Are science degree programmes harder than humanities programmes?

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It’s a myth that science programmes are more demanding than humanities programmes. But according to experts from both Arts and ST, Arts needs to do a better job of helping students structure their studies.

2018.04.05 | Miriam Brems

A comparison of the students’ timetables might give you the impression that students at ST have a heavier workload than students at Arts. But things aren’t quite so simple, say both administrators and students. Illustration: Louise Thrane Jensen.

Emil Ravn, whose primary subject is Scandinavian literature and languages at the Faculty of Arts, is doing a supplementary subject in maths at the Faculty of Science and Technology (ST) And the differences between the two programmes are obvious.

A week on the maths programme involves 12 hours of lectures as well as eight hours of lessons with student instructors, and students have to hand in substantial written assignments in three different courses every week. For one course, students have to pass eight out of 12 assignments before they can take the exam – 10 out of 10 and 10 out of 14 in the other two.

On the other hand, a week of the the Scandinavian studies BA programme typically involves between 12 and 17 lessons and one group assignment or a presentation for the class per semester.

In short, it appears that ST demands more work from students than Arts. But appearances can be deceptive: according to AU researcher Tina Bering Keiding, a specialist in teaching quality and member of the Better University Studies Committee, which recently published a report detailing 37 recommendations to improve the quality of university degree programmes, this is not a legitimate conclusion.    

Academic engaged time more visible at ST    

According to Keiding, the number of hours students spend engaged in their studies is more visible at ST because they are scheduled in the form of laboratory work and theoretical seminars.

“The hours students at Arts spend on activities like reading assignments, peer feedback and smaller assignments are invisible because they aren’t scheduled. If you’re going to prepare a presentation, for example, that’s not scheduled for Wednesday from 2pm to 6pm as it would be if you were doing lab work.”

She also thinks that the 2017 AU study environment survey, which concludes that students at Arts spend 8.5 hours less per week on their studies than students at ST, should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Of course we need to take its seriously if it seems that students are not spending much time on their academic work. But it’s not clear what students include in their ‘academic engaged time’.”     

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Higher minimum requirements at ST    

Ravn agrees that you can’t say that one is degree programme is more difficult than another, and he spends about as much time on Scandinavian studies as he does on maths. But there is a considerable difference in the demands placed on students by the degree programmes, he says:

“The minimum number of hours you need to put in to get through the programme is considerably higher for maths. Clearly, in principle you could put just as many hours into the Scandinavian studies programme, but I would still argue that you need to spend more time on maths to pass the classes than on Scandinavian studies.”

According to Ravn, this has to do with what he considers the greatest difference between the two programmes: the structure of the week.

As a maths student, every week he gets an overview of what topics were covered in the previous week, the topics of this week’s lectures, the exercises they’ll be doing with the student instructors, and what assignments they have to turn in for review. At one student instructor-led lesson per week, each study group has to sign up to go over an exercise on the blackboard in front of the other students.

“On the Scandinavian studies programme, you don’t have to account for your work in the same way over the course of the week. That doesn’t happen until the exam.”     

More space for in-depth study at Arts

According to Ravn, the many exercises on the maths programme ensure that students cover all aspects of the curriculum. On the other hand, there’s more space for in-depth study at Arts.

“If there’s no requirement to constantly account for your work over the course of the semester, there’s more space to dive into a niche of the curriculum and nerd out on what topics I think are cool. There’s no room for that in a study group, where you’re responsible for getting through a certain amount of material, like we have on the maths programme.”

Ravn sees advantages and disadvantages to both.

“As a rule, I like to decide what I spend my time on, but it’s also healthy to get a kick in the backside and be reminded that what’s important is not just what you personally think is exciting.”    

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Students need more structure at Arts    

Annika Büchert Lindberg, a special consultant at Science and Technology Learning Lab, seconds Ravn’s description of the differences in the structure of the degree programmes at the two faculties.

“At ST, there’s more of a tradition of keeping the students’ noses to the grindstone. It’s harder to slide by at ST, because it’s very visible if you don’t turn in your work. It makes a difference that you’re constantly being held to account in relation to preparing something for the lab, the exercises and the lectures.”

Keiding grants that Arts may not have had quite such a strong tradition for making explicit demands on students throughout the semester. But she thinks that this has started to change since the academic regulations at Arts have been under review the last few years. Participation during the semester has been high on the agenda.

“We spend so much time registering and increasing classroom participation. We also need to take an interest in the hours between lessons, which is when a lot of study takes place. If students aren’t active enough, this is typically because they don’t know what do to do with all the hours they have at their disposal.”     

Responsibility for your own learning – but not for your own lessons

Tina Bering Keiding does research on teaching quality and is a member of the Better University Studies Committee, which recently published a report detailing 37 recommendations to improve the quality of university degree programmes.    

Keiding explains that techniques being used at Arts include giving students concrete exercises and assignments on texts which must be completed and submitted to Blackboard. In this way, Arts will ultimately come to resemble ST more, in that the time between lessons is integrated into the curriculum.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should deprive students of responsibility for a proactive approach to their studies. Students and teachers share responsibility for what happens in the classroom. But there’s a difference between responsibility for your own learning and responsibility for your own lessons. Students don’t necessarily have responsibility for all academic engaged time outside of lessons in the first semesters.”    

Students need more help in the beginning

Lindberg agrees that students need more help with learning how to study in the early stages of their degree programmes.

“It’s necessary to think in terms of progression. You need to structure the first years more, for example by helping students with their study strategy.”

The molecular biology programme at ST is experimenting with ‘pre-tests’ before lessons. A pre-test is intended to show students whether they are adequately prepared for lessons, in addition to drawing teachers’ attention to any academic difficulties students might be facing.

ST has also introduced ongoing assessment of student performance as a form of examination. This means that students turn in assignments or take tests in the course of the semester which count towards the final exam grade. At the same time, students receive feedback to help them improve as the semester progresses.

“As a result, the students are more active than before because they’re well-prepared. At the same time, this makes it possible to spot students who are academically challenged or who are using the wrong study strategies, and to try to help them with these problems.”    

Annika Büchert Lindberg is a special consultant at the Science and Technology Learning Lab.    

Structure is OK – but not too strict

Even though Ravn learns a lot from the seminars and exercises on the maths programme, he doesn’t think it makes sense to transfer this approach to learning based on exercises and assignments to Arts.

Even though this might grate on some people’s ears a little, I don’t think it’s a problem that the minimum requirements are lower at Arts. Because that’s what gives you the freedom to immerse yourself in what you’re interested in. Of course, this is risky, and it’s up to the individual to administer that freedom.”

For this reason, he thinks that Arts should seek inspiration from other measures in place at ST than hand-in assignments.

“I would prefer a less strict structure like what we call Matlab on the maths programme. This is a voluntary ‘homework café’ where you can get help from a student instructor. For example, you could use this to help you in interpreting a text before a Scandinavian studies class.”     

You don’t need to sit hunched over a book

Even though both studies are working to make it easier for students to engage in their studies, Keiding also thinks it’s important not to go overboard.

“We’re too focussed on time. Cognitive reflection and the processing phase are also important. Sometimes when I need to understand something really difficult, I take a walk around the lake. Some people might ask ‘Why aren’t you at work?’, but I am actually thinking about my work while I walk. In my view, this is also an important part of academic engaged time. There’s also some learning that takes place outside the extremely formalised structures we may have a tendency to forget.” 

Drop counting hours  – focus on results

And so Keiding also thinks that there should be less focus on counting hours of engaged time and more focus on how students perform.

“If we set ambitious learning objectives and offer good courses, and the students are so brilliant that they can do it in a certain number of hours while also doing some relevant work on the side,why then just leave them be. Counting hours is an assembly line philosophy that assumes that the right number of hours is the same for everyone.”

Translated by Lenore Messick

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