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What to do when your instructor is wrong?

  1. Feb 26, 2012 #1
    In my high school Phyiscs class, we have a new teacher, it's his first year teaching. And based on the things I am reading here, he has been giving the class some wrong information. There are times at which even the inexperienced students correct simple mistakes.

    Should I ignore everything he says and do my own independent study? I'd like to get a college degree in Theoretical Particle Physics and Astrophysics, and I doubt his misinformation is going to help get near that goal.


  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 26, 2012 #2
    What kind of wrong information? Teachers / professors make mistakes, just like anyone else.
  4. Feb 26, 2012 #3
    I understand that, I mean completely false statements. Wrong answers. I think he even gave us a wrong equation one time.

    I know he's not doing it on purpose, but it's kind of annoying when you're passionate about the class and you're being given a giant load of....
  5. Feb 26, 2012 #4
    This teacher of yours probably went through a lot harder courses than you give him credit for.
  6. Feb 26, 2012 #5
    I didn't give him or take away any credit. Sorry, but I fail to see how that's relevant.
  7. Feb 26, 2012 #6


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    Well, the first lesson you should take away from this is the fact that you should be reading ahead so that the material that shows up during class is not new. When something seems wrong, tell the teacher why you feel something is wrong. When you're new to teaching, you're bound to make multiple mistakes and give poor information from time to time. It's probably in the best interest of all parties involved to have an interaction between the students and teacher to make sure the correct information is being given out. Any teacher worth their wage should want to give the correct information and as long as you speak up in an inquisitive , rather than accusative manner, you should be able to nudge him into being more careful and possibly prep more for the lesson. I don't think any new instructor wants to be bad at their job from the get-go and will probably respond well to questions.
  8. Feb 26, 2012 #7
    That's actually not a bad idea! Thank you! I guess I should of remembered that I do have a textbook available. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I don't believe he gets the course material out of the textbook. I am always quick and ready to raise my hand and ask a question, but I am very shy and have a hard time speaking in public, so it gets tough for me to talk to the teacher without choking.

    I know he means well, it's just that I think he needs to review his material a bit more before giving it to us.
  9. Feb 26, 2012 #8


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    Along those same lines, politely asking at the time it's taught also gives your teacher a chance to correct you if s/he's not wrong and you've misunderstood something.
  10. Feb 26, 2012 #9
    I did this with one of my teachers.

    He said that in a closed system like a flashbulb, the weight of the bulb didn't change after the chemical reaction. I raised my hand and told him that the flashbulb was a little bit lighter after the flash because of the light that escapes. He said no, that light didn't weigh anything. I then said that the light had an equivalent mass by E=mc^2 so that was the mass that was lost.

    He started screaming at the top of his lungs that light didn't weigh anything. I just calmly told him he was wrong. The principal took over the science class after that for about a month.

    I suggest talking to him when the rest of the class isn't around.
  11. Feb 26, 2012 #10
    I'm assuming this was a highschool class as such relativity doesn't exist yet. Would you do the same thing when someone is trying to teach F=ma?
    There's quite a few things wrong with F=ma depending in what level you want to go, to yet I wouldn't say anything about it because everything I could say would be completely out of context, just like what you said.
  12. Feb 26, 2012 #11


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    You're ridiculous. That's nice that you had an understanding beyond the class, but most students are simply trying to get the basic concepts. One doesn't need to include general relativity in a course where students are barely learning currents and basic electricity. Including that simply creates more confusion and no self-respecting teacher would do such a thing.
  13. Feb 26, 2012 #12
    besides no teacher would ever have an nervous break down over something as stupid as that, atleast its a good story
  14. Feb 26, 2012 #13
    I recant my statement.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2012
  15. Feb 26, 2012 #14


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    I confess Antiphon, your intention may have been good, but that was certainly a smartass answer, even of you didn't realize it. You derailed a chemistry class with irrelevant information.

    Students need to understand that, in a closed environment, chemical reactions don't cause changes in mass.
  16. Feb 26, 2012 #15
    You guys are being a little harsh and a bit quick to judge. Antiphon simply wanted to point something out. And in fact, he pointed out something a bit interesting that might spark a bit of curiosity in a couple individuals. And if it didn't then so what? It was in completely good intentions anyways. His professor was the one who had the inappropriate reaction (screaming in a class?). No point in watering things down too much. It often does injustice to human curiosity, something that is lacked in this society.

    And besides, it isn't like he intentionally wanted to confuse other students (I doubt it even did any harm to students' understanding) or belittle the professor's example. He did what a scientist-mind would want to do, and that is correct something that is misinformed. By the way his story sounded, he had a normal response to the misinformation; no one is perfect and will know for sure how the professor would react. Another likely reaction would have been, "oh yes, interesting point. That is true but lets not get into the technicalities for the basis of this classroom, that won't be discussed and we will worry more about more basic chemical reactions." It kind of depends on the relationship with the professor I guess.

    Last edited: Feb 26, 2012
  17. Feb 26, 2012 #16
    You may be right. It was a 7th grade science class; E=mc^2 isn't general relativity and had in fact been taught but the point was conservation of mass.

    My instructor had an inappropriate and abusive reaction to my earnest attempt to clarify the science.

    I guess my point today is that if your instructor is teaching incorrect facts it might be better to take him aside after the lecture to make you point. You dont know how people will react in a public setting. That's my advice to the OP.

    Edit: I agree with Nano-passion. Some of the kids were interested until they became terrified of the instructor. A couple kids even asked why light doesn't weigh anything. It could have been a positive thing.
  18. Feb 26, 2012 #17
    If I was a 7th grade science teacher and a student corrected me by invoking relativity, I would say something like "Wow! Excellent! You're right, but for the purposes of our example, we don't need to worry about that. You'll learn more about E=mc^2 in more advanced courses."
  19. Feb 26, 2012 #18


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    Yep. And if the teacher hadn't been so out of his league, he might have thought of that. But he was obviously highly defensive about his knowledge.
  20. Feb 26, 2012 #19


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    I commend what Antiphon did for the reason that it is a) usually a brave thing to question a teacher and b) because it was the right thing to do (IMO).

    The best way I think the teacher could have handled it if there was any reason for teaching it they way they did was to acknowledge antiphon and then go on to say 'why' it was being taught the particular way it was being taught.

    This only takes half a minute, doesn't distract from the course or content and helps reinforce the understanding that a student like Antiphon brought up and on top of these, also gives students a reason why they are learning what they are learning.

    The teacher that Antiphon had needs a bit of a talk about 'human interaction' despite whether he was 'wrong', 'right' or somewhere inbetween.

    All you teachers out there, I would be grateful to have students like Antiphon as it will really add to the learning experience if its handled right (like suggestion above).
  21. Feb 26, 2012 #20


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    Really. Was it appropriate?

    In the classic mechanics course, where you're being taught about elastic collisions between billiard balls at 2 metres per second, would you be correcting the professor on his velocities by insisting he apply relativistic velocity addition formulae?
  22. Feb 26, 2012 #21


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    Again I refer to my comment above:

    The teacher could have acknowledged this fact and then said that 'this is a more general result that is true, but due to the factors involved that relate to this course we will use an approximation that doesn't require these corrections that give us accurate enough results'.

    There you go: bang, answered. If the students didn't know that then they know now and if they are wondering why this wasn't being told then they now know.
  23. Feb 26, 2012 #22
    I agree with Chiro here.

    In the classic mechanics course, where you're being taught about elastic collisions between billiard balls at 2 metres per second, would you be correcting the professor on his velocities by insisting he apply relativistic velocity addition formulae?

    Insisting the professor apply that formula is a bit absurd, that I agree with. But this other scenario was a sincere correction and not an smart-*** remark as opposed to telling the professor to use the relativistic velocity addition formula. It all lies within the intention, if the intention was to be a smartass then that is something else altogether.
  24. Feb 26, 2012 #23
    My math professor held up a little cartoon drawing the other day. Depicted was a kid rather like you who held up his hand and said, and I quote, "I have something completely irrelevant to say for the purpose of impressing you that will waste everyone's time". That is what you did.

    Your 'scientific' mind may scoff at bypassing the lost energy/mass in the form of light, but my 'engineering' mind says that the amount of energy lost would be tremendously obscured by any macroscopic application that would involve conservation of mass application. Indeed, the amount of energy lost to light would be eclipsed by the amount of energy lost to sound/vibrational energy in whatever process occurred in the closed system. So frankly, not only were you wrong to interrupt the class, but you didn't even focus your attention on the largest loss of energy/mass.

    I also call into doubt your story of the teacher's reactions. History is written by the victors. Sounds to me like another example of student-run classrooms.

    As for the topic at hand, when the instructor is wrong, I point it out humbly and respectfully if I feel it's a grave enough error. Usually I'm wrong, unless it's a sign error.
  25. Feb 26, 2012 #24
    On a similar topic.

    Go to 8:40...

    Is he an insightful student? Or a smart ***?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  26. Feb 27, 2012 #25


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    I couldn't hear what the student said (was pretty muffled), but Dr. Susskinds response was pretty good: he stated pretty much that it was 'un-necessary' for the task at hand but agreed that in principle the issue relating to the question that was asked was justified 'in principle'.

    I am not advocating any hard or fast rules here, but a real smart arse wouldn't stop after that one question: after the first, second, or even the third warning (if it ever got that far), if the lecture didn't come to a halt, then there would be some kind of 'face-off' between lecturer and student.

    There's a difference between someone bringing up something vs someone using a form of 'intellectual ego' and its not that hard to see.

    In a lot of my lectures, we are encouraged to pose questions and it turns out that while some questions might seem 'trivial' or 'pointless' (we don't really get the perpetual smart-arse), a lot of the questions are really useful and while I haven't asked them, I have no doubt gained from the question being asked regardless.

    It's not really hard to see when someone is being way too pedantic, but aside from this: it is important to consider the context of the subject in all of this.

    Mathematics is a very precise kind of subject, and I have noticed that mathematicians in particular can be super anal about anything from definitions to representations to 'even' the exact kind of notation used: it can pretty daunting personally witnessing ten minute discourse into argument about notation and equivalence thereof.

    But yeah again context has to be brought in and not surprisingly if you had a pure mathematician sit in on an engineering course, then they would no doubt have different perspectives, different expectations and basically a completely different focus. To that person, being 'absolutely anal' is just being mathematically precise.

    There's a whole lot of dynamics happening here which I haven't mentioned, but its important to consider some of these things.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
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