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How to deal with a teacher who doesn't even teach why things work?

  • Thread starter ode_to_joy
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Well, and what's the answer?? There is no answer. We don't know why Newton's laws hold. We don't know why math is so suitable to describe the physical world. We introduce those laws because they seem to describe nature and because they make quantitative predictions. We don't know why they do and we can't ever explain why.

The OP has every right being upset. But that doesn't mean that he'll get a good answer to his question.
No, there is an answer. That is, it is possible to provide motivation for Newton's laws. See, for example, the first chapter of V I Arnold's, Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics. The first step would be to argue for Galilean invariance. We don't know why nature has Galilean symmetry, and in fact, it doesn't. At least only approximately. Never the less, it is very clear why would WE would make such an assumption, as anyone who has ever been on a train can see (and as, Galileo argued originally, a ship at sea). There was a thread here, discussing how Newton came up with his laws.

And that is one answer to the OP's question. DON'T deal with teachers who won't explain the concepts. Find a book or other source that does or come up with your own explanations.

And it doesn't end there. One may give enlightening and intuitive derivations, or one may obfuscate things with gruesome and unenlightening calculations, providing no physical intuition. A wise student will simply REFUSE to take this kind of crap, and will go and read someone who conveys some understanding, rather than incomprehensible, unmotivated nonsense.

There is just no excuse for the way some people are teaching.

 
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mathwonk

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to the OP, they are called questions.
 
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Except he seems to be incapable of providing clear explanations. Sometimes. I would not expect him to answer every single question we ask though, since he is no god.
 

mathwonk

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did you say your instructor is not god? are you an atheist?
 
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to the OP, they are called questions.
You can always TRY that, but it's usually unlikely that there will be a good answer. If the professor were aware of a better way of explaining it, then they would probably have done so in the first place (I'm talking about situations where you understand what they are saying perfectly well, but what they are saying is conceptually inadequate for a deep understanding). In a few cases, maybe they are purposely dumbing it down, holding back more advanced explanations, trying to save time, had not figured out a very good way of putting it, etc, so it can't hurt to try, but there are some profs that you just can't expect much out of. And then, as I said, you have to take matters into your own hands.
 
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did you say your instructor is not god? are you an atheist?
Of course, I did not intend to bring any religious issue.
But I am an atheist.
 

Simon Bridge

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Some observations [long]:
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I've seen and used a wide range of learning and teaching styles, both personally and in colleagues. I am a trained educator and have conducted post-grad research in education methods and issues and philosophies. I am a long way from being an expert, and I would not accept the title even if I deserved it. This thread, however, seems to follow themes concerning the clash between learning and teaching styles. I intend to talk a bit about this, starting from some home-truths about lecturing and colleges and finishing with what this means for the student. This is not intended to be complete, but I hope that considering the points raised below will help some of the students and teachers reading it to a deeper understanding.
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Lecturing is well known to be the least effective form of teaching.
College lecturers are very seldom trained to teach.

Thus you end up with a bunch of people required to do something they don't know much about using tools that are ill-suited to the task. It is hardly surprising that you get a wide variation in lecturer effectiveness, even for the same lecturer. It is possible to study effective lecturing styles, there are more than one, and lecturers are motivated to do so - which is why only a few people actually suck too badly but everyone sucks a little bit. The trick for the lecturer is to try not to suck so badly that the students cannot compensate elsewhere.

Often, knowing your subject well makes the difference. However, you also have to know how your students learn - which is hard, and changes over time. So a lecturer can start out quite effective and, even without changing anything, loses effectiveness. On top of that, the lecturer changes over time as well.

The choice of lecturing style is strictly personal. Even a well researched style that is effective for one may be terrible for another. I have seen a lecturer struggle for years keeping up with the latest research, deliver clear and simple lectures, and still lose lots of students ... even though he was doing everything "right". This was because his students were expecting something different - something almost like what he was doing - and kept getting mixed up. The converse is also true - one of the most effective lecturers I've ever seen was mumbly, disorganized, and frequently lost his place, yet it all seemed to work and he was popular with high pass rates. It was as if the manner of his fumbles accidentally matched the student's thought processes and the core ideas got in.

Thus students can encounter problems even with effective and trained lecturers if the lecturing style used does not match well with the learning style. Paradoxically, this is effect is worse if the lecturing style is almost a match to the learning style, because, otherwise, it is easy to spot.

This is where student questions are welcomed by lecturers - the type and style of questions provide information about how the students are thinking about the subject and where the lectures may be missing part of the class and so on. Then the style can be adjusted - or, maybe, students can be directed to other sources of learning.

Even so, lecturers also have other things to do besides teaching ... this means they can miss the vital clues or, maybe, rationalize apparent lecturing shortcomings as something to do with the students instead. You do get years where students just don't seem to get it no matter what you do. You also have to try to use the limited lecture time efficiently-ish ... so you may not want to "waste time" answering conceptual questions in class or arguing with that one student who keeps asking slightly off-topic questions. Sometimes a persistent questioner is actually procrastinating, addressing a purely personal issue, or trying to derail the lecture. So when you ask questions - try not to look like one of those.

The best strategy for the student is to cultivate several different learning style - this way, your lecturers are more likely to be able to deliver a lecture that you can learn from.

There is a tendency for students to feel that, since they are paying a lot of money to attend college, it is up to the college to be good at educating them. Students should realize that this is a view seldom shared by the college.

College are usually about research. They take students in order to find the next generation of researchers ... so, as far as they are concerned, educating the students is almost a side effect of the search. Colleges, therefore, compete for the best quality students rather than competing to produce the best quality graduates. Really good students are also good learners, so the teaching part can actually suck badly without affecting the graduate quality. They see it as up to the student to do the learning - their job is to provide the opportunities to learn the kinds of things the college is interested in. They attract better students if the opportunities are good ones and so build a reputation... the reputation is Important. From the colleges POV, the student pays a lot of money to gain admission to the college. They've done that when they let you in the gate.

Of course, the economics and sociology of running a college is more complex than this - there are contractual complications and government regulations for eg - however, this describes, in a nutshell, the basic relationship between the college and the student.

This is also the main difference between a secondary school and a tertiary college. A High School exists specifically to educate the students - which is partly why attendance is compulsory, and you are forced to work longer if your grades drop, and so on. There is so much invested in actually teaching students and supporting their learning that college can come as a shock.

Lecturers usually join a college for reasons other than teaching. It's indoor work with no heavy lifting (except by choice), you get to do research, there's respect and social status, and the prospect of job security. This is why teaching times is so often an explicit requirement in academic contracts... it often gets in the way of why else you are there. Fortunately they have also been college students themselves so they know the score and the reluctance is not so bad. I have often has to pull lecturers out of their labs because they have forgotten they had a class scheduled - don't be afraid to do this.

With that in mind:

When a good lecturer looks like they are about to burn out (it happens) the college is motivated to send them on sabbatical next year or so. This does not help the current crop of students ... though those who do well despite a bad lecturing become more desirable as students in the next years. Colleges usually provide TAs to help struggling students anyway and they can argue that the student has many other ways of learning, they just have more of a challenge than normal. So there is not much motivation for them to fix your problems.

What this means for students is that, as well as different learning styles, you will also be more effective as a learner by (almost agressively) taking advantage of the resources the college begrudges you. Go to the tutorial sessions - use the TAs provided - use the library and IT resources - ask questions in lectures, but also seek out people to ask questions of outside lectures. Most lecturers have office hours, and many will assign grad-students to help undergrads. Develop strategies for handling these opportunities.

Which is finally back on topic :) How is a student best advised to do this?

Sharing strategies is a good approach and is where questions like this in PF can be most constructive. Each generation has to reinvent the wheel as learners to quite a large degree - so shortcutting the process for others by sharing your ideas can only help.

Actual strategies adopted will be personal - just like lecturing styles.

But there are general rules of thumb.

In lectures, questions need to be quick to ask and quick to answer. Recall that the lesson has been planned to fill the available time. If you need more than one follow-up question you need to take it outside lectures. But if someone else asks the second follow-up question, this tells the lecturer that the question has a wider interest and they are more likely to spend extra time addressing it with care.

Conceptual question are often best answered by a TA, and discussed between students in study-groups, over lunch, or in the bar. If the lecture is actually about conceptual issues, then short questions to clarify a position is a good idea. A short, polite, challenge is often welcomed. But don't argue the point - good lecturers will often throw out a questionable statement as a teaching tactic and you are supposed to go away and think about it - it is supposed to fire your mind. A bad lecturer will make these statements because they suck at teaching and you will just get a rep as a troublemaker.

A corrollory to this is to answer the questions thrown out to the class. Lecturers love this because it so seldom happens. (I'm not talking about rhetorical questions here.) Students are often reluctant to ask a pedagogical question because they are scared of looking stupid - however, students who gather the courage to risk it often find they actually end up looking smart, lecturers stop to talk to them outside of class, and huge chunks of the course suddenly drop into place.

This usually means forcing your brain to engage the question (for many students) because almost any public question draws a blank: "What's your name?" Blank! We've all experienced this sometime. Also, staying quiet can be an effective strategy - if you stay quiet then one of two things will happen: 1. someone else takes the risk, 2. the lecturer gets tired of waiting and provides the answer (and you can see the disappointment on their face). So it is possible to learn from the question without taking the risk ... but you learn best if you do take the risk, and taking that risk is one of the most powerful lessons you can learn. When we lose our fear of being wrong, we learn most effectively.

Lecturers bad at one thing may be good at something else. They may be great one-to-one, which is a bit of a bummer when you have 300+ students. Feynman gave great lectures, and his lecture series is quite good as a text-book, but he sucked as an actual educator. He over-thought it, and was too famous anyway. (BTW: you get the opportunity to attend a lecture by a Nobel prize winner - do so.) My own senior undergrad calc lecturer was so bad at it I stopped attending them and picked up the assignments from his office. OTOH: he gave great tutorials using counter-examples and naive reasoning. I've had a comp-sci lecturer whose lectures were boring as all hell but the coursework was gripping (though I was the only one who thought so and he was let go - learning styles... blah blah). My post-grad GR lecturer was in his 80's, and rambled disjointedly with gaps leading many of us to suspect he was going senile ... but his assignments were a wonder: he had a knack for conceptual problems with hidden subtleties. He was also good at singling out and nurturing talents in the class.
If you find your lecturer's strengths, you can play to them.

Sometimes there will be a very bad situation and students need to spot these early enough that they can lobby the college administration for help making up for the suckiness of the lectures. Colleges usually have well-established means, official and unofficial, to deal with these things. Then there's the student union. Remember, their default position will be to let it go. Even so, complaining well can alert the right people to a possible (from their POV) emerging problem so you may see an effect even if you officially get the brush-off.

I have personally been under review due to student complaints. Even though I was exonerated by the review, the experienced forced me to take another look at how I was teaching and I made some changes anyway ... even though what I was doing was not wrong, I realized I could do better. What I am trying to show you is that student complaints always have an impact, usually subtle. Treat the complaint as a chance to show your intelligence, maturity, and professionalism.

All of this involves the student becoming an actor in their own education. Good lecturers and colleges encourage this. Bad ones won't get in the way - much. So you can only win.

------------------------------
Still reading? I'm flattered! There is no way I can do justice to the topic in this small space.
I am interested in your opinions though - should this be a new thread?
 
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I hate the idea of student complaints. That's not a very good solution. I have faced them myself. Despite harboring a great deal of frustration with a handful of my profs over the years, I never even thought of complaining to the department and didn't even slam them very hard on evaluations.

It seems so sneaky, going behind someone's back and complaining to someone else about them. Before you get someone in trouble, you should tell THEM about it and give them a chance to work on it.

When I got complaints against me (I'm a grad student, by the way, but once taught my own class and have done many recitation sections), the irony was I was desperate for them to give me some suggestions on how to improve or ask questions or something. But they just didn't want to work with me at all. They just wanted me out. These complaints had nothing to do with conceptual matters, except that I suspect in some cases, the students were bewildered that I offered conceptual explanations where any of their previous teachers would have had them take things on faith or just derived them by brute force calculations. So, with low-level classes like what I was teaching, I was forced to the conclusion that it had to be dumbed down ever so slightly to avoid the students wrath. And it wasn't that big of a sacrifice. Only a few things here and there had to be cut out, and if I teach it in the future, I might just make a hand-out and pass it out, so as to make the concepts in question optional, but not short change the serious students.
 

Simon Bridge

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I hate the idea of student complaints. ...

It seems so sneaky, going behind someone's back and complaining to someone else about them. Before you get someone in trouble, you should tell THEM about it and give them a chance to work on it.
You'd have no problem if a student took their complaint to you directly then - at least if they tried to.

Often students feel unable to address problems directly to the tutor/teacher/professor whatever. They feel intimidated - perhaps they suspect that making trouble for you could affect their grades? Where you have a personality clash - students may feel that there is just no talking to you: they just want you gone.

I have personally been persecuted by a professor, which was very damaging and difficult to fix, just for pressing for details about how grades were awarded in one of his papers. (Learned later he was making them up.) So I can sympathize with students who feel they cannot talk to me.

Unfortunately the formal complaints process can be a tad confrontational.

This is why I point out that a well made complaint is valuable. The trick is making one. I didn't want to get side-tracked: "how to make complaints" is a huge topic all by itself.

Students need to realize that almost nobody is vindictive enough to go after you, or even mark down your papers, just for making a pain of yourself. This goes double at college level - there are just too many annoying students and not enough hours in the day. Almost everybody wants to hear your feedback.

Teachers need to realize that they often look quite intimidating to students. They need to take pains to make it easier for students to approach them.

I've known a great teacher whose students were terrified of him: I'd never seen anything like it. Its just his voice and manner scared everyone stiff. His classes were dead silent, with 100% attendance, all on time and his assignments were never handed in overdue.

Because of the fear, and he's never overcome it, he told me he has to be very careful. He gets senior and grad students to work with the class - because nobody comes to his office for help. Right at the start of each class he tells them who to ask (if you don't want to ask me). He makes sure everyone knows where the assistance rooms are and when a grad student specifically for them will be there. If he attends - nobody else does. It's weird.

But they do use the students. I know about all this because I was one.
(Basically - in front of a large class he went really forceful in his style, it was like being lectured by Gen. Patton or something ... with small classes he was fine.)
 
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You'd have no problem if a student took their complaint to you directly then - at least if they tried to.
Not only would I not have a problem with it. I would want them to do that, so that I get feedback. Once, I had them turn in suggestions on what I could do better for extra credit, but it's also possible to ask for anonymous feedback, too.

Often students feel unable to address problems directly to the tutor/teacher/professor whatever. They feel intimidated - perhaps they suspect that making trouble for you could affect their grades? Where you have a personality clash - students may feel that there is just no talking to you: they just want you gone.
In my case, I might not have appeared approachable or inviting, but I was not intimidating, in any way. I think the students intimidated me much more than I did them.
 

Simon Bridge

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It is very common for teachers to be intimidated by the students.

I remember early feedback from one class, when I was training, was "you don't need to be so scared of us". They can smell your fear :) but don't understand it so that will put them off you - like you are not being genuine with them.

I used to have once-a-week feedback to specific questions:
1. What have I done well?
2. What have I done badly?
3. What didn't I do that I should have done?
4. What has improved since last week?

Anonymous ballot - and I publish the results on the wall and talk about them (briefly) at the next lesson.

When you start teaching you become an authority figure - a kind of government (if you teach in a state school you are literally a government employee). Talking about yourself can help - who you are, what you do, why you think your subject is important. It a leadership role and it takes a while to learn.

Presumably you've figured that out :)
 
I also used to think why they skipped the major part when i was in Puc..i used to get frustrated and scratch my head everytime but later got to know abt it so buck up and do hard work.
 

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