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Featured Studying What Should I Do If My Professors Don’t Teach?

  1. Jan 22, 2018 #1
    I’m taking physics II and discrete math this semester. As the title suggests, my professors are awful. Their RateMyProfessor scores are both in the low 2 range. Of course, every person in both lecture halls is freaking out right now because the subjects are difficult and both professors love giving tests, yet can’t seem to avoid rambling about unrelated stuff in class.

    Long story short: I’m probably not going to be able to rely on the professors to teach me this semester. I’m really, really hoping that I can get all A’s this year. What do you guys recommend I do?
    I should note that I’m also working this semester (15-20 hours/week).
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 23, 2018 #2


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    That's a tough situation. Some professors of Physics teach, not-too-well, or barely. You must read and study from the book, do example problems from your book, do more than just the assigned exercises from your book; and you'll need to reread much of your book sections a few or several times, thinking, before you achieve good understanding.

    If you are employed part time, this makes things tough for sure

    Be sure you ask clear questions about things you do not understand.

    Using Rate My Professor to find a true assessment of any teacher or professor is not very useful.
  4. Jan 23, 2018 #3
    To be honest, you shouldn't do that even if they were good professors; oh sure I had some great professors who were quite inspiring/motivating and garnered valuable insights into the topics at hand but the onus is on you to learn the material and inspiring professors can only help you do that so much when it comes to exam time and you see questions that are asked in novel/different ways from a good lecture. In your situation I would attempt to find reference/supplementary books apart from your textbooks that could elucidate the material in ways that make sense to you, the Schaum's outline series are quite good sources of bare bones explanations and supplementary problems. The idea is to make sure that you can capture the insights in such a way that you could give at least a semi-accurate lecture of the material yourself if you had to, I might look into Cal Newports books or blog for decent examples of this, actually he has a whole article on discrete math which might help the idea:


    Good luck.
  5. Jan 23, 2018 #4
    In many courses, there are too many topics in the course description and documents submitted for accreditation than can be "taught" in the available class time. For example, a College Algebra class might meet 60 times with the same list of topics that a high school Algebra 2 class spends 180 days on. College classes assume students are working 2-3 hours outside of class for each class hour. They assume students are reading every assigned section from the book and working every assigned problem. In college, most learning happens during that preparation outside of class rather than being spoon fed by a professor in the classroom.

    Grow up and handle it.
  6. Jan 23, 2018 #5
    Many anonymous student evaluations say more about whether a professor lowers standards, gifts grades, and/or teaches to the tests than how well they might really teach.

    When I was at the Air Force Academy, a number of professors had outstanding peer reviews and reviews from administrators observing and reviewing their classes and tracking student performance in downstream courses. Yet, less experienced teachers tended to fare better on student evaluations, because they tended to teach to the test with less concern for longer term success. Yet, several faculty who reported to me had relatively poor student evaluations in classes where they assigned grades also had consistently rave reviews when giving "Extra Instruction" to students in other courses. (These faculty had job descriptions where more than half their teaching load was giving extra instruction in the evenings.) So, students loved them for their teaching, but hated them for their commitment to academic rigor.

    I made similar observations when I taught Physics at a community college. Professors at the community college across town fared much better on "Rate My Professor" in their first semester Physics courses than faculty at the community college where I taught. But not a single student who transferred and took the second semester Physics course from the college where I taught passed the course. NOT ONE! Why? Because our Physics 2 course required skills like vector addition and quantitative problem solving. Students from the other college had been gifted grades and had nowhere near the background knowledge and skills to succeed in a rigorous second semester Physics course.

    In addition to my more anecdotal observations, Carrel and West have some excellent observations in this paper: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/54b9/dc0f1813954d64fd0faed583abb907854896.pdf

    Across all subjects, student evaluations of professors are positive predictors of contemporaneous course achievement, but are poor predictors of follow-on course achievement.

    At the post-secondary level, student evaluations of professors are widely used in faculty promotion and tenure decisions. Both of these measures are subject to moral hazard. Teachers can “teach to the test”. Professors can inflate grades or reduce academic content to elevate student evaluations. Given this, how well do each of these measures correlate with the desired outcome of actual student learning?

    ... our results are consistent with the hypothesis that less academically qualified instructors may spur (potentially erroneous) interest in a particular subject through higher grades, but these students perform significantly worse in follow-on related courses that rely on the initial course for content.
  7. Jan 23, 2018 #6


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    1. You have textbooks, don't you? Use it! Rely more on it to understand the material BEFORE you come to class, and then use the class only as a "refresher". If the professor even touched on certain topics or examples in the lecture, consider that to be something that may be asked in the exam.

    2. You are blessed to be living at a time when you can easily do Google search on a topic, and a wealth of information usually appear. So you went over a topic both in the text and in class, and you still don't understand it. Search for it! Chances are, you'll come across another school's lecture notes, presentation, even worked-out examples. All of these are at your fingertips! Many of us older members on this forum had no such luxury when we were in college. Library index card, anyone?

    3. Your professors should have office hours. Go see him/her! Bring specific question, such as an example that was presented in class, or in the text, or even a previous homework, that you did not understand. Show what you did, and then seek assistance on where you got stuck. These professors are required to have office hours, or be available to meet with students, because they have been PAID to do so! If they are conscientious about their students, then your questions might signal to them that maybe students are not understanding the material as well as they were expecting. As an instructor myself, sometime it is like trying to get blood out of a rock in getting feedback from students on what works and what doesn't. Encourage your fellow students to do the same, and maybe if enough of you meet up with him/her, the message might get across.

    4. Make use of every available resources at your school. I will be very surprised if you do not have some free tutoring service on campus. Make use of this!

    5. Most importantly, never procrastinate. If you do not understand something, immediately try to figure it out. In physics, we tend to use the material to build more stuff on top of that. So if you do not understand something in the beginning, then you'll have a huge handicap in trying to understand subsequent material. Do not think that you can put off understanding a topic till "later", because you will often need to use it right away in the following class or topic!

    Last edited: Jan 24, 2018
  8. Jan 23, 2018 #7

    Stephen Tashi

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    It's hard to recommend things until we know your options. You won't get much sympathy here. It does no good to complain about instructors to advisers who have been instructors.

    On question that comes to mind is: why not ask specific questions about homework on this forum? - meaning specific homework questions not "pop sci" type questions. I'm not saying you should definitely do this because it takes awhile to get fluent in LaTex and if there is a lot of symbolism in the question, it may not be practical to ask it. I'm just suggesting that you consider if the idea is good for you.
  9. Jan 23, 2018 #8


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    Has your opinion of your teachers been formed by actually spending time in their class or hearsay? RatemyProfessor ratings are garbage. Since the semester has just started, I am skeptical that you can make such a definitive conclusion about them in the week or two that you have seen them teach.

    That being said, you are not going to go through 4 years of college without encountering a poor teacher or two. It's jus something you'll have to roll with. Sometimes they are very good with the subject matter but may not be the best in lecturing. Meet them outside class during their office hours. They may be perfectly fine explaining concepts to you with a paper and pencil. Use the teaching assistants and ask them questions. Solve every problem in the textbook. Ask the professor and the TA to help you solve any problems that you couldn't do by yourself.
  10. Jan 23, 2018 #9


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    Another point I might add is that you may also have the option of voting with your feet.

    Every university is going to have some less-than-stellar professors. Everyone who has been successful in academia has figured out how to deal with such circumstances in their own ways, and there's a lot of good advice on doing that in this thread. But ultimately, if you don't feel you're getting the education you're paying for from this particular university, remember that you have other options.
  11. Jan 23, 2018 #10
    What precisely are you paying for then? How frustrating!
  12. Jan 23, 2018 #11


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    That idea has come-up in other places and sites too. Students are not customers, so what they are paying for is a little different than typical service as trade.

    Professors and teacher can and have done the learning for themselves. They can not do the students' learning for the students.
  13. Jan 23, 2018 #12

    Charles Link

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    This topic is interesting. It was my experience at the university (almost 40-45 years ago) that many of the professors were simply amazing and wonderful educators=just simply amazing people, and others were not only poor as educators, they were also very difficult to get along with. It seems you have to simply work with what is in place. I will quote one of the more difficult professors, (academically very astute, but simply very difficult), who gave feedback to a student who complained to him about his T.A.,(teaching assistant), who he didn't think was teaching the discussion section very well: "I'm going to be frank with you, and I am seldom this frank with a student: Every physicist needs to learn to make certain approximations". As difficult as this professor was, I think he gave the student a good answer.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2018
  14. Jan 23, 2018 #13
    I'm a little confused. Are you saying there is a fundamental difference in teaching responsibility say between K-12 and college? If so, how odd! First 12 years the public pays for you and you get real teachers, then you personally pay tens of thousands and are expected to self learn? Can you elaborate on college students not being customers? Are college kids suckers who should just buy the textbooks and self learn?
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2018
  15. Jan 23, 2018 #14


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    Another point of view is that students are indeed customers and they are paying for a quality education. They're not paying to be spoon-fed answers and patted on the head as they walk out the door into the real world with sub-par education and abilities. It's a bit like paying to go to a boot camp to get into shape. They're going to be tough on you, and you should know this before signing up.
  16. Jan 23, 2018 #15
    The big difference in college is the bulk of student learning time and effort occur outside the classroom. The expectation that students spend 2-3 hours of preparation outside of class for each hour in class is explicit in most college course accreditation documents. So instead of personally teaching each bit of learning in detail (and often gone over three times) like in high school, the professor designs a complete course giving lots of guidance (assigned reading, homework, other resources) on how students spend most of their learning time outside of class to fully accomplish the learning objectives in a course.

    It simply is not possible for a college professor to "teach" in the 45-60 hours of class time in a 1st semester Physics course what a high school teacher can "teach" in 180 hours of class time in a (more or less) equivalent AP Physics class.

    As education systems move toward business models of operation, there is a strong tendency to misidentify the student as the customer. Rather than being the customer in a business model, the student enters as the raw material and leaves as a value-added product. Misidentifying the student as the customer leads to interpretation of the course credit or degree as the product. The true product is the additional knowledge, skill, and ability that course credit and degree should represent. Consequences are potentially disastrous, because the notion that “the customer is always right” can lead to the perceived product (course credit or degree) meeting the desires of the misidentified “customer” (student) rather than the real product (value added to student) meeting the standards of the properly identified customers (future employers and taxpayers).

    See: http://cds.cern.ch/record/1005404/files/0612117.pdf
  17. Jan 23, 2018 #16


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    my typical advice is to go visit MIT OCW and/or MITx on edx and go through the materials of the comparable class there. If something is markedly different from your syllabus, you may bypass it, but there should be a lot of very noticeable common ground.

    Discrete math could be extra concerning, though, as the course is frequently people's intro to proofs... if it is in effect your intro to proofs, you need to put some extra work on lots of proof exercises, and get lots of criticism from people (perhaps in the Homework forums here).
  18. Jan 23, 2018 #17
    A number of years ago, I chaired a "Grading Standards Committee" in preparation for a initial ABET evaluation. There was strong suspicion of grade inflation.

    In a department of 13 Mech Engr faculty, we reviewed all the grades assigned for a three year period (grade sheets were obtained from the registrar). We also reviewed the teaching evaluations received by the same group of faculty. There was an absolutely amazing correlation between grades given and evaluations received; it was perfectly linear, except for two outliers. There was one faculty member who gave very high grades but was still rated poorly. There was also one faculty member who gave consistently low grades, but was highly rated as a teacher. For the other 11, there was a perfect linear relationship.

    When the graph of evaluations versus grades given was presented to the faculty, there was a gasp and you could see each person locating their point on the graph (with that small of a faculty group, this is not difficult). It was also pretty easy to figure out who the other points were, and it was all laid bare for the whole faculty to see. Grade inflation dropped significantly after that.
  19. Jan 23, 2018 #18


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    I had a very talented professor in undergrad who made an interesting point to the class when discussing the teaching styles of different professors. His comment was perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, but still very thought provoking.

    He said that in some ways having a professor who does not seem to teach very well can be thought of as bad, and a disadvantage for the student. It will likely result in worse grades for some students, and may cause some students to drop out of that major or even drop out of school altogether.

    But then he said that you might also consider such a professor with a teaching style like that to be good overall and good in the end for the (better) students, because that challenges them to learn more on their own, and to learn how to learn more on their own. That gives them extra skills that they would not learn from a professor and a class that teaches them everything they need to know without them having to figure it out on their own. And for the better students who will end up going on to graduate school and challenging positions in industry and R&D, learning how to learn hard things on your own can be a very important skill.

    Food for thought...
  20. Jan 23, 2018 #19


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    Most of us professors, even those of us with really terrible rate my profs scores, are actually trying to teach. After decades of passionately trying to do this difficult job with widely varying degrees of success with widely varying audiences, my point of view is this: Teaching is largely communicating, which is a 2 way street. The teacher needs to use the proper language for the particular student and the student needs to provide some feedback as to what is working and what is not. To give an extreme example, what if the prof came in and spoke german one day, not realizing the class did not know german. he might be trying as hard as he can to lay out some concept but he is assuming background knowledge the class does not have. eg you may have read books where this quote was cited as highly interesting:
    " de ganze zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles anderes sind menschen werk." (pardon my sloppy german). But this may or may not be as striking to you as " God created the integers, all the rest is the work of men."

    In the same vein, if a calculus professor assumes (as he might well be forgiven for) that the students know euclidean geometry well, or trig, or high school algebra, he might take things for granted in his explanation that are not at all clear to some members of the class. He cannot correct this error unless some brave students speak up and admit they are not following certain parts of the lecture. E.g. it often happens that a student will criticize a professor's lectures but say that the professor is better in a one on one situation such as office hours. The reason for this is likely that in that setting the prof can read from the student's face where he needs to fill in details and then can do so.

    When a prof prepares a class blind, and perhaps with little experience teaching it, he tends to assume as background knowledge those topics that are listed in the course syllabus as required prerequisite information. Unfortunately experience shows that only a few students have this information ready at hand. E.g. if you can proceed from one class to the next with a C- or D, that means such students probably knew less than half the prerecquisite material even a year or more earlier when they took the exam, and now at the beginning of the next class remember far less. The experienced prof has learned that he needs to review and recall almost every basic result that he will use, but he still may do so in a way that does not speak to everyone.

    Many profs will make experiments such as sending students to the board, or learning their names so as to be able to question them, to get more information on how to communicate, but many students are shy about these things and resistant to them. So the problem is how can the students make the prof aware of just what language he needs to use to teach the course? Some classes even have 100 or more students making these things still harder.

    For this reason it is very helpful always to visit office hours, not only to get more personal and precise help for yourself, but also to help the professor learn what things he needs to be more clear about in the lectures. If you do this and also ask questions in class regularly, you can greatly enhance what your current professor and any professor, teaches you. You have a right to learn from him but it is incumbent on you to help make this conversation meaningful to you, by letting him know just where it is not working at present.

    The article cited above on the effects of various professors was also quite interesting to me when I read it. Based on an experiment at the air force academy, it actually found that better qualified professors (academically) tend to give lower grades and receive lower evaluations, and yet their students perform significantly better in later courses. So you may be learning more than you think, even now. But don't waste this chance to learn from this man as much as possible.
  21. Jan 23, 2018 #20
    I have never performed the formal experiments, but I know this to be most certainly true. A teacher cannot possible teach that which he does not know, and I've seen some fail utterly in the effort. Conversely, those better prepared generally will have higher expectations; they know more of what is reasonable and possible to achieve.
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