College Courses: Time Well Spent, or a Waste of Time?

by Sophie Blumert

“Tell us about the courses you’ve taken: which ones were time well spent, and which ones were a waste of time?” In our national study of higher education, we asked nearly 1000 students this very question. This question helped us to gain concrete information about courses and, at the same time, proved a useful measure for what students valued and why.

In what follows, I discuss the courses that students described and why they did or did not value them. I then offer some recommendations for educators and students alike to tip the scale towards making all classes “time well spent.”


Students readily named both courses they valued and those that they did not value; of the participants who were asked, 86% named courses that were time well spent, and 79% named courses that were a waste of time. Students discussed a range of courses, which we organized—in the style of a course catalogue—according to the following categories:

  • English & Writing
  • Math
  • Language
  • Natural Science
  • Social Science
  • Humanities
  • Arts
  • Applied Sciences/Engineering
  • Pre-Professional

In general, students tended to name courses in the social sciences—psychology, political science, and economics— most frequently as “time well spent” (26% of all students), while students tended to name courses in the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, and physics—as a “waste of time” (18% of all students). It seemed that students placed more value on courses in fields that were new to them, while courses from fields that were more familiar, such as those from high school, were often identified as “wastes” of time. Perhaps the novelty (or lack thereof) of certain courses might have played a role in why students did or didn’t value them; most students are not exposed to anthropology or sociology in a high school, while many have taken natural science courses before matriculation.

Also, given these findings, it is important to mention that we found very few differences among students who identified particular courses; there were no patterns across students of different genders, years (first-year vs. graduating), or school selectivity. We also found no differences across our two holistic measures:  (Higher Education Capital—also known as HEDCAP) and mental models.

The one key difference we found was within students’ majors: students tended to talk about courses within their own subject area both as time well spent as well as a waste of time. For example, students in science majors listed natural science courses most frequently as both positive and negative examples. However, there was one interesting exception to this rule; students in the humanities were more likely to list courses outside of their major (namely math and natural science, at 22% and 25% of humanities students, respectively) more frequently as a waste of time compared to courses within their own major.

Somewhat unexpected, these findings about the types of courses that students listed as time well spent or wastes of time intrigued us. We had anticipated that students would find courses within their major as time well spent, since this is presumably the discipline that they regard as important and interesting. Accordingly, we were surprised that they also listed courses within their major as wastes of time. Perhaps this is because these are the classes that students are most familiar with, but we could not be sure without further analysis. We decided to look into why students found these courses valuable, and this tack proved to be much more revealing.

Reasons & Rationales

Students gave several different explanations for why certain courses were valuable or not. These can be categorized into four major reasons:

Level of difficulty: First, we learned that students did not value courses that were too easy or that did not challenge them (19% of all students). For example, some participants griped that particular courses were a repeat of high school content; they wished that they could be exposed to new, challenging content, rather than content that felt “repetitive” and “elementary.” Additionally, it was very rare for students to talk about courses being “too difficult” (5%); when they did, it was often related to other factors such as teaching or assessment, rather than purely to course content. Overall, students wanted to be pushed with college-level content; otherwise, they didn’t feel like they were learning. Examples of student responses included:

A class that I don’t really appreciate is a math class that I take… I guess it could be considered early algebra. I think it’s just basically like high school math all over again. And I don’t really like it, I feel like you can simply like, just give someone a textbook and tell them to learn high school math over again. It’s just like, repetitively teaching them over and over again what this, what this equation means and all this other stuff.

Basic freshman English… so I was, I’m in the honors program, so it was an honors class, but it was everything I, that we were learning, I honestly remember learning in like the 8th grade… it [was] a nice fluffy, fluff curve. So, I guess, that was kind of dumb. Because you would think with an honors class, it wouldn’t be as repetitive and as easy as like freshman year in high school.

It is perhaps more accurate to call what students are experiencing here a lack of flow, rather than a lack of difficulty. In these examples where the material is repetitive and easy, students become bored and they soon disengage from their studies. However, material that is too challenging has the opposite effect and can create anxiety. It is therefore important for faculty to assess their students’ skill levels, and for students to understand their challenge threshold. This may be different depending on the subject matter and level of preparedness from high school, but a sense of flow—that magical space between boredom and anxiety— is crucial to students in both appreciating and retaining what they are learning.

Relevance of a course to one’s life: Students often linked a course to what they believed was relevant, or irrelevant, to their academic or personal goals. Approximately 17% of students mentioned relevance when talking about courses that were time well spent, while 23% of students brought this up when listing courses that were a waste of time. Beyond this, we wanted to understand exactly what made a course relevant to students.

Here’s one student’s take on a philosophy class:

I took a philosophy class. It was basically a moral problem and ethics class… and I thought that was well spent because it was directly related to problems that the US is going through now. We talked about abortion… we talked about relevant issues. We talked about euthanasia, we talked about gun control, we talked about what is going on in government right now with Trump and what he’s doing, what the senate wants… stuff like that. And I think that in a very divided nation we [are] in now, it was very interesting that I could… you could see where you lie and what you can do about it in actual real life. So, yeah, I guess it was [the] applicability immediately to real life.

Another student described courses that felt irrelevant and gave a different reason:

I think that a lot of the requirements are just useless. I took, as a child development major I had to take two life sciences or whatever, and I felt … I wound up taking two classes, I took nutrition and bio-anthropology but like really they had nothing to do with my studies, I was just taking them to fill requirements. So I think classes are irrelevant to your study, they shouldn’t have to be taken.

In general, we found that when a course was connected to academic interests (such as a major) or issues of the 21st century, students felt it was relevant. Approximately 14% of the classes mentioned as “time well spent” were explicitly connected to students’ declared major, while 21% were related to social issues such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

The topic of relevance may point to an alternative explanation for why social science courses were more popular than others. Students pointed out that courses such as psychology, sociology, and political science are timelier, connected to everyday life, and more explicitly linked to social issues. Students seemed to appreciate learning about social issues because they were important to them in understanding their own background or because they felt it was an important topic in navigating the complexity of the 21st century, such as the news or hot topics on campus.        

In contrast, students seemed to feel that natural science courses tended to be more formulaic— removed from the everyday human experience, and much more focused on grades. Of course, it is possible to have science courses that are related to various social issues, such as climate change and the current public health crisis with COVID-19, but students more frequently referenced technical and discrete disciplines. These courses may require much more scaffolding and time before faculty are able to make explicit connections to other relevant topics. All of this raises an important question for educators: Who determines the relevance, and how? Sometimes, students do not immediately realize the relevance that a course may have in their lives, and faculty may not always know what resonates with students. It is therefore important for faculty and students to collaborate, to cooperate, and consult through discussions and consistent feedback about what is “relevant.”

Delivery of content: Delivery and pedagogical practices also played a role in whether students valued or didn’t value particular courses (31% & 35% of all students, respectively). Despite the proliferation of online education and use of technology in the classroom within the higher education sector, students talked about the importance of personal connections with their faculty in the classroom. Many students commented that content mattered very little to them, explaining that they were drawn to (or driven away from) courses because of faculty. Some students described being surprised by how much they liked a specific course because of the way that a professor presented the material and interacted with the students (23% of students); others said that they were excited to take a course, but ended up being disappointed because the pedagogical approach was “dry” and “not engaging” (23% of students). Interestingly, when we looked at how students responded to a separate question about online learning in education, approximately one-fifth of students complained that it was impersonal.

One student described the positive impact of a professor’s teaching style:

I remember this one course in my sophomore year called Roman History. And from the name it sounds so boring, but it ended up being, like the best class I’ve ever had… I realized my professor’s class was so well structured. Like, he didn’t waste a minute. Um, he would lecture for an exact amount of time every class and then open it up for discussion and like, he was very pointed in the questions he asked. Um, and he made sure to sort of always direct the conversation, lead it … he was really engaging. Um, and like sort of made the stories come to life and I absolutely loved it.

Another student described the opposite state of affairs:

It was a high-level computer science class. And the reason I didn’t like it was because… the teacher wasn’t engaging. He was just like lecture, lecture, lecture, no questions, class over, do your homework… if he was more like engaging, he had more recitations, he actually made the class more entertaining, I would maybe have liked it more.

Outcomes of coursework: Students also talked about direct outcomes—such as academic preparation for upper level courses, improved social interactions, and personal development—in deciding whether particular classes were valuable. This was a much more common explanation for courses that were time well spent as compared to courses that were deemed wastes of time; 56% of students talked about outcomes when listing courses that were time well spent, compared to only 17% of students for waste of time courses. Overall, students most frequently talked about their personal development, or how a particular course changed their worldview, mindset, or sense of self.  For example:

My Asian American Studies 201…Critical Race Thinking. It actually got me to see the world from an ethnic lens, see the oppression going on, the system … the institutionalized racism that goes on today that I wasn’t aware of… I took, um, Asian Women’s Studies or AS 345, which is Asian American Women’s studies. So, you basically learn from … see the world from an Asian American woman’s point of view, the stereotypes on them… to be more feminist and see the like, the double standards in the world, the, um … like the patriarchal like hierarchy. So, it really helped me to develop more critical thinking and be a better person because of it.

These findings may well illustrate a growing shift in students’ wants and needs in their academic experience. Content relevance seems to be an increasingly important theme, across all students in our study, as evidenced by the continued focus on courses related to social issues. And though online learning has escalated on college campuses (especially in 2020 with the challenges surrounding COVID-19), students still see the value of an engaging, personal experience. Finally, the presence of different outcomes in courses that students listed as time well spent demonstrates that while students are goal-driven, they understand the benefit of courses that function to expand their worldview.

Implications: Onboarding & Intertwining

From this seemingly straightforward question, we learned quite a bit about the types of courses that college students liked or disliked; and we heard as well several explanations that helped deepen our understanding about what students’ value in their academic experience. With these findings, I offer a few recommendations for how to help students view all of their courses as valuable.

First, focus on forging personal connections with students in the classroom. This should be part of the onboarding process for students entering college—learning how to effectively connect with a professor and participate in class. Faculty can encourage participation by reducing the stigma of asking for help or clarification, but students also need to take the initiative to speak up in the classroom, go to office hours, and ask questions. As online learning has become the way of the world in the spring of 2020 (hopefully temporarily), this is more important now than ever before.

Second, find ways to weave in, or intertwine, relevant topics to course material. It seems that students are struggling to understand where different courses fit into their lives. This finding may explain, for example, why there is a decreasing number of history majors across universities and/or why computer science has become more popular. Clearly, it is not that students do not respect or value context; in fact, context is incredibly important to students, given their continued focus on social issues in and out of the classroom. However, students might have a hard time connecting what they are learning to contemporary issues unless the connections are explicit and convincing. This is where it becomes important for faculty and students to work together to ensure that students are getting the most out of the material they are learning.

For faculty: All students, regardless of their major, should understand the relevance and importance of different academic disciplines. Making these connections more explicit and embedded in coursework will hopefully lessen the biases that students have towards their own majors and lead to a more holistic academic experience. Lean in to social and contemporary issues; it will make material that might appear antiquated to college students be more relevant to their experiences and worldviews.

For students: Trust your educators and institution. Countless hours of thought and effort have been put into creating academic curricula that are holistic and rigorous; faculty are not trying to bore you. You might not know until a later point that a course has been time well spent; though the material may not be immediately relevant or useful, you should not assume that it was time wasted. Remember that what you are learning may serve you well in the future—as students, as workers, and as citizens. But also, continue to give constructive feedback to your professors. It is necessary to continue improving courses and pedagogy, and you need to be part of the changes you want to see.

In sum, these are the takeaways from our research team. We hope to see the continued enjoyment of social science courses, but also more appreciation for courses in the humanities and natural sciences. Whenever possible, explicit connections of content to current issues and students’ experiences will be most helpful. Additionally, it is crucial to continue updating and expanding pedagogical practices so that students remain engaged in coursework and make connections with their professors. We acknowledge that going forward, both of these are hard adjustments—and indeed, there may be growing pains as the world moves online—but they are essential to keep students engaged and, in the best of worlds, to nudge their view of college from a transactional stance to a transformational one.

© Sophie Blumert 2020

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