Take the 2-minute tour ×
Academia Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for academics and those enrolled in higher education. It's 100% free, no registration required.

One of my professors has been in the IT development fields for over 40 years. He thinks he is up-to-date with all the latest research and technology. But in reality, he's not.

The problem is - he hates when a student (like me) dares to point out his mistakes or flaws in reasoning. Or when a student suggests a better (modern) solution to a problem.

How to deal with such a situation - should I keep challenging him or keep quiet until the end of semester? I don't want to lose grades (he's been known to give lower grades to students who asked him too many questions he wasn't able to properly answer).

share|improve this question
Perhaps your professor is not against you pointing out his mistakes, but is against you pointing out his mistakes in public. He might take it as a sign of disrespect. You might want to communicate with him in private so that he doesn't lose face. (Although I personally have no problem with students pointing out my mistakes in public; in fact, I encourage them to do so.) –  Joel Reyes Noche Jan 15 at 5:26
Usually I don't care about examples, but this question would be far more interesting with examples. As a matter of fact, I have hear about something similar wrt a boss being wrong and the employee telling the story is who was actually wrong... –  Trylks Jan 15 at 10:59
Don't challenge the person -- that is confrontational, and generally will not lead to a productive outcome. If you believe there is a more "modern"/better alternative, then you could just ask about it in a way that lets him do his job -- instruct with what he knows. But be careful, you might just get tasked with "Please research a qualitative comparison of the two solutions, and come prepared to present to the class at the next meeting". –  railsdog Jan 15 at 13:16
@shwetaG: never argue with a professor — This is one of the few times I wish I could down-vote comments; like many other professors, I actually prefer students to tell me when I screw up. –  JeffE Jan 15 at 18:52
You're asking for advice on how to handle a situation without stating what your goal is. Is your goal to change the professor's behaviour? Convince him you're right? Graduate on time? Don't make us guess what your goal is; if you want advice on how to achieve a goal, state the goal. –  Eric Lippert Jan 15 at 22:03
show 23 more comments

9 Answers

Short answer: Probably not.

As you pointed out, you may lose out on grades by challenging this professor. A larger problem, in my opinion, is when you (the student) approach the class with an attitude of discovering the professor's many mistakes. With this attitude, you also lose out on the opportunity to learn from his expertise. While this particular professor may not be as modern as you would like, it does not mean you cannot learn from him!

Keep quiet until the end of the semester, except when you have a valid question. And don't approach intending to prove him wrong; approach intending to find out how you can learn from what he knows. Ask questions because you want to learn, not because you want to prove the professor wrong. If you believe you know a better solution, it might be appropriate to ask "Would this solution also work? If not, why not?" Ask, don't tell. Your professor is human too, and most of us have a hard time always responding graciously to a smarty-pants student who thinks they know more than we do!

share|improve this answer
I guess you're right; it's not worth trying to prove your point because no matter what (I should assume) a professor wants me to succeed. –  user10815 Jan 15 at 5:07
The professor probably doesn't give a damn about your grades. They're your grades and he has other students that, if you start messing up their grades, will be a different story. If you think he's wrong then there's no need to wait but "Ask, don't tell" is a good policy to follow up after the lecture/lesson (an email with references to books or good sources and ask why he disagrees with that source.) –  James Snell Jan 15 at 13:56
Furthermore, assume you are right. Then what's the big deal? Just sit there and be right. –  Jonathan Landrum Jan 15 at 22:12
@JonathanLandrum: The big deal is, all the other students are learning wrong. In some situations, "Sit there and be right" is safe, but selfish and unethical choice. (I wrote a specific example of this in the question comments.) –  Amadan Jan 16 at 1:40
@JonathanLandrum I had the opportunity to be seated on third-world schools and unfortunately lot of what is taught are SIMPLY wrong, perhaps partly due to brain drain -> therefore lack of good professors :( –  Secret Jan 16 at 10:52
show 6 more comments

Have you ever seen a skit on The Chapelle Show called, "When keeping it real goes wrong"?

Trust me when I tell you that every class in every semester has a student that thinks he or she knows it all.

It can be hard to stand in front of a class and have all the answers. Sometimes when I've stood up there and say something, I've felt rushed to give an answer so I don't look stupid, and it just came out all wrong so I looked (or felt) even more stupid. Then I just walk around for two days realizing how stupid I am.

Even the best professors can be wrong, but the better ones will at least correct themselves in the next class or send out an email explaining something further.

The best way to handle the professor isn't necessarily to try and show them up in class, but to either go to office hours and ask for clarification. If you still think they are wrong, explain where you found the answer and show them.

If its worth the time to engage them at all, then that can be best way to do it. If they don't respond well in that situation, then its not worth your time and you should just keep quiet and focus on your grade.

Believe me, as an undergraduate I've battled many worthless TAs only to have the head of their department say that they have to back up the TA because that's just how its done.

When I got to graduate school, it was a different ballgame and I really put a professor through the ringer with the department when she tried to give me a bad grade because she was incompetent. But when I did that, I slowly went up the chain, documented every conversation and interaction, highlighted the syllabus, noted changes she made mid-semester to the syllabus, and then made a formal complaint. In turn, the professor was reprimanded by both the head of faculty and head of graduate studies, and my grade was fixed. But that was a serious slog to get through.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Here in the United States, critical thinking is one of the core values of our higher education system. This is a social and institutional value that is opposite to the values seen in many other cultures, where the professor is always right, even when s/he is wrong. A competent college professor in the US should always welcome skeptical comments from students. The word "skeptic" itself comes simply from the Greek verb "to think." If you're not being skeptical, you're not thinking.

Of course, these values are not universal. For example, the educational system in India is infamous for teaching by rote memorization and discouraging critical thinking.

As a professor, I've often made mistakes in class and been very grateful to students who corrected them. I often joke to my students that if I inadvertently wrote 2+2=5 on the board, I worry that they would come up to me after class and ask, "Professor, you wrote 2+2=5 on the board. I always thought it was 4, but is 5 the answer you want us to give on the test?"

You should not refrain from asking questions in class because of any fear that it will confuse other students or make the professor fall behind and not have time to finish the lecture. Mistakes are very confusing to other students until they're corrected, and the reason you have a textbook is so that you have a source of information for any topics that there wasn't enough time to cover in class.

Of course you should exercise normal tact, consideration, and humility. The goal is not to fight a battle with your teacher, it's to help yourself and everyone else in the class understand the subject correctly. There's the joke that at the age of 20, I knew everything, but now that I'm older I know a lot less. In computer science, there are basic principles that don't change much over time (a quick sort scales better than a bubble sort), but there's a lot of other random junk that amounts to styles and fads (choices of particular computer languages). Don't fall into the trap of thinking that there's something wrong with your professor just because he doesn't emphasize the flavor of the week.

he's been known to give lower grades to students who asked him too many questions he wasn't able to properly answer

It's hard for me to imagine how you would know this. It's not as though you have access to records of what these other students' grades were on every assignment and a side-by-side comparison with what the grades would have been if they hadn't asked questions. It seems just as likely that these students had overblown opinions of their own abilities and therefore felt their grades were unfair.

share|improve this answer
'the educational system in India is infamous for teaching by rote memorization and discouraging critical thinking' [citation needed] –  user13107 Jan 16 at 2:10
I like this answer best and want to add one thing: don't go ad hominem. Instead "I think you are wrong" say "I don't understand how X is consistent with Y." Professors do assume that they are correct -- otherwise they can not teach with any confidence -- so you have to get them thinking. Cases a) They agree there is an issue and adapt their stance. b) It was a misunderstanding and you both learn from the question. c) You did not understand and learn from the answer. (I was, arguably, a fairly competent student and asked many questions in and outside class. a) occurred the least often.) –  Raphael Jan 16 at 8:48
Also, this is one reason to love hard/mathematical science. If you have actual proof the prof is wrong, there's little they can do. Happened to me one time, even though it took them a couple of days to digest (they were quite brash at first). They approached me then and said I was right, technically, but the underlying problem was still a misunderstanding (he used one definition, I another). –  Raphael Jan 16 at 8:52
add comment

Never challenge a lecturer. Ask. If it's something that isn't directly related to PRECISELY the point they're currently teaching, ask during office hours rather than in front of the whole class.

Praise in public, criticize in private -- and criticize by asking "would this have been another answer, and if so why is the one you showed us better", rather than by acccusing.

Quoting Dean Inge: "There are two kinds of fool. One says 'This is old, and therefore good.' The other says 'This is new, and therefore better.'" Before demonstrating yourself to be the latter type, politely make sure you understand what was actually being taught and why. You may have completely missed the point he was making.

(Note that this is just as true when working with a boss, or even when you're the boss. Start with a discussion rather than assuming one or the other side is inherently true and that there must be a winner or loser. In the end, the boss does have the final say, because they have to consider more than just the technical merits of that one point, but you're a lot more likely to have a pleasant and productive experience if you try to work with people rather than against them.)

One more thought: "who thinks he's always right" is more of a comment about your attitude than about that of the instructor. Of COURSE he thinks what he's teaching is correct, or he wouldn't be teaching it. That doesn't mean he can't be wrong, but it does mean you need to respectfully justify your objection if you want it (and yourself) to be taken seriously. And unless the error is a simple typo/"thinko", that's likely to take more time than should be sliced out of most lectures. Talk to him afterward. He can always announce a correction at the next lecture if you convince him that one is needed. And if you can't convince him, ask yourself why not rather than assuming he's just being an ass.

share|improve this answer
Praise in public, criticize in private. Praise versus criticism isn't the issue. If the professor made an outright mistake, then it's important to correct the mistake immediately, during class, so that the whole class doesn't get confused. This isn't a criticism of the instructor. Everybody makes mistakes, even highly competent people. –  Ben Crowell Jan 15 at 22:10
IF it's an outright mistake, certainly. But that isn't how the question was phrased. And even then, it should be phrased as a question, because the odds are at least as great that the error is the student's rather than the instructors. Hopefully more so, if the instructor is at all competent. –  keshlam Jan 15 at 22:17
When facts clash, I assume one of the following is true: a) I am wrong, let me learn why; b) The other is wrong, let me confirm that; c) There is a misunderstanding, let's clarify. It is not about winning or losing; it is about detecting which of these is true, and what insight one can achieve in cases a and c (or learning what one can safely ignore, in case b). –  Amadan Jan 16 at 1:46
"Shouldn't that be a 4" -- Certainly; if it's a typo, it should be corrected immediately. "Shouldn't you use an entirely different approach" -- take arguments over the content of the class offline UNLESS it is very specifically being run in seminar/socratic mode -- in which case the instructor will generally have said right up front that he welcomes questions even if they diverge from the lesson plan. If you have to ask the question, you know the answer. –  keshlam Jan 16 at 2:34
One can always find exceptions; there are bad instructors out there. However, those few individuals are incurable, and interrupting the class to argue with them is more likely to prevent anyone learning what they can teach than to improve overall learning. If you can't work with the teacher rather than against them, drop the class and tell the department head why, and let them try to find a better instructor. Don't try to take over teaching the class; that isn't your role or your responsibility or something you can actually do effectively from a student's seat. –  keshlam Jan 17 at 0:32
show 4 more comments

Let me put it like this, he is the teacher and you are the student. Ask yourself if the things he is wrong about, are really worth mentioning. If not, then it is probably best you keep quiet, and don't compromise your grades. There are always going to be people like him. If you keep trying to challenge him, you may very well become a 'right' fighter yourself, like him.

share|improve this answer
...and as a student, it is your job to challenge every aspect of the material presented, rather than taking your professor's word for everything. –  JeffE Jan 15 at 18:55
In class is not necessarily the right time or place to challenge the professor, though. This is especially true if doing so will confuse other students further. –  Rob Volgman Jan 15 at 20:37
@RobVolgman Sometimes this is the case, but I find it is more often the case that the professor getting it wrong is confusing. People are left trying to work out how something works when it doesn't. –  Nico Burns Jan 16 at 0:24
add comment

Consider the situation as something like you're going to paint an abstract image - you're free to sketch whatever you can imagine but there has to be a meaning or purpose for what you're doing. The point is this: your professor is probably unaware of what you consider as "flaw" in dealing with his students, as such, serving as his "shadow" could make him realize such thing. But if he is aware, then the problem is not to think about the ways to harmoniously deal with him; rather, you should adjust with the kind of classroom atmosphere that he wants.

It's indeed "abstract" because no one else really knows the best way to have the kind of learning environment or teacher that you want other than you...

share|improve this answer
add comment

It depends on whether this teacher is dangerously wrong or not.

If his teaching the wrong things to everyone then he needs to be challenged. Challenging him in class won't help. Talk to him in his comfort zone and find out what you can. If he is genuinely a bad teacher, you need to find your campus support network and work out how to escalate the problem.

But in this case it sounds like he is a good teacher, trying to get through a lesson as others have said, but not necessarily completely up-to-date or good at putting down smart-arses.

In this case, learn what you can, he might have old ideas that are really great! When you can teach his class, critique it.

share|improve this answer
add comment

This depends a lot on the country and university specifics. However during my studies once happened for me to observe students replacing professor they deemed it is not competent enough for the particular course.

The student group should apply to university management asking to replace the teacher as not good enough. Of course, such application must list multiple factual errors in presented material, uncovered topics that you consider important for the subject, examples of undelivered information that you think would be highly relevant to the given lecture and the like. Significant number of students should apply so it would be difficult just to represent this as a personal conflict.

If the teaching person is not a head of laboratory / department but instead is under supervision of another competent professor, you may also talk to his supervisor. Some universities concentrate on research so deeply that teaching may be delegated to somebody more junior and less experienced.

If you cannot find enough arguments or supporters for this procedure, the professor is actually competent ...

share|improve this answer
add comment

It's his job to instill to his students he knows everything so they will listen and follow him. All you would be doing is damaging what he is trying to build with his students.

It won't go well for you, nor offer you anything positive in the course and most likely harm your grades. If you know more then most, then instead of using it to attack your teacher, do something that will equally give you what I believe you do want from the teacher -- "His respect, & knowing you are very knowledgeable" -- by offering assistance to other students who do need help.

This way you get to show your intelligence in the field, your teacher will love the help in class with most teachers already being spread thin, and he will most likely shine on your grades better. Even if "YOU" do make a mistake, because of the effort at assisting others, he may overlook it when grading.

share|improve this answer
add comment

protected by Charles Morisset Jan 15 at 11:12

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.