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Professor is a nice guy, but he is not teaching well. Thoughts?

  1. Sep 26, 2012 #1
    I am currently enrolled in an introductory Systems & Signals Processing course.

    The problem is, this has thus far turned into a series of lectures on the nuances of the Fourier Transform, i.e. special cases and difficult problems.

    Why am I complaining? Well, in his syllabus, he lists a general order of topics. They make sense. They go along with the two texts provided to us (one of which is his own!), as well as other reference materials I've consulted.

    According to his syllabus, we've jumped right into week 7/8. That was about 2 weeks ago, week 2 of the semester. Now we're at about week 10 (according to his syllabus), but we're really only 4 weeks into the semester.

    This is making learning unnecessarily difficult for me. The course material is tough enough to begin with, but it's hard for me to learn anything when all of the external resources that I've consulted assume I have knowledge of the previous chapters in the textbook. I don't, because my professor has jumped right into the middle.

    It's not like I'm not solid on my pre-reqs; the only two pre-reqs are a programming course and Calculus II. I know my integration techniques & improper integrals. Unfortunately, four weeks into this course, I still don't know a thing about systems and signals.

    I am particularly frustrated because another professor at my university is teaching the same exact course, and they're actually going in order! I know this because I've looked at their assignments and lecture notes. They are easily understandable because he actually introduced signals and systems, basic linear algebra, complex number theory, etc. without jumping into applications of the Fourier transform.

    How should I address this professor?

    He's a really nice guy; he'll even let you turn in homework late at no cost. I know he's bright and a decent entrepreneur as well. The problem is, I feel like he doesn't know how to teach this material to students who know absolutely nothing about this subject matter. I don't want to come off as rude, but I'm really interested in learning this material. I wouldn't want an A or a B if I didn't come out of this class learning a thing or two about systems and signals.
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 27, 2012 #2
    I personally would not approach the professor and criticize his lecturing style. Perhaps he has always been a poor lecturer but has been a great research professor. It is quite unlikely that his lectures do not have the proper flow just this single semester.

    I have had a similar experience at my ug university. The professor was a really nice guy but the lectures were 3 hours long + we had biweekly 2 hour seminar. We covered everything and nothing at the same time. I could not understand why he was talking about the Hilbert transform midway to the semester when at that time I barely understood the basic CT Fourier transform. Nothing I could do about that. He was the only lecturer that term.

    Fast forward about seven years. At this point I do not longer question the validity of the course. I have learned that the real teacher is a good textbook and not the guy giving the lecture. S&S are one of the foundation courses and the lectures physically cannot contain all the material you should know.

    Why don't you buy the Discrete-time Signal Processing by Oppenheim and Schafer and study on your own a bit? The second edition is available on amazon for a few dollars. MIT might have some material on their OCW website as well.

    Just my two cents, others might think differently.
  4. Sep 27, 2012 #3
    First of talk to the other students in the class so you know that you aren't the only one feeling that.

    Ideally your school should have a student representative system of some kind to handle such situations. Most of the professors I've seen are actually glad to have constructive feedback on how they teach, since they want the time they put into teaching to actually mean something. If it doesn't work to talk to the professor you can talk to the department leader, or whatever fits, which should definetly have an interest in the classes in the department being well taught. And then you mustbe sure it isn't only you feeling the course is badly taught.

    If grades aren't given anonymeously you think of that.
  5. Sep 27, 2012 #4

    I appreciate your help, but did you fully read my post?

    I've consulted a lot of external resources, including the book by Oppenheim & his lectures at MIT OpenCourseware. They're incredibly helpful, but it's difficult for me to make great use of them when, like I said earlier, they assume you've learned all the necessary background by the time they present the material on the Fourier transform. The "necessary background" has been developed in the lectures/chapters leading up to the Fourier transform.

    Considering my workload, it's unrealistic and, in my opinion, unnecessary for me to have to go through hours of lectures from other schools and 7-8 chapters w/ problems in other books just to prepare for one of my teacher's lectures.

    Sure, I can learn Systems & Signals by just reading on my own, but I'd still be horribly under prepared for his tests because I'd be so behind.

    I've found some notes from Standford that may be of some use, but we'll see.
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  6. Sep 27, 2012 #5


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    As Gullik suggested, I would go to someone "higher up" in the department and explain your concerns. In a small department this would probably simply be the department chair. In a large, bureaucratically-run department there might be a "coordinator of undergraduate instruction" or "undergraduate advisor" or something like that. It would probably help if you can find other students with similar concerns, who can back you up.
  7. Sep 27, 2012 #6


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    Gullik suggested talking to the professor first. I think that's a good idea. If I was the prof in question, I would want to hear about this from my students. I would take the message pretty seriously if it came from a student who was in the top 25% of the class.

    The discrepancy between the syllabus and the actual course seems strange, and I can't imagine the prof taking it wrong if you simply opened a conversation about the discrepancy.
  8. Sep 27, 2012 #7


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    Talking to the professor first is a good idea. Just don't be confrontational. I had a Calc prof in my freshman year that set me seriously off-track. It was an 8 am class, and he showed up late, sleepy, and totally unprepared. It was impossible to get a straight answer out of him, and when one of us caught a mistake in his calculations and pointed it out, he would quickly erase the board, saying "Just a mistake in the algebra." as if that absolved him of any responsibility to explain the materials that he was supposed to present.

    I approached him during office hours, and asked if I could drop his class or transfer to another, and he said that he would flunk me. I then pointed out some of his bad behavior, and he agreed to "dropped passing" (only after I threatened to go to the dean).

    There are good teachers and bad teachers in every field. The best teacher in that class was a friend from a state mock-government project in HS (Boy's State). I didn't want to impose on his time too much, but Jeff could explain the details that the prof glossed over in just a few seconds. It's a good thing for him that he didn't live down the hall from me - I would have been camped outside his door some days.
  9. Sep 27, 2012 #8


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    I thought of that, too, but I think a student should be very careful about how he/she brings up a subject like this, so as not to make the professor defensive about it.

    I agree the discrepancy is strange, especially if the professor wrote the syllabus himself. Maybe he was "drafted" to teach that section of the course at the last minute and simply "borrowed" someone else's syllabus so as to have something to hand out, and then proceeded to do things his own way regardless.
  10. Sep 27, 2012 #9
    I did read your post. While I sympathize with you, talking to the departmental chair and so will not help you prepare for a midterm, let’s say. Sure, you can do that and point out the discrepancy but it won’t further your knowledge.

    Also, isn’t it possible that the prof. simply wants to do Fourier Transform first and then other elements of S&S such as Laplace Transform, LTI systems – poles, zeros, differential equations, convolution, impulse and step responses?

    I have seen the course taught both ways.

    There are so many topics in S&S that you can almost freely shuffle them around. It would be beneficial to see the syllabus to evaluate professor’s conduct.
  11. Sep 27, 2012 #10
    Everyone, thanks for your answers! I e-mailed my professor this morning, and when he responds, we'll probably set up some sort of meetng.


    I understand this, but are there not certain elements of the course that you must learn prior to covering Fourier Transforms? We didn't even cover the transition from Fourier Series to Fourier Transform; we jumped right into it. My TA actually was shocked that my professor didn't explain this, so luckily he did the derivation during discussion.

    Also, I think you're mixing my posts up with another's; I never mentioned bringing it up with the departmental chair. I said, "How should I address this professor?"

    Here is his schedule in his syllabus, so you can see what I mean. We half-covered weeks 1/2. It's not like a general syllabus, it's his own personal syllabus.

    Week Topics
    1 Introduction to signals and systems
    2 MATLAB and signal processing
    3 Introduction to vectors and matrices
    4 Linear algebra and signal analysis
    5 Inner products and projections
    6 Least squares approximations
    7 Discrete Fourier Transform
    8 Structure and properties of the DFT
    9 Signal detection using the DFT
    10 FFT algorithm and applications
    11 Problems in signal processing
    12 Linear filtering and signal processing
    13 Linear filtering and signal processing
    14 Discrete time control systems
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  12. Sep 27, 2012 #11
    That's an interesting one. I would expect the students to know the basic algebra before enrolling in this course. Lectures 3 - 6 should really give you one fundamental piece of knowledge: The Fourier Transform is a decomposition of a signal into its weighed mutually orthogonal spectral components. Perhaps he assumes all students are familiar with basic linear algebra.

    One things that surprises me is that the whole curriculum is centered on the Discrete FT. The transition between CT and DT is rather straightforward. The FFT algorithm (decimation in time, frequency, butterflies) is a crucial part of the DFT calculation but again, it is curious that there is virtually no emphasis on the very core of S&S as mentioned above. I would assume you have a basic understanding of the CT version from a different course, say linear circuits. You mentioned that the TA had to explain the difference between Fourier Series and Fourier Transform to you. This makes me think that you have not seen any kind of FT before taking this course.

    Does your university provide a course focused solely on CT systems? I would dare to call this course "Discrete Systems".
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  13. Sep 27, 2012 #12
    Your guess is as good as mine.

    There's a HUGE Matlab component. None of us are really that great at MATLAB, but he assigns us problem sets (usually unrelated to what we're learning in class) that are almost nothing but MATLAB. No guidance. It wouldn't be that bad if we were familiar with the subject material, but we really aren't.

    Another funny thing is that though the CT Fourier Transform is not mentioned in the syllabus, that's pretty much what we've been going over thus far.

    This is only a 200 level course. There is a 300 level course with the exact same title at my school for which the 200 level is a prerequisite.

    I actually know linear Algebra and differential equations, but neither are officially required for this course. Most people have taken differential equations, but I don't think that many have taken linear algebra.

    And no, there is no "linear circuits" class that I know of at my university. At least, not at the 200 or 300 level. In fact, I've never even heard of a course with that title at any university. I knew nothing about signals going into the course, including the Fourier Transform.

    I e-mailed the professor around 9:30 a.m. this morning, but I still have yet to receive a response.

    Also, you are completely right. The official course title is called: ELEMENTS OF DISCRETE SIGNAL ANALYSIS. I may have been slightly misleading in my initial post, but the basics should still be the same regardless, right?
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2012
  14. Sep 27, 2012 #13
    I'd love it if students actually told me what they wanted, rather than dumping complaints on me at the end of the semester or going and complaining to the department (last time, I guess I didn't get any complaints to the department, though). That would be great!
  15. Sep 27, 2012 #14


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    Professors are in a position of power over their students, so it's not necessarily easy for students to complain without fear of retribution. Even if the student isn't afraid that the prof will unethically retaliate, students are often very intimidated by their profs.
  16. Sep 27, 2012 #15


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    And rightly so! :devil:
  17. Sep 28, 2012 #16
    That seems to reflect my undergraduate experience. For some reason, DSP and signals type classes seemed worse than others about jumping around without connecting material or progressing in an orderly fashion.

    All I can suggest is do a lot of reading on your own to try to catch up on what you feel you have missed. You can talk to your professor, but what you might keep in mind is that he/she has probably taught that class dozens of times. I doubt they are going to change because you don't like the way it is taught.

    As for MATLAB, that is the way my UG school taught MATLAB. In DSP, which was one of the earliest required engineering classes, you were assigned MATLAB homework/lab problems and you basically figured out how to do them on your own.

    What I did learn to appreciate later is that both of these things do reflect what you will end up doing professionally. A new project/problem might require you to quickly learn a software tool you have never used before and you will spend a lot of time learning/relearning material for specific problems as they arise.
  18. Sep 28, 2012 #17
    I think you're going to be disappointed. If you complain, or question his teaching style, or anything like that, he's not going to take it well and probably be insulted. What I mean is that I think you should just take it like he gives it to you, not complain, don't antagonize or insult him, and just make the best of it by studying what you need on your own. So personally what I think you should do if you haven't engaged him yet is to change your plan and not confront him about the matter, but just rather askes him some innocuous quesitons.
  19. Sep 28, 2012 #18
    I remember taking a circuit-based course each semester for the first two years. Those courses had taught me dif. eq., Fourier and Laplace before I had a chance to learn the material in a Mathematics course a semester later. Each university has a different scheme of presenting material to students.

    I find it odd that you are taught the FDT before the CFT but at the end of the day the order does not really matter. Enjoy the ride ;).
  20. Sep 28, 2012 #19
    I just want to chime in and say that having a bad professor is not an excuse for not learning the material. Last semester I had a bad professor and an even worse textbook in one class. I got an A because I was on top of a very low curve, but I only understood the material kind of well. Yes, it was because of poor instruction, but now that we're applying ideas from that class I'm seriously regretting not putting more effort into finding other material to learn from.

    By all means, talk to your professor in a tactful manner, but especially if you're in electrical engineering, not learning signals and systems is just going to hurt you later on. Instead of spending hours learning it by yourself now, you'll spend hours frantically trying to learn it later so that you can understand what the heck you're doing in a class that uses the stuff from this class. Besides, learning stuff on your own is a useful skill to have. You won't always have a structured course with a lecturer to help you learn things.
  21. Sep 28, 2012 #20
    This professor is so hard on us but his lectures are flawless.
    The other one has just so so lectures but he's a nice guy, so what.
    Did you hear about that one? He is such a famous researcher and his lectures are cool too!

    The world around us has a tendency to find its equilibrium. Thus, a combination of a bad researcher with a bad lecturer does not last very long. Student complains will take them down sooner or later, I would guess at the end of an academic year.
  22. Sep 28, 2012 #21
    I dont understand why every suggests to avoid the issue. Get some courage and have a meeting with your professor. Maybe he can directly directly help you or perhaps he will sufficiently justify his teaching methods. There is no point in going through round-about path. It is his class, not the department heads or other faculty.
  23. Sep 28, 2012 #22

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    There is a difference between talking to a professor and complaining to a professor.

    "You're a nice guy but you aren't teaching well" is likely to provoke one kind of reaction. "We're 5 weeks into the syllabus after only 1 week and I am struggling to keep up" is likely to provoke a different one.
  24. Sep 28, 2012 #23
    . . . gonna' run into nothing but problems I think: the OP is upset about his teaching style and as hard as he tries, he's gonna' let some of that fustration out during his engagement and the prof will pick up on it instantally that he's challenging his credentials and bingo: bad-blood between them so when it comes to the end of the semester and you're teetering on the A-B line . . . redemption.
  25. Sep 28, 2012 #24


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    Or maybe this: "If we understood <topic 1> better, it would help us with <topic 2> which we're covering now. Maybe you could spend a little time on that?"
  26. Sep 28, 2012 #25
    Also, dont speak for the class speak for yourself. Dont be afraid. Its a lot more respectable to confront as issue man to man than to passively aggressively complain to the department head. I can also gaurentee (sp?)you that they will ask if you spoke to your professor first.
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