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I am an undergraduate in the UC system. I sometimes encounter situations where professors or TA's make errors, or there are inaccuracies in the material. These situations tend to be quite awkward for both the student and the TA or professor.

It is painful for me not to speak up, but there is a fear, possibly exaggerated, that this could lead to resentment by the TA, or professor, or even future unfair treatment.

The most frequent response by senior students is that the professor is always right, and you should never attempt to argue with the professor. Confronting a professor about a misconception could end up being detrimental to the student in the long run.

What should a student do (and how?) when a teacher makes an error or gives inaccurate information or material? Is there any reasonable way to anonymously point out mistakes?

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    Though I'm sure they exist, I've never actually met a professor that was offended when a student pointed out a legitimate mistake in his/her coursework that needed correcting. The issue, of course, is that 99.9% of the time, the student is wrong and just being stubborn. – KutuluMike Nov 22 '13 at 12:33
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    I get mad at my students when I make a mistake in lecture and they don't correct me. Sometimes it seems like I could inadvertently write 2+2=5 on the board, and nobody would speak up. Maybe they would come up after class and say, "Professor, since you said 2+2=5, is that how you want us to answer the question on an exam?" – Ben Crowell Nov 23 '13 at 0:46
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    I have had lecturers who've made mistakes in class. For example, my lecturer of classical mechanics would sometimes mix up sin() / cos() or something like that - it can happen when writting down on the blackboard. He just asked us to always correct him, as such a mistake is easily made - but much harder to notice personally than have a student notice it. Lecturers can make mistakes, doesn't mean they are bad in their field at all, it's just human :) – Dylan Meeus Nov 23 '13 at 7:51
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    I've edited the question, hopefully into better shape (removing the ranting part and focusing on the constructive parts). I've also cleared comments who did not apply to the question as it currently is. – F'x Nov 25 '13 at 8:38
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I think your fears may be exaggerated. I can't think of a professor I've ever met who I think would be offended by having a mistake (politely) pointed out, much less retaliate.

Accusing anyone flat-out of being wrong, or worse yet, lying, will certainly make them defensive; and if it turns out they were right, it will be more embarrassing for you. So I don't suggest thinking of it as "confronting" the professor. What I would suggest instead is to approach the question as something that you don't understand. "Hi Professor Smith, in class today you said X. But I'm confused, because I thought that Y." Listen to her response. Be open to the possibility that you are mistaken, or have misunderstood what she said, but if your doubts aren't cleared up, figure out what part still seems wrong to you, and ask about that. "I still don't understand; what about...?" Stay calm and polite. If you find you are getting worked up (or she is), take a break. "Let me think about that, and if I still have questions I'll come back later." Hopefully in the end, everyone agrees on where the truth lies, and nobody feels too embarrassed.

If you think she's simply misspoken about something in class, or written something incorrectly on the board, point it out right away: "Is that X supposed to be a Y?" If there's something deeper, it may be better to discuss it in office hours or by email; I know that when I'm teaching, if I think I may have a serious mistake, I get flustered and it throws off my rhythm. I'd rather have time to think about it offline, and then correct the error in the next class.

I think the other comments saying "Be sure you are right!!!" are excessive. It's not a bad idea to try to think carefully about your question; if you can clear it up yourself, you'll learn better. But don't hesitate to talk to the professor. Even if it's you that's confused, part of my job as a professor is to clear that up. And if it turns out I'm wrong, of course I want to know.

Your suggestion of having some sort of middleman to anonymously forward queries strikes me as a bit extreme. Again, I think you may be more intimidated by your professor than is really warranted. It may help to try to get to know your professors better: early in the course, make it a habit to drop by their office hours. Ask some trivial questions if you like. "Are we going to study Z next week?" Then later, if you have more substantive questions or concerns, you'll feel more comfortable approaching them.

Anonymity seems unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive. If you come to me with something you don't understand, and I'm able to clear it up, I won't think less of you; instead, I'll be pleased that you now understand it better. And if it turns out I was wrong, I won't resent you; I'll be impressed that you understand the issue deeply enough to spot the error, and grateful that you brought it up. But if you're really timid, you could consider sending an email from an anonymous account. ("I'm sending this anonymously because I'm embarrassed that it may be a silly question." Either way she'll probably assure you that it isn't.)

One final comment: If you have mentors suggesting that professors are never wrong, find better mentors! I agree that it is not pleasant to argue with anyone, but that doesn't mean you can't discuss your question and try to sort it out.

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    I'd like to add that it's a good idea not to insist that they are wrong in the class. Often, if you ask the question in the class, they may realize they are wrong, but they don't want to lose face (and they shouldn't either). So they'd somehow give you a vague answer to finish the conversation. If you are not convinced, continue the talk after the class where they are not being judged by all the students. – Shahbaz Nov 22 '13 at 11:08
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    You have met nice professors, this may not be the case for everybody. There are many countries, universities and professors in this world and if you consider that you can probably realize that your experience is not any close to the average. – Trylks Nov 22 '13 at 12:56
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    @Trylks you appear to have a different experience, a somewhat bitter one, but why would it mean that your experience is any closer to the “average”? – F'x Nov 22 '13 at 21:01
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    That was the first time I upvoted an answer and at the same time voted to close the question… – Dirk Nov 22 '13 at 22:47
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    +1 for "If you have mentors suggesting that professors are never wrong, find better mentors!" – JeffE Nov 22 '13 at 22:47
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I suppose there are some insecure professors who resent having mistakes pointed out, but in my experience they are relatively rare. I'm impressed when a student catches a mistake, and I'm happy to learn they were paying close attention. I'm certainly not alone in having this reaction, and I'd say it's a pretty standard response.

Of course, it depends on how you raise the issue: if you act like you are pained by the falsehood, or you question the professor's competence, then it's easy to cause offense. Instead, it's safer to take a neutral tone, with an understanding attitude (based on the fact that it's difficult to teach a semester-long course without ever misspeaking).

For some errors, you should mention them as soon as you detect them. For example, if your professor drops a sign in a calculation, then the earlier it gets corrected, the better. No reasonable person could take offense at having this pointed out, so the only danger is being too eager to point out mistakes and inadvertently complaining about correct calculations. That would be annoying if done frequently.

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a statement is an error or an intentional simplification or approximation. For example, if someone does a calculation using Newtonian gravity, then it's almost certainly unhelpful to interrupt to complain that general relativity would be more accurate. If you can imagine that the statement might be deliberate, then it's probably better to raise the issue outside of class. It's helpful to phrase it in the form of a question: "I was wondering why we neglected relativistic effects. Do they matter at the scale we're working with? Do you know of any good books where I could read about these corrections?"

Sometimes you just have to understand that the discipline in question is based on an approach you don't like. For example, you might complain that your biology professor is always talking about evolution, or that your philosophy professor doesn't use an Ayn Rand-approved definition of freedom, or that your economics professor studies models that assume people are rational utility maximizers. You should definitely not start a conversation by saying "Why are you teaching this nonsense? Surely you know it's all wrong." It's reasonable to ask foundational questions about the field and why the standard approaches have become standard, and you might learn something interesting (for example, that behavioral economics exists). But you should approach the issue respectfully, with the goal of improving your own understanding rather than condemning the field itself.

In your particular case, I'd try to handle things delicately. The fact that you frequently run into these situations makes me wonder whether you are taking a very literal approach to truth, and perhaps counting many models or simplifying assumptions as outright falsehoods. There's nothing wrong with that philosophically, but approximations are a fact of life. If you start complaining whenever anything falls short of the literal and exact truth, then you won't be happy anywhere outside of pure mathematics. Furthermore, when you talk about how painful you find falsehoods taught in class, I wonder whether you make that pain apparent when asking questions. I certainly don't want to discourage you from challenging falsehoods or from asking questions, since both activities are crucial parts of academia. However, it's worth making sure your strong feelings aren't playing an unproductive role in your interactions with professors.

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    I would imagine that if you're unhappy with anything except the literal and exact truth, you might be unhappy inside pure math as well :). After all, some of the most interesting questions resist exact answers. – Suresh Nov 22 '13 at 22:42
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Falsities is a strong word--be very sure that the teaching is actually inaccurate before confronting your professor. And if you feel that you MUST say something, it is best handled in an area less public than a lecture hall. Also, a professor is far more likely to admit to having been mistaken if you approach them with the attitude of trying to understand their viewpoint and/or teaching, rather than trying to point out where they are mistaken. You may discover that you have misunderstood, and the professor is actually correct. On the other hand, your humble, 'trying-to-learn' question may impel the professor to take a second look, and discover where s/he has been inaccurate or mistaken.

I don't believe that there are many (if any) professors who will deliberately teach falsehoods to their students, especially in a course where, as you say, the material is of a technical nature and mistakes easily provable. So when you approach your professor, do so with an intent to discover where YOU are mistaken. You may both learn something.

  • This is good advice, but my concern is that I will be resented by the professor, and I am quite nervous in such a confrontation. I would like to be able to let the professor know when I am certain they are wrong, without them knowing it was me who pointed it out. – MVTC Nov 22 '13 at 3:21
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    Good answer. You type much faster than I do. I saw the message there is an answer while I was typing mine. Yours is clearer and better. So, I gave up mine. – scaaahu Nov 22 '13 at 3:24
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    @MVTC, Point being, go to her/him, with the intent to find out how you are wrong! Makes it a little less intimidating than going with intent to prove them wrong... – J. Zimmerman Nov 22 '13 at 3:25
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    Approach with the intent to discover where you are mistaken, or where the misunderstanding is between what they say and what you hold to be true... Good advice for approaching anyone you believe to be wrong. Teacher, manager, subordinate, spouse... – Mr.Mindor Nov 22 '13 at 17:24
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There is a difference between having a discussion and having an argument. Once you know the difference you then need to be able to recognize when the two parties appear to have a different view of which applies.Once you know that you need to know how to change the situation to one of agreement. Once you know that your question will not bother you.

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