Related, but not what I'm getting at

In one of my courses at a University, I overheard some of my classmates talking before a very difficult test (we knew it was going to be hard beforehand based upon the practice exam). The students were assuring each other that the department head "knows about the [stuff] going on [in this course]."

Apparently, several of them emailed or were planning to email the department head claiming, among other things, that the course material was too hard (grad level), the professor wasn't doing a good job, etc...

DISCLAIMER: I personally believe these claims are bunk. If any of these students actually attended the class on a regular basis, they may find themselves in a better position, IMHO.

My question is this: What, if anything, might the department head reasonably do? I ask because he's certainly getting a skewed, although loud, representation of the course. Our professor is new to the University, and I think is undeserving of such remarks.

EDIT: Changed asking what the department head might reasonably do so that an answer doesn't have to read his mind. :) @thecomments

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    Department chairs get these kind of complaints all the time, and they are used to having to figure out which ones are legit and which ones are students not taking responsibility for having to actually do some work to learn something.
    – Kathy
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:23
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    @Buffy I considered making it an answer, but I didn't answer the actual question of what the chair will do.
    – Kathy
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:26
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    Department chairs are adept at dealing with that whining and entitled subset of undergrads who cannot digest the fact that they have to actually earn their degrees (shock! horror!) and that some courses demand serious effort. As it is, what used to be rigorous coursework has already been Disneyfied beyond recognition in many mid-tier schools. Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 6:18
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    @user_of_math: What you say does not seem to be true in my country. Maybe this is only at your place or at universities where students pay a lot of money.
    – user115896
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 23:45

1 Answer 1


Expanding on my comment to make it an answer.

Department chairs deal with this all the time, and have to figure out which complaints are legit and which are students complaining as an excuse. I've seen several courses of action.

  • Do nothing. If the student's complaints don't seem reasonable or seem out of character for that instructor, it's a waste of time to worry about it.

  • Meet with the student to find out more information. I've seen this happen when a complaint is delivered by email, but at my university it's rare because most student feedback happens via anonymous surveys at the end of the semester.

  • If it's a one-time event, talk with the instructor involved. Students provide one side of the story; an instructor might provide a different side. I had this happen when a student complained about my grading of an assignment -- turns out they had received a mandatory 0 for plagiarism and were hoping a complaint would get them a better grade. If the complaint is that the material or exams are too hard, it would be appropriate for the chair to review the material (perhaps with a professor familiar with the subject). For example, my courses have a course co-ordinator who could impartially review any questions about my lectures, assignments, tests, or grading.

  • If it's a pattern of legitimate complaints, the chair can take either mentoring or disciplinary actions as allowed by the university. My university has a faculty mentoring program where other faculty members will sit in on classes and offer help with improving teaching styles. Non-tenured faculty can also be progressively disciplined in a number of ways -- tenured faculty are obviously harder to discipline. Ideally someone doesn't get tenure if they have obvious problems in the classroom, but we all know it does happen. I've seen department chairs "punish" tenured faculty by giving them less desirable teaching assignments, but it also doesn't seem really effective.

Ultimately, it's going to be a combination of how credible the complaint is, how many complaints there have been, how motivated the chair is, and what options are legally available to the chair.

  • 1
    Indeed, nice summary. Of course, giving hard tests isn't an issue - failing people because of too-hard tests might be. I had one physics professor whose theory was that the homework and tests should show you the limits of your knowledge, so there was no expectation of getting any question even near 100% correct. My overall average was in the low 30% range, which translated into an A. I learned a whole lot about how to analyze complex problems, and none of us ever thought of complaining to the department chair.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 20:14

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