If It’s Easy, It’s Probably Wrong; If It’s Hard, It’s Probably Better

Higher Ed October / Special / October 17, 2018

-Thomas Mennella-

“If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better.”  My own words to live by.

I should have first learned this lesson when I was nine years old. It was near the beginning of fifth grade, and I was taking my first music class quiz. I remember it vividly, and I was stumped on this question: What is this symbol called?

I knew I should have studied more…. The kid sitting next to me was scribbling furiously away on his quiz, and in my peripheral vision, I could see that something was written down for this question that I just could not answer. I never made the conscious decision to cheat; I never had the thought, “OK, I’m gonna do this.” I just glanced, and I saw it: “treble clef.” Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it, but I certainly didn’t have to write it down. This quiz should’ve been trivial; not something to worry about, but I was a strong student, and my unpreparedness challenged my sense of self. I couldn’t let a treble clef hold me back from success, and so I wrote it down: treble clef. Handing in that quiz, I nearly burst into tears. For the rest of the day, I was jumpy, waiting to be called to the principal’s office. By the time I got home from school, and my mom had asked how my day was, the tears flowed, and I confessed to everything. My mother was disappointed, and she didn’t hide it. She was stern, “You know what you have to do, don’t you?” I didn’t. “You have to tell your teacher about this tomorrow.” Confessing to my teacher that I had cheated remains one of the most difficult things I’ve done, but my teacher commended me for my honesty, my integrity, and even for my guilt…. and then she took those points away. I learned a great lesson from that experience: don’t cheat! And I can honestly say I never cheated again, on anything. But I should have also learned from that experience: If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better.


Fast forward almost exactly 18 years. I’m a father for the first time, and I’m home alone, with my wonderful two-year-old daughter and with tons of exams to grade. My wife and I both believed in, and agreed to, bona fide stimulation for our kids. Though my second daughter had not yet been born, we showered my first with trips to children’s museums, the library, the park, even shopping trips were made sensory and engaging. TV time was limited; we were hands-on engaged parents. But that day, I had tons of exams to grade… For almost two hours, in the middle of the day, I let my daughter watch TV while I graded. Was I in the room with her? Yes. Did I answer her every question and attend to her every need? Yes. Was it PBS Kids that was on? Yes. But still, that nagging guilt was there. When my wife came home, I confessed right away, and though she never said it; the look on her face was all I needed to see, and I relearned: If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better. (In fact, this is my mantra for parenting, and it never steers me wrong.) 


Fast forward four more years. I’m a new professor at my current institution. Though I have four years of professorial experience already under my belt, I’m teaching genetics (my discipline and area of expertise) for the first time. This is going to be great, I think. Finally, I get to teach my field. But it’s not great. It’s clear that students are not learning, understanding, or retaining the course content. They’re passing the class, but only because of memorization and flashcards. And to be clear, no one can memorize genetics; it’s a topic that must be understood. I’m being paid to teach, but no one is learning. That’s a problem. At around the same time, I simultaneously hear about active learning strategies (which I have no class time to implement) and Flipped Learning (which frees up class time). I intuitively know, right away, that flipping my class will allow me to finally teach genetics. It will give me the time I need to fortify and refortify the critical concepts of this field for my students so that they learn them, and own them, forever. But flipping my course will mean I have to spend hours and hours recording lectures. And I’ll need to create ways to ensure that those videos are watched. I’ll also need to design active learning exercises for the group space. Then, I’ll need to cede control of the room to the students. And … I stall. Maybe I won’t flip; maybe I’ll try to lecture a bit more effectively. But this time, I remember: If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better. And I flipped all of my courses and never looked back (and my students learn better and more deeply than I ever could have imagined). 


When I flipped, I was one of the first in higher ed to do so. At the time, Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams were just becoming big names in K12, and very few people had even heard of Flipped Learning in colleges and universities. I leveraged this novelty and published on Flipped Learning, presented on it at many conferences geared towards college-level education, and I like to believe that I made some notable contributions to flipping in higher ed. I remain honored and humbled to be part of FLGI, one of its International Faculty Members, and the Higher Education Editor of this wonderful publication. But I’m human. And from time to time, I do fall into the trap of thinking I’m better than I am. 


So when the  Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences drafted and published International Standards for Flipped Learning, I read them through with interest. “Hmmmm….”, I thought proudly, “I do a lot of these things.” Followed soon by, “Hmmm…. I don’t do some of these, though.” But I’m Tom Mennella! A founding member of the International Faculty of FLGI! Higher Education Editor of the Flipped Learning Review! Presenter, workshop facilitator, keynote speaker…. And I don’t want to chunk some of my longer videos; that’s going to take some time. I don’t want to import my videos into EdPuzzle to make them engaging and drive formative assessment. I don’t want to rearrange my classroom each time before class, moving desks and repositioning chairs for active learning. But you know what? Who I am and what I want doesn’t matter because if it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better.


I am an educator, and it is my job – my duty – to provide my students with the best possible educational experience I can deliver. In the past, it was up to me alone to try to figure out what that experience should be, but not anymore. The international standards published by the AALAS are a roadmap, a blueprint for how to deliver a transformative education to your students, and how to reach every single student, in every one of your classes, every single day. Will it be easy to conform to these standards? No. But remember: If it’s easy, it’s probably wrong; if it’s hard, it’s probably better. So make a promise to yourself, and the unspoken promise to your students, to work hard in following these standards. Join me in doing the better thing. Join me in doing the right thing. Join me in doing the harder thing. I can’t think of a better way to spend the winter break.


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on February 3, 2019

Thanks Thomas. Needed the nudge to persist in doing the right thing!

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