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A quick qualification: I usually associate failures in a class with it being my fault, like a lack of studying and such.

Background: I am on the last few courses of my degree. I work full time and have a job that requires me to think a fair amount, so these days I usually limit my class load to 1-2 courses a semester. It can be difficult to have the brain power to study after a long day of work, but I try to shift things around at work to have easier tasks on days leading up to an exam...etc.

Issue: This semester I am taking a course on DSP (Digital Signal Processing). I have had this professor before, and while he was a little disorganized previously I was able to get a good understanding of the previous courses material and get a B in the course. I feel the previous course was more technical and difficult mathematics wise, but I am struggling this semester. I feel like I understand the lectures, which if I had to estimate I'd say I'm 90% confident in. However, when it comes to the actual use of the material, I'm more like 20% confident. The source of issues this semester are:

  • No syllabus. I'm used to a syllabus at least containing tentative scheduling, this semester the "syllabus" is just a copy and paste of the ABET requirements.
  • Professor doesn't appear to have any known plans for how many exams we'll have, when we will have them, or how exactly the material will be split up among the exams.
  • We have projects. Initially the projects were supposed to be due at the end of the semester. He then randomly changed his mind and made a project due with only a few days noticed. The projects can be completed in a day or two, but that is assuming I can immediately respond to a change in schedule.
  • Similar issue with the exams, he'll randomly tell us we will have an exam a week before.
  • There was initially some review homework problem assignments for background material, but since then there have been no homeworks.
  • We have lecture notes we can view, but they're a bit disorganized. Even worse, I didn't take many notes in class because he said they were available online. Some were, but he waited until after the first exam to release some of the notes, some of which were required for the first exam.
  • He has no grader this semester, so what is graded has no feedback. I did poorly on my first exam, partly because I didn't know exactly what I needed to study, but all of the "feedback" I got was my grade. We submitted the exam online, so I don't get any feedback for what I missed. For me it's quite helpful to know at least where I went wrong, was my error a small error that cascaded out? Things like that help me learn and improve. The feedback I received for my last project was "50/100 output incorrect"... which of course I knew by the fact that the output didn't work, so it didn't assist me in knowing how it was incorrect or where I went wrong.
  • He has provided his past exams, but no solutions to the exams. Since I have no feedback from anything else, such solutions can assist in me attempting the problems, knowing where I have an issue, and looking at the solutions to understand what and where so that I can resolve my misunderstandings. He previously stated that he held back solutions as he felt it would hurt those studying (how I am not sure), but stated he would upload them since I asked... he has yet to upload them and I have an exam tomorrow.
  • The provided past exams only vaguely match the given exams. No direction is given as to what will be on the exams, like what class of problems...etc. Last he said in class is, "It's difficult to give information on what to study for the exam since it's cumulative." Which I understand, but a class of potential problems to study would be quite helpful. If I practice those but lack the needed cumulative knowledge, I can proceed to brush up on that knowledge before I continue. For the first exams I was relegated to printing out the past exams and marking problems that sounded familiar or something I should know, so that I could study those.
  • He mentions that the past exams won't match our new exams anyways since he is trying to incorporate more Matlab. Which is fine, but I feel he doesn't cover Matlab enough to give us an exam on it. We've only covered Matlab material in two lectures, and the feedback from the projects is too lacking to be of use as a study aid.

In summary, I feel like there is a lack of organization leading to me feeling lost on what to study, how to study, how to improve on things I missed, and in general feel more lost than if I were doing an MIT OCW class and teaching myself.

It has been suggested to me to complain or report the professor, since I paid for this course and feel like I am not getting much, if any, support. However, I am not a person that likes to do this, and on top of that, normally I prefer to blame myself for my lacking achievements rather than the professor. I see a lot of people blame professors for their own failings, and I try to avoid doing the same. Though, his last emails wording suggests that he is getting frustrated with the class as well and annoyed that "very few" (out of an 8 person class) failed to get the project working.

Some extenuating circumstances, maybe. He mentioned that he had to cancel class one day due to an unexpected medical appointment, for a place that is a few hours away. Normally you don't do this unless you're visiting a specialists in my opinion. Recently he canceled two other classes, and assigned another project and said we'll have another exam ("take home", which I'll simply do at work during what would be normal class hours). Though he didn't provide a reason for this absence, I'd guess perhaps the same reason.

Bottom line, do my grievances seem legitimate, or are some of my expectations out of line?

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This sounds like the professor has issues going on in his personal life, which happens to all of us from time to time. If possible, you might go to office hours or talk to him after class. Don't address his problems, but instead tell him you are struggling with the presentation and ask for his suggestions on how to do better. Ultimately, that's the goal, whether the root problem lies with you or with him.

  • I can certainly appreciate the issues. Unfortunately,I may have waited too long to bring up the issues to him. I originally was hoping it would get more organized as we continued, so I didn't say anything (thinking maybe personal issues created a small bump in the road). But I am now a few days before the last day to drop and I am not confident I can recover in time. Perhaps I'll keep this in mind for future reference, early communication before it becomes too late. – Jarrod Christman Oct 23 '19 at 15:19
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    @JarrodChristman The decision on whether to drop may be a good hook for a discussion with the professor. Explain your need to know about deadlines in advance so that you can plan your entire workload including your job. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 23 '19 at 16:00
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There are some things that the professor should improve and there are other things that you should improve. I think it is a shared responsibility in this situation.

There might be some reasons, medical and other, for a certain lack of organization, but it certainly doesn't seem ideal. Even if he is trying to mutate the course into something more modern (matlab) it would account for some disorganization.

But the biggest problem that is the responsibility of the prof, is the lack of assignments and feedback. Students need reinforcement of the ideas in a course (assignments) and they need feedback on their attempts.

But much of the rest of it is up to you. He seems to be doing some things well, in my opinion, making lectures available online, for example. Even having new exams quite different from old ones is a good thing. The old exams can give you practice even if they are unrelated to what will be asked now. But you need some feedback on your attempts. But note that having an answer key to the old exams is not really appropriate feedback. Working toward a known answer is not the same as working out an answer unaided. He is even warning you that the new exams will be different.

He should, however, find a way to get you feedback. If there are issues that prevent him from doing it himself, he should be at least trying to work out some way for that feedback to come from somewhere. If you are at a large place, then a TA could be employed. If at a smallish place, then a senior student might also be given a grading task.

But, as for your own responsibility, you need to practice more, even if there is no way to really get feedback. If you have a book, or could acquire one, that has exercises, you can do them even when not assigned. I once learned a lot in a certain course by creating my own examples and problems and exploring solutions. I was able, however, to verify my solutions even without feedback. The practice alone did me good and I got a deep understanding of a small part of the course and insight that served me well overall.

Don't depend on remembering or learning from lectures. You say you don't take notes. That is a serious issue. Taking notes (by hand - on paper) is a reinforcement mechanism that will serve you well. It will also help you see what isn't there and what you need to explore in questions or in outside reading. Take a lot of notes. Spend some time summarizing them.

Seeing isn't learning. Only work that reinforces it will lead to learning. You need to do that, of course, even when the prof is extremely organized and provides the feedback. But, he should be providing that, of course.

  • Thank you for taking a balanced approach. I can see your point with note taking. I used to take notes but found I never referenced them, however, maybe I would still benefit from the reinforcement side effects of note taking. For studying on my own, I think the issue is that I usually use assigned homeworks (whether graded or not) as a jumping off point, so I know what "class" of problems to search for on my own. It may be that I'm a bit lost since I have no assignments, and he doesn't follow the book exactly. But, I can see where that is something I should improve upon skill wise. – Jarrod Christman Oct 23 '19 at 15:24

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