Asking a professor to teach better

Ryan 10/02/2018. 10 answers, 13.873 views
graduate-school mathematics etiquette teaching

In my mathematics program, one of the qual prep courses is being taught by a professor who, put bluntly, is not putting in the effort.

He is essentially reading from the book (which I don’t particularly like but it’s a standard text so fine), but his notes were clearly made years ago and he doesn’t seem reviewed them before class. There are often mistakes, inconsistent notation, repetition of material, a dearth of examples (read examples x.xx to x.yy in the book), etc. I know part of this is that he has many administrative duties, but still. He seems to be aware he isn’t doing great.

Is there a way I can bring this up with him politely but firmly?

I am aware the above seems harsh. I am perhaps letting my frustration get in the way of asking a good question.

I certainly don’t want to give a stern lecture, that’s why I’m posting here. I would say I have built up a rapport with this professor, I’d say we like each other and I know he is capable of teaching well. On the other hand, I feel there aren’t questions I could legitimately ask. When the last thirty minutes of one class are the first thirty minutes of the next, what is there even for me to say?

Perhaps related, I am rather confident of my grasp of the material, which I’ve seen before, but many of the students are first years, who are of course also adjusting to graduate school so. I understand that ultimately learning is in the students but this is the first grad course.

10 Answers

Avelina 10/04/2018.

I generally agree with xLeitix's description of how you should approach your lecturer. I thought I would write an answer anyway to encourage you to speak up. I have encountered an unusual amount of bad lecturers and in my opinion it is always worth a try.

Venting your frustration to your professor is not going to lead to constructive change. As xLeitix said, giving concrete examples is the way to go. However, if your professor struggles with too much work load already or has lost their passion for teaching, take into consideration how much additional work this might mean for him. I found that approaches where the students display some initiative and willingness to learn usually work well and might even inspire change. Something like a group of students presenting the results for an exercise instead of the professor reading it off his answer sheet constructed 20 years ago. A student volunteer covering the review of the concepts covered in the last lesson, rather than listening to his repetition. Or his summarizing the last lecture with student input by asking them, that has the benefit of him knowing where the knowledge gaps might be.

Talking to some of your classmates might give you some more concrete ideas. I, for example, often made a list of topics people did not fully understand and asked if it might be possible to dedicate part of a lesson to repeat those. Talking to the other students can also directly benefit the class dynamics both in and outside of the lecture. Some of your classmates might have lost their motivation, or think they are stupid and the only ones struggling. A sense of belonging and being in this together could help all of you deal, even if the quality of the lectures won't improve.

The inconsistent notation might not be so easy to deal with, it takes a lot of effort on the professor's side, and maybe some unlearning of bad habits. One way of addressing this is being annoying and pointing it out during the lectures, something along the line of: excuse me, is X equivalent to Y mentioned in the textbook. This might antagonize the professor, but it will help the struggling students understand the lecture better.

Will there be negative consequences for you? Speaking up will make you more visible than other students which can lead to negative and positive consequences. I found that having the support of an other faculty member helps. I do not mean having a faculty member help deal with the under performing professor. What I mean is that in case your professor takes constructive criticism as an attack on his competence or person and retaliates, being able to rely on the support of another faculty member is incredibly helpful. Having said that, I do not think that this is a very likely outcome in your case as you specifically mention that he is self aware of the problem and capable of teaching much better. You being a good student is also helpful, as no one can accuse you of making a fuss because you are about to fail the class.

I personally always found it worthwhile trying to improve the situation and helping the students that are not in a position to speak up for themselves.

xLeitix 10/03/2018.

If you want to bring this up with them, you need to focus on concrete things you want done differently. "Try harder" is going to (a) antagonize them and (b) not change anything for you (except maybe for the worse). The professor, as you say, is aware that they are not putting in much effort, and it is very unlikely that they will change this habit unless forced to.

I suggest thinking about what, concretely, would help you most if done differently. If you need more in-class examples, raise the issue as "I feel the class would profit from working through more examples in class". If the inconsistent notation is a problem, ask him if it is possible to unify notation. These are not things that are an incredible effort for the teacher, so they have a realistic chance of getting addressed. Complaining and hoping that the teacher somehow sees the error of their ways isn't.

That said, there is a good chance that all complaints and requests coming from you directly to the teacher will be brushed aside. If the teacher is as badly prepared and unmotivated as you say, they are probably not the kind of person who would care deeply about student satisfaction. In that case, going one level higher (i.e., complaining to the programme manager or equivalent) is often more useful. While this will not typically improve things rapidly, it will likely improve the situation of this course over time, especially if complaints are raised from different classes (it's hard to continue to brush off student complaints if the same complaints come again and again for multiple years).

Vladhagen 10/02/2018.

The best approach to a situation such as this is definitely not to bluntly tell him "I think you are doing a poor job teaching this course. You need to try harder."

Building rapport with this professor may go a long way to encouraging him to "do better." From the perspective of the professor, I always felt more compelled to help students have a positive experience in my class when I knew them and when they made a good faith effort to engage with me in and out of class. Perhaps you could read the material in advance of class and come prepared with some questions to ask in class. After a few times of doing this, the professor will likely come prepared to engage with students a bit more.

From the perspective of a student, I know there are (hopefully rare) times where a professor is overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities, personal issues, burn-out, etc. As a student I had to take it upon myself to learn the material and succeed in the subject. Especially as I matured in my field, I saw that the successful students in my field did not rely on a professor to take them from ground zero to the stratosphere on a subject. The professor ultimately was there to supplement and formalize our learning. As this question is tagged graduate school, I even more emphatically feel that this is the case. When you are in graduate school, you have to be to the point where you can somewhat teach yourself the material as necessary. Once you are out of graduate school, there is no longer a professor to hold your hand and lead you along to the correct solution. You need to be able to find the answers for yourself.

I say all of this with the acknowledgement that some professors are stuck in their ways and that just building rapport and supplementing your in class experience with personal study outside of the classroom will not always change how a professor teaches. Note of course that if a professor does not respond at all to his students trying to engage with him, he is extremely unlikely to respond positively to a stern lecture from students or administrators about his sub-par teaching.

Buffy 10/02/2018.

In addition to the excellent answer of xLeitix here, you could also employ an independent approach. If it isn't forbidden by the rules at your university, you might want to form a study group of your peers who will jointly explore the topics of the class. You could take your joint class notes and try to merge them into something more comprehensible, for example. Law students are famous for this sort of thing, for example.

Since things like mathematics are best learned through practice, find ways to solve a lot of problems in the particular field, sharing ideas about them if possible. Take the professor as just one resource for your education.

I likewise agree with Vladhagen that a direct approach to the professor will likely be counterproductive. But you can ask for specifics, as in "I'm not getting the definition of limit. Can you say more about that?", or "Can you give some additional exercises to help me get it?" Make it about the subject matter, not the approach of the professor.

This will actually serve you well as you go on to higher level studies and need to find ways to dig deeper, even with a great professor.

Take the attitude that how he teaches is less important than that you learn.

user3067860 10/02/2018.

Fill out the course/teacher review form at the end of the semester. If you don't get one handed out to you, go to your department office and request one.


  • Anonymous, so it theoretically won't impact your relationship with the professor and your department.
  • Will be read by other people who can encourage the professor to do a better job.


  • Will not actually be in time to improve your personal experience.

David 10/03/2018.

This is intended as an adjunct to other answers.

You said, "I know he is capable of teaching well". How do you know this? Assuming you can point to a specific reason, a good non-confrontational way to raise the issue would be to say to the professor, "I think classes work really well when you whatever, do you think it would be possible to run other subject in a similar way?"

Do be aware though that if his notes are as out of date as you seem to be saying, then whichever way you put it, you will be asking him to do a lot of work. (On the other hand, why shouldn't you? It's part of his job and he ought to be doing the work.)

If he really is capable of teaching well, my guess would be that he's bored with this particular subject. Of course that's not an excuse - I'm sure he's not bored with picking up his paycheck :)

axsvl77 10/05/2018.

When I hear complaints about teaching in graduate school at a University, I always wonder why there is any expectation of "good instruction". Ideally, at this point you should be learning nearly on your own with just some hints from the professor. Good instruction is for high school, homework and exams are for undergraduate education, and grad school is for learning.

Here's what you should be doing at this point in your academic career:

  1. As soon as you find out the topics to learn in the course, read the suggested textbook and other textbooks as you see fit.

  2. Develop an understanding of the material on your own. Envision how you would lecture about this material.

  3. Identify what you don't understand. Consult with other students about the issue.

  4. Meet weekly with the instructor, and ask particular questions about the material that you don't understand.

From how you wrote the question, I believe that you may be acting like a freshman in college - showing up without reading the text, and expecting a beautiful, well rounded lecture. In graduate school, this should not be the norm - with only two courses per semester, it should be easy to learn mostly on your own.

Furthermore, as you advance, the textbooks and other materials get more and more sparse - that means you are reaching the limits of knowledge in your field. It will be you someday who learns the material, writes the text book, invents homework assignments and exams. The spoon feeding should stop!

HRSE 10/03/2018.

This does not address the immediate concern, but may be more helpful in the long run than antagonizing the professor.

Perhaps consider writing to your department head a quick note whenever some teacher's class is taught very well. Think about it this way: Aside from some promotion or prize award decisions, the teaching evaluations are rarely being looked at. With a quick email, you can nudge the administrators to the fact that somebody teaches well. Next time they need to make a decision regarding this teacher, they will be more positive. You can of course also complain, though your case is likely to be dismissed if you have not directly addressed the teacher yet and there are not sufficiently many students who complain.

Simply put, a passive signal (teaching evaluation) is less meaningful than an active signal where you take the initiative. Use that to improve incentives for good teaching at your department in general.

newComer 10/05/2018.

Before you actually complain to your department head try to use a soft approach with this professor. go to his office and talk to him, express to him the difficulties you have , bring the issue as if you asking for help and you came to him because you know he can help you with more examples , new book other than the one he uses now and any other thoughts you think it can make the learning process better.

Don't directly complain about his performance or make it his fault, we know that's a true but this is a certain way to turn off the conversation because people get defensive when someone blame them. also people tend to help when you ask them specially professors so keep the communication going and if that approach fails try again and bring other student with you, do this with your eyes on the calendar if he doesn't response you will have to complain.

Old professors are usually stubborn and they can move mountains to just prove that you are wrong. so you need to bring other student to complain with you and aid your complaint with facts. you could see my words as a lame advice but it is a needed step before you take the matter to a higher level.

BHinkson 10/03/2018.

Offer to take him out to lunch and for the chance to talk about the class. I always feel that it is best to talk to the person directly and if they refuse to change then you can go above them.

It could be that the professor feels that his students don't really care. If you can show him that you do, (and express that others in the course feel the same way) he will be more likely to make a change.

The professor needs to feel like he is doing something important in the classroom and not just in his research. Inspire him! - Download Hi-Res Songs


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