty acknowledges that A&P students often struggle with the physiology portion of this course, which often involves chemistry.   

“The chemistry is difficult in particular, which is why we require a chemistry pre-requisite course.  Students who have had a more extensive background in chem have traditionally felt it is more manageable,” McNulty says. “I always tell my students that A&P is like taking a biology course while also taking some chemistry, physics, and a foreign language to boot.  

“There are a lot of terms with Latin and Greek roots, and that can add a layer of complexity to learning,” McNulty says. 

McNulty advises her students to be consistent in studying smaller portions at a time: “If (students) can focus on five to 10 pages of the text each day, then it becomes much more manageable.  They also need to practice recalling the information, so I always suggest starting every study session trying to recall what you covered in the previous session,” McNulty says.  

McNulty also suggests students practice active recall when learning new material. “Students can practice an active recall by pretending they are the professor,” McNulty says. “What kinds of questions would they expect for that material?  They can write it on a notecard and quiz themselves later.  

“Lastly, when they think they know the material well, they can test themselves against practice tests in the text and online to find their gaps in knowledge,” McNulty says.  She also reminds her students there are several useful online resources that aid students with visuals and 3D renderings of the human body. 

For students still struggling in anatomy and physiology, McNulty implores students to utilize office hours.  She explains that her office hours are the perfect time for students to pop in and get the clarity they need. 

“One of the most under-utilized resources is me and my student hours,” McNulty says.  “I am more than happy to discuss what a student is currently doing and where they are struggling to try and help them make the best use of their time.” 

Sean Breslin, associate professor of science, encourages non-linear thinking in his organic chemistry class.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Organic Chemistry (instructor: Sean Breslin; prerequisites: Chemistry 242) 

Sean Breslin has taught the subject of organic chemistry for 15 years, 12 at UCC.  

Breslin explains students may have the most trouble in his class with the out-of-box thinking often necessary to excel in organic chemistry.  

“Especially in terms two and three, students struggle with nonlinear thinking,” Breslin says. “Solutions to many complex problems in the class begin by starting at the end of a complex problem and working backwards. Then, you work from the beginning and try to bridge the gap.  

“Often the path is not a clear sequence and only reveals itself with time, practice and guidance. The solutions are supposed to look messy, and the (sometimes elegant) final answers are only refined versions,” Breslin says. 

“I compare organic chemistry with learning a language. It is really unlike other sciences (and even other chemistry subjects),” says Breslin. “Much like a language, you learn basic words and sentences (reactions and reactivity patterns). Then you eventually pick up on an ability to use those words and sentences in new combinations. 

“Eventually, you’re able to express new ideas in a virtually limitless combination (much like a student can do when they come to the end of third term and can suggest syntheses and mechanisms for entirely novel problems).” 

Breslin advises all students, “Talk to your instructor early and often. You’re not bothering them (a common misconception).  

“We’re here to teach and are as passionate about students as our subject matter. The second you don’t understand something (which will happen on a regular basis) come get clarification and don’t leave until you do.” 

To students who continue to struggle in his class, he acknowledges that struggling is very common, especially in organic chemistry. Students spend a large amount of time practicing with the same mistakes, thereby being pulled into negative feedback loops; he suggests addressing this with professors.  

“Spending 15 minutes with an instructor is sometimes enough for him or her to recognize a problem and fix it,” Breslin says. “Asking for help is not an admission of weakness; it is the most effective path to truly understanding a difficult subject.” 

“Working hard and being motivated by your inevitable struggles (as opposed to being beaten by them) separates the successful student from the unsuccessful,” Breslin says. 

Mick Davis, associate professor of science, advices his physics students to adjust their time management skills.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Physics (instructor: Mick Davis; prerequisites: Physics 211 and Math 252 and above) 

Mick Davis has taught physics and general science for 17 years, 11 here at UCC. 

Davis believes some students may be underprepared for physics courses because of the time involved in taking five credit courses. 

“The physics courses are five credits, so they typically require more time and effort than three or even four credit courses,” Davis says. “Students often struggle to adjust their time management strategy to incorporate a single class making up such a large portion of their total course load.  

“Everyone can be successful at physics, but most of us need to see the concepts presented several times, in several ways,” Davis says. He advises his students to spend time working on each type of content he provides in class. 

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class and office hours,” Davis says. “Show up to class on-time and prepared to think critically about how the ideas we discuss are connected to experiences in your everyday life.”  

For students still struggling in his physics classes, he suggests speaking to him directly. “Visit my office hours so I can fill in the knowledge gaps and work with you on study strategies that align with your academic goals,” Davis says. 

“Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help,” Davis says. “Physics is often non-intuitive, and we all, myself included, need to talk it over with someone else sometimes. 

“I look forward to working with current and future UCC students to ensure they are prepared with the knowledge and skills required for their chosen academic and career paths.” 

Amy Fair, associate professor of English, encourages her technical writing students to reach out as much as needed.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Technical Report Writing WR 227 (instructor interviewed: Amy Fair; prerequisites: Writing 121, Writing 122 strongly suggested) 

Amy Fair has taught writing for 22 years, 15 of which have been here at UCC. Fair, along with Melinda Benton, is one of two instructors teaching technical report writing at UCC.  Technical report writing, often just called, technical writing is tailored to preparing students to create a concise and accurate client/reader centered technical documents in line with their chosen career path. 

Fair concedes that many students struggle with technical writing because they may not be prepared for both the volume and type of research required. 

“Until you do it, it is hard to wrap around how much work it is.  I don’t think students are prepared for what type of work it is; it’s problem solving in a way that I don’t think students traditionally do.   

“When students are doing traditional research in a lower level composition class, they are not really searching for research to solve a problem that a (hypothetical) client is paying you to solve,” Fair says. “It’s a weird amount a freedom because there aren’t a lot of parameters to know when things are going wrong and going well, because every one’s project is different. 

“(227) is definitely a different style of writing than the argumentative and research based writing we see in WR 121 or 122, so students expect a natural progression and it is a different ball of wax,” Fair says. “I think the sheer scope of it, makes students anxious.” 

Fair admits that although both Benton and herself break up the report assignments up throughout the term, so that the entirety of the large report can be more manageable, it can be daunting for some students. 

“I think in order to hit the ground running, you have to be honest to students with what you’ll be working on, but I think sometimes just hearing what the end result is going to be just seems so out of the realm of possibility for students who struggle to write a three page paper,” Fair says. 

“On the flip side of that, when they do it, they are so full of their accomplishment in the best possible way, I think there is a lot of payoff for to this class and a lot of real-world application to it, because everything is client centered, it’s really good practice. 

Fair advises students struggling in this course to drop in to office hours or arrange a meeting.  “Being at a community college is such a luxury, even though many students don’t see it as such.” says Fair. “It’s the ability to walk in and talk to your instructor anytime you need to.” 

“I don’t believe, there is an instructor on campus who teaches a hard class who doesn’t want their students to do well,” Fair says. “Office hours are important; students should use them, but making appointments is important if you can’t make the office hours. That is when students should send an email and arrange for a more suitable time.” 

Fair does notice that some students may be afraid of bothering, which leads to the lack of communication, but encourages students to reach out anyway. “I feel like our faculty here are great for that kind of stuff.  I think everyone here does everything they can to see students succeed,” Fair says. 

Fair does warn students, “Goodness, don’t wait to week five to reach out, it’s awful.”  She explains that reaching out past midterm can be problematic with work load for instructors and students, so reach out as soon as possible. “If you notice something you need help with in week two, I would say something in week two. 

“I think investment in the class also gives your instructor ample reasons to invest in you and make sure you are doing well,” Fair says. 

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