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Background information:

I have just finished refreshing my high school courses in order to enter into university for engineering. Because I have a strong desire to become an engineer I have not moved past any material unless I fully understood it. That being said, the courses I took have had many mistakes in the material (online material as this is through online correspondence). I have had to fight tooth and nail to correct some of the material, even though I was a student, because I believe the material should be correct so that future students do not suffer the same frustration nor are taught improper concepts.

An example to convey the level of quality of the course material:

One example was in the Physics course, the concept of work being taught was equal to force times the distance the object traveled. This is fundamentally wrong; the real concept of work is force times the distance the force was applied over. I wrote to many people and eventually the business owner before my concerns were heard. The only reason I knew this was wrong was because it defied the law of conservation of energy. Though the fact that I, a student, was the only person who realized the mistake and sought to have it fixed reflects very poorly on the quality of the institution.

Strictly relevant to my question:

I have gotten into the habit of contesting test questions which are incorrect, and since every question on the final exam is worth 0.66% of my final grade, I take the time to make sure each mistake was mine. After contesting 2 questions on my last Chemistry final exam I have found that the head of the science department (whom I correspond with) does not understand a specific concept regarding a question. Now, I realize that it is only 1 question and my grade will go from a 97 to a 97.6, but I strongly dislike the idea of losing a mark for a concept which I deserve the acknowledgment of understanding (the grade). In order to explain why my answer was correct, I don't know how to do it in a way that is not condescending towards her (the head of the science department); no matter how you look at it, it will be a student explaining a concept to a teacher.

I am asking for criticism here. Please criticize me and tell me if I am being too much of a perfectionist. Is it appropriate to always contest questions during an academic career or will it have a negative effect on my success in the long run? Also, is it really worth it? What are the pros and cons?

EDIT: I can see my comment about the Physics concept of work is being met with a lot of skepticism; so I am including the link to the Physics.SE question I made in order to verify without a doubt that the lesson was indeed incorrect. When I saw that this was a mistake I took every measure that I could to ensure it was in fact a mistake before I proceeded to contact the head of the science department and then the business owner (when my concerns were not being heard). In no way did I take this lightly and assume I was correct, I did the necessary research before raising concerns.

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To your specific example, "distance" is specifically defined in Physics as being a scalar quantity that is path dependent. It sounds like you thought it was talking about "displacement." As a student of Physics myself, I don't find the statement wrong; I just see the potential for confusion if someone doesn't understand their terms correctly. Be very careful of that sort of situation: it's easy to be confused about the minute details and think a statement is wrong when it's actually correct. An approach to consider is going in presenting your understand and asking if you have misunderstood. –  jpmc26 Jun 27 at 1:16
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@jpmc26 I see a problem with the definition the class provided; if I punch a box with a force of 10N, touching the box for 0.4m, and the box flies 3m, the work I exerted is not 30J (force times distance the box travelled). Rather, it would be 4J, as I only was acting on the box for 0.4m (force times distance over which force was applied). –  anorton Jun 27 at 4:12
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"the concept of work being taught was equal to force times the distance the object traveled. This is fundamentally wrong; the real concept of work is force times the distance the force was applied over." I don't see the difference. Definitions have always a context; from your definition, it seems that you consider a <i>constant<i> force acting on a object in <b>linear<b> motion (or a conservative force if the motion is not linear). Your extra assumption is that the force is applied during all motion, would it be a constant force if it was not the case? –  Taladris Jun 27 at 4:43
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@Taladris StachExchange sites use Markdown. Enjoy! –  jpmc26 Jun 27 at 5:17
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If you want to verify your thoughts about faulty exam questions, there are various StackExchange sites around, that can help you to get more information on the subject and/or a deeper understanding. On Chemistry homework questions are very welcome. –  Martin Jun 27 at 8:00
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7 Answers 7

Though the fact that I, a student, was the only person who realized the mistake and sought to have it fixed reflects very poorly on the quality of the institution.

Yes, it does.

I believe the material should be correct so that future students do not suffer the same frustration nor are taught improper concepts.

Of course it should. But ultimately, the correctness of the course material is the responsibility of the instructor, not your responsibility.

I have had to fight tooth and nail to correct some of the material.

That strikes me as quixotic.

It's certainly reasonable, and helpful to future students, to report errors that you find in the course material. The instructor should then either fix it, or discuss with you why the course material is actually correct.

But if the instructor does not seem interested in doing so, then it's probably a waste of your time to "fight tooth and nail". Unfortunately, crappy courses and instructors exist, and it's not your job to fix them all. Simply quit giving them your money and attention: look elsewhere for better courses. If you like, leave negative reviews. Future students would be helped by having the errors fixed, but if the courses are as poorly managed as you describe, they would be even better off not taking them at all.

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+1 for quixotic. My new word of the day xD –  Cruncher Jun 27 at 16:43
    
What are your thoughts on such educational institutions? My biggest issue with incorrect material and teachers having incorrect understandings is that this translates to poorer education for students. Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to see everybody have an excellent education. Khanacademy is a great example. –  Klik Jun 27 at 20:28
    
This addresses the issue of correcting the material for future students, but not the question of whether to fight for his own grades that were incorrectly marked. –  starsplusplus Jun 28 at 12:40
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Professors are not allowed to retaliate for students asking questions/contesting test items so you have no need to fear. That being said, human beings are human beings and there is natural variation to how people respond. Most academics I know love having students who are as committed to their education as we are and we view questions (including contesting questions) a sign of commitment. Given professors are human beings, we will make mistakes and it is important to be aware that your texts are also filled with errors! So I would encourage you to continue asking questions and contesting items throughout your education. But I caution that you do so in a respectful way. Particularly for internet classes, it is easy to lose sight that the person with whom you are communicating is highly qualified in a specialized area and is due respect. They owe you an equal amount of respect, of course. But when communicating via email, discussion boards, class-related blogs, or any other means that does not involve being face-to-face, two errors emerge entirely too often. People are sometimes disrespectful because they do not realize how difficult it is to show respect via these technologies. People may also be disrespectful because the anonymity makes it easier to be rude/condescending or to lose ones temper. Make no mistake, asking a question is not disrespectful, it is the way questions that are sometimes conveyed disrespectfully. Avoid these errors and you should experience no problems.

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It can occasionally be dangerous to believe too fully that "professors are not allowed to retaliate", even though that should be true. Retaliation can take insidious forms. –  paul garrett Jun 26 at 23:27
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Any indication of retaliation should be taken up with a department chair. If this is ineffective, you can go to the dean or the university president. As I said, there is natural variation in how humans respond. But students have protections against this unprofessional behavior. –  user17936 Jun 26 at 23:35
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I agree, there are in-principle protections, but noxious faculty can easily see ways to torment students without quite documentably crossing the relevant lines. –  paul garrett Jun 26 at 23:53
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A simple way of being respectful is to always approach your professor with an attitude of asking if you are wrong. This gives you the opportunity to explain how you understand the issue at hand and why you see a problem, while leaving open the possibility for the professor to correct you or for them to agree with your analysis. It's a humble way of raising these sorts of questions. –  jpmc26 Jun 27 at 1:25
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@user17936 That's very noble of you, but in reality being a litigious arse will come back to bite you. –  Miles Rout Jun 27 at 9:05
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Is it appropriate to always contest questions during an academic career or will it have a negative effect on my success in the long run? Also, is it really worth it? What are the pros and cons?

No ,it is not always appropriate to contest questions during an academic career! Let me hasten to add that most of the time, under most circumstance and with the right attitude, it is probably appropriate. The key is your attitude, which seems to be appropriately focused on learning rather than on showing up the professor. However, the second part is how successful you are at conveying that attitude, particularly in an online format, which, as others have mentioned, lends itself to miscommunication.

Approach this with an attitude of learning from the masters, as in "Can you show/tell me why this answer is not what I thought it should be?" rather than, "This question is wrong and I want you to fix it!" Professors are human too, and most of us have hard time responding kindly to a smarty-pants student who is intent on showing that s/he knows more than we do!

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Who cares if you have a hard time with smarty pants students. If you did something wrong and need someone to caress you while telling you that your stuff is wrong then you are in the wrong field. I have instructed engineers for years and some of my best relationships started with a smartass remark. Your answer makes me think that you think the professor is a dominant position. Don't take yourself so serious. –  blankip Jun 27 at 6:21
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@blankip, you seem to assume that the smarty-pants students are always right, which is often not the case. On top of that, if they are trying to demonstrate how much they know during a lecture, frequent interruptions are often annoying for the rest of the students. –  greenfingers Jun 27 at 11:11
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@greenfingers - No I don't. Most of the time they aren't. Do you understand that most people can't help themselves in this situation due to their own social awkwardness? And I seriously doubt they would do this in the middle of a lecture. They might hound you after class or at a break but that is the game. Basically this attitude is saying those who are socially challenged shouldn't get the same privileges. Teaching engineers for years, man this was half my class. As a teacher you should be able to quickly explain your grading and if you could be wrong. –  blankip Jun 27 at 15:06
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Do you understand that most people can't help themselves in this situation due to their own social awkwardness? — Then they should probably deal with their social awkwardness before going to college. (I was one of those people.) –  JeffE Jun 27 at 20:09
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I'm writing as someone who has questioned/challenged exam questions, and even the entire teaching approach to a graduate-level course. (I'm a PhD student). I do this rarely. I don't do this because my answer was marked wrong or because my exam grade might be improved. In other words, when I challenged the professor I had no intent to have him change my grade. My goal was 100% focused on improving "the system" that gave rise to that exam and exam question in the first place.

Look at this as a social system. All systems improve their performance in response to feedback, a.k.a. error signals. Your teachers and professors operate in social systems that include their training, their experience, their discipline norms and culture, their peer influences, their incentives, their resources, and so on. Any given exam question exists within this larger "field" of testing, grading systems, degree programs, academic accreditation, and so on.

Consider how this is similar to customer complaints in commercial settings, complaints by line workers in a manufacturing process, or whistle-blower complaints in a government department. Regardless of the merit of any individual complaint, these are all vital and essential signals for each of these organizations and institutions. Enlightened and mature managers (and professors) will understand this and will do their best to solicit such corrective signals, and will act on them systematically.

Alas, many (or most) managers and professors are not enlightened. They won't learn and they will suppress the feedback, and maybe react negatively to the person or people who raise such feedback.

With this perspective, the best that you can do is provide feedback in a way that people can learn from it, and so they can change the system to benefit future students (or customers, or line workers, or citizens).


Using your example:

[In a] Physics course, the concept of work being taught was equal to force times the distance the object traveled. This is fundamentally wrong; the real concept of work is force times the distance the force was applied over.

You describe this as "fundamentally wrong". Really? It may be erroneous at a conceptual level (i.e. how "resultant distance" is different than "applied distance") but "fundamentally wrong" to me would be "Work = Force X Velocity" or "Work = Force ^2" or "Work = Distance X Mass".

Most important: how would you modify the education material related to "work" and how would you modify the exam question associate with "work"? And what modifications are required to the System that this exam questions lives in?

Is the professor not using the latest research? Is the professor taking short-cuts, where a more complete treatment is necessary? Is "teaching the formula" taking precedence over "teaching the concepts" or "teaching the theory"?

In my opinion and experience, it's these latter questions that you should address in your feedback in this particular case.

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+1 for your second part –  justhalf Jun 27 at 7:54
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You are being too much of a perfectionist. Rather, you are being a perfectionist when it really doesn't matter. There is no point in fighting the inaccuracies you find in the lower education system because quite often (as you pointed out) the teachers don't have a good understanding of the material. Whether or not the errors are fixed will not matter because everyone who does not go into physics or chemistry programs in college won't care, and those who do will quickly learn the correct thing in their first semester.

Yes, professors are sometimes wrong, and yes, those errors should be fixed. But it's important to remember that the vast majority of teaching faculty you interact with have PhD's in their field and have devoted their lives to the subject. Professors (especially in intro courses) are very rarely wrong, and when you correct them, they are more likely to say "oh yeah, that's what I meant" instead of giving you a hard time. If you believe you should have received credit on a test question, (A) go to your professor's office hours and ask a question, (B) write up a formal proof of why you are correct, and (C) talk to the professor or grader who is in charge of your grade.

And - congratulations on asking questions. The more you ask the better you will understand the material in question.

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The problem is that you're accusing your elders of understanding the concept wrongly. Possibly they are, but most likely they apply it perfectly, and the breakdown is in communication.

You should try to express yourself like this:

I believe I've found a clearer way to express this law. "Work equals Force times the Distance the force was applied over." Is it correct?

Assuming the others are not in fact incompetent, they will agree this is correct. Probably they will even agree it is a clearer statement than the original.

If you just protest the original wording though, "Can't you see this is wrong?", then no, you won't find agreement.

All human communication is built on a foundation of assumptions and shared experience. For them, that it is "the distance traveled while the force is acting on the object" not "the distance traveled ever" or even "the distance traveled as a result of the impulse transmitted by the force" is second-nature, and they never think to express it explicitly.

And that's also why no one else sought to have it "fixed".

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I am asking for criticism here. Please criticize me and tell me if I am being too much of a perfectionist.

I think, what you do is not perfectionism. You're very close to being ignored by your instructors.

I strongly dislike the idea of losing a mark for a concept which I deserve the acknowledgment of understanding (the grade).

Going after what you deserve is a very natural and legitimate behavior. But there is one question: Does %0.66 grade change anything?
If your grade were to go from A to A+, or it is a matter of passing and failing the class, not a single person will be inconsiderate. However, if you're doing this for only numbers on a piece of paper, then you're not usually welcome.

no matter how you look at it, it will be a student explaining a concept to a teacher.

Human beings learn. All the time. Assistant Professor, Professor, Dean are only titles. In my opinion, if someone chose to be an academician, they chose to be a student for all their life. So, in this case, a student explaining something to another more experienced student.

Besides being a student, an academician also has a duty, which is to teach courses. This is a different aspect. This requires a skill to keep a group of different people up and awake for a period of time. Therefore, even though an instructor can make a mistake and have actually something to learn, time and place matters to teach him/her where (s)he is mistaken.
Actually, this is a question of respect. I'm sure that you don't want a professor calling your idea nonsense or calling you moron. If you raise your hand and tell him "you don't know this subject, let me teach you", two cases are equivalent.

The more you learn, the more you forget
At least, this applies for me. In my country, we take a test to enter a university. The test is so hard, only the math section covers all the topics those are taught in the university, in 4 semesters. I once could solve really hard trigonometry questions by hand. Now, I'm dealing with computational geometry, but am astonished when I encounter a simple question about complex numbers. Similarly, your physics instructor, or the author of the book might have missed some basic points. That does not mean they are wrong, that means they should be corrected (you can also correct something even it is right).

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