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This is a 101 philosophy class in an online format. Each week we have over 100 dense pages of a textbook to read as our sole source of information for the class. The teacher does not do any teaching and relies on the textbook.

Obviously a textbook is beneficial but especially for a 101 class, it is difficult to grasp these complex ideas without the input from your professor. Is this wrong? I am having a hard time understanding concepts and actually learning. No lectures or actual teaching. There are no actual in-class sessions: the work is posted at the beginning of the week and we submit by the end. Other classes I take in this format have provided lectures but this one does not. He only grades the work we did. Being paid to provide no expertise and guidance, only grade?

The assignments are discussions and quiz questions based on chapters in the text, that have to be usually 750 words or more. When he grades them he sometimes comments and says "yes that is true". It is one discussion with usually 2 open ended questions and 2 quiz questions that are long open ended each week.

Further remarks following the comments:

  1. Typically, discussions for this class are not beneficial because most people don't actually engage and debate/ go back and forth. We do not have discussion it is solely our interpretation of the readings. Most just say "I agree with what you said and I like this part..". So it is not actually helping us learn and debate. But I cannot blame my classmates because the discussion we have to post are over 750 words so why would they want to read something similar to what they wrote. They can only do so much, they are not doing anything in this case except for grading which is frustrating to me.
  2. There is only 21 people in the class. Obviously that is a lot of grading to do but he assigned it and could set the word count to be lower if he chose to. Most teachers reuse the same assignments and discussion questions each year or get them from the textbook. Every module/unit has been posted since September, so he is not lesson planning each week. He only has to grade each week, I am not denying that is a lot of reading but can you understand that it is frustrating for a student to not receive any actual instruction, but I am still spending a lot of money to take the course?
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    Lori, I've edited your question to include additional information from the comments. Please, feel free to make any amendment if I reported anything wrong. The other extended discussion in the comments has been moved to chat. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 22 at 17:15
  • Does the professor have office hours available or scheduled? They're almost certainly required to at least be willing to schedule some, perhaps you and several classmates could schedule "office time" and ask questions and solicit interaction with them. – nexus_2006 Oct 23 at 0:44
  • He does not display the office hours, I am going to try emailing with any questions I have for clarification. Thanks for your input. @nexus_2006 – Lori Oct 23 at 1:57
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    A lecture vs a book doesn't really make much difference. What's missing here is interaction with the professor. – Loren Pechtel Oct 23 at 4:24
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    If it's any comfort to you, OP, this is not merely a community college thing. I attended a top 25 school in the US and the liberal arts intro level classes mainly consisted of doing readings and then meeting in class to listen to other 18 year old's say, "I liked this part," and "I didn't like that part." If you were expecting to attend university and have Hegel-like professors dramatically deliver lectures revealing new totalizing world-historical concepts, you were born 150 years too late. – tbrookside Oct 23 at 12:18

11 Answers 11

51

If I understand correctly, the professor has:

  • assigned readings
  • facilitated online discussions
  • given written assignments and quizzes, and graded them

But:

  • the professor does not himself participate in any activities (lectures or discussion)
  • the online discussion format does not lead to many useful interactions with peers
  • the professor gives only superficial feedback to written assignments

This does seem like poor practice. You are attending university partially to gain from the professor's expertise, rather than just reading books and discussing with peers. This is a class, not a book club. I acknowledge that there is a legitimate teaching style that involves activities, discussion, group work, and/or individual interactions rather than lecturing. But if your professor is as hands-off as you describe, I do not believe he is using this method, or at least not effectively. At a minimum, I submit that he should provide more detailed feedback (even at the cost of grading fewer assignments) and post a few comments in the discussion board to raise the level of the debate.

Despite this, I doubt there is much you can do. The professor did curate a course for you, facilitated group discussions, and is grading several pages per student per week (which may be a significant time investment). So unfortunately, I doubt that complaining to the department would lead to significant changes, at least in the short term.

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    Unfortunately the professor is as hands-off as I described above. I am not going to complain to the department, I just wanted validation that this is not the best teaching style, this is my first year in college. I'm not discrediting the professor for taking time to grade, my issue is the sole reliance on textbooks for us to learn the information. My wish was that he provided lectures or more interaction so the text could supplement what he taught.This would be beneficial to succeeding and being able to think and discuss more clearly with a better understanding of the material. – Lori Oct 22 at 0:35
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    @AlexanderWoo Other friends enrolled at this institution and other classes I am enrolled in have better developed to being online despite a pandemic with more interaction from the teacher. I am simply saying this is not the best teaching method as students are not able to fully grasp the concepts from sole reading dense 100 page readings each week. It is very easy for a professor to record a powerpoint and upload it for their students to watch. Yes, that may take time, but it is their job. Hearing a teacher's expertise helps for the student to develop their own understanding. – Lori Oct 22 at 1:48
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    While I also was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the instructor (and it's indeed possible that he is doing more behind the scenes), I submit that the situation as Lori describes it is quite objectively a "poor practice." The students are taking a class from a subject matter expert, not merely a book club facilitator. Concretely, this might mean giving more detailed feedback on fewer assignments, or posting a few comments in the discussion board to raise the level of the debate. – cag51 Oct 22 at 4:22
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    @Lori "I am not going to complain to the department" I'd encourage you to complain about it in the teaching evaluation surveys that many universities give to students at the end of each semester to let them rate how they felt about their classes. That's literally what they're there for. – nick012000 Oct 22 at 5:06
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    "It is very easy for a professor to record a powerpoint and upload it for their students to watch" no, it's not – fqq Oct 22 at 17:15
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I'm teaching in a philosophy department and I believe students definitively sometimes need explanations and/or explications to clarify concepts before even being able to use them in a discussion. The distinction between the ontic and the epistemic planes is a case in point. Also, you cannot just have them "discussing" things aimlessly in the mere 50 minutes that a seminar session lasts for.

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    To further your last point, peer discussions can be very helpful, but they can also be detrimental. The facilitator should be monitoring the quality of the discussions and making sure they're going in the intended direction, not off in the weeds. Discussions can spread incorrect information as easily as they can accurate information. – bta Oct 22 at 17:31
  • @bta That's true. – Philosopher of science Oct 22 at 17:44
  • Yes, the textbook is useful, but I find myself needing clarification to understand the concepts in order to benefit and voice my opinions and thoughts in the discussion. Because of the reliance on the textbook, I find my discussions and my peers lack the full understanding therefore the benefits of a discussion. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:27
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    Some classes are conducive to online learning and some absolutely are not. From my own experience, Philosophy is not. – RIanGillis Oct 22 at 20:13
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    I haven't tried to teach online yet. I hope RianGillis is wrong. – Philosopher of science Oct 22 at 21:28
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Yes, you're right to be frustrated with what your teacher does not teach, but the problem may be more with remote learning than with the class itself. From what I've read, many students do not like their remote learning experience as discussed in How College Students Viewed This Spring's Remote Learning for example.

I've taken online courses in coursera.org and while I found them good, I found support and interaction sporadic, some courses had none whatsoever. So, your frustration seems to me to be part of remote learning in general as most teachers haven't developed a good method for teaching remotely; Teachers were trained for in-person classes that haven't translated well to remotely located students who are forced to rely on blogs, forums, emails, texting, etc, that do not result in consistent response to their questions and needs. For example, if you ask a "stupid" question in class you will get an answer whereas if you ask it in a forum, you will get nothing or a snarky comment that doesn't help you.

My guess is that colleges are trying to deal with your reality, such as Remote Teaching Good Practices: Beyond the Tech, but they aren't there yet and until they are, you will not have a good learning experience without a lot more effort on your part to fill in the holes that your instructor and other students are not filling.

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  • I agree that online learning is difficult and this could contribute to my frustration. Since this class has been offered online since before the pandemic, I assumed he had training on online classes. My issue is not with reading the textbook, just the lack of commentary and guidance from him. I think in an intro class, we need insight from a professor to help better understand the text. @Jeff – Lori Oct 22 at 18:07
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Sorry to disappoint you, but this sounds like a perfectly good teaching method, especially for philosophy. It is akin to the Socratic Method in which the "teacher", Socrates or Plato, asks leading questions and then reflects on the answers, especially if they are seriously wrong.

The instructor is, I think, trying to teach you to "think", not to listen.

But take advantage of the situation by asking questions whenever you have them. You might also ask whether it is proper to form discussion groups among your peers on the material.

If you can be successful in such an environment then you are well placed for future study. There is nothing to condemn here.

And note that a person doesn't "learn" because of what the teacher does. They learn because of what they do themself. If the professor provides meaningful resources, meaningful exercises to reinforce the ideas, and meaningful feedback on student attempts they are doing their job. Don't confuse "lecturing" with "teaching". Either can occur without the other.


Learning isn't a spectator sport. It is an activity.

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  • This answer has been object of significant criticism and the long stream of comments has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment, and keep the tone of the comments professional and civil. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 26 at 18:44
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OK, I'll say the elephant in the room. For most students Philosophy 101 is very likely a course taken purely to meet general education requirements. This is just as true at traditional four year institutions as at community college. Actual philosophy degrees only make up less than half of a percent of total four year degrees.

Most people in your class have no interest in learning about philosophy. They do not want lectures, they do not want feedback, they only want a grade (preferably a passing one). And they would prefer to not spend a lot of time on this class, since they don't care about it and they have other competing things that they want to spend time on.

Any feedback from you that the professor did not teach enough will be counterbalanced by feedback from other students if the course becomes more time consuming. The professor and department know this and are probably mindful of how much they can require of students for this particular class. So you can certainly write a complaint in the end-of-course evaluation, but you shouldn't expect that much action will be taken based on it.

Instead, I recommend that you just avoid course sections that are in formats that you don't like.

  1. You can find online review sites (e.g. RateMyProfessor) where other students will post reviews specific to the course and instructor. If you read between the lines, you can find courses where there is lots of interaction with the instructor. Try looking for "makes the information interesting" or "includes a lot of personal anecdotes" or similar description.
  2. You can make a few friends who have been at the school longer than you and ask them for personal recommendations.
  3. You can sometimes find the syllabus from previous semesters (or the syllabus for upcoming semesters posted early) and get a feel for the communication style of the professor and the types of assignments.
  4. Most schools have a drop/switch date after the beginning of the semester (maybe in the first week or two) where you can potentially switch to another section of the same class for free if you don't like the teaching style.
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So, there's a lot of decent advice in this thread but the question (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to be asking four things:

  1. Is this a normal way to teach? (prevalence)
  2. Is this an acceptable way to teach? (quality)
  3. Will I be expected to learn under these circumstances going forward? (predictability)
  4. Are my feelings about this situation valid? (validation)

with the third and fourth questions stemming primarily from a lack of comparison (freshman in college).

So to answer your sub-questions:

  1. It's "normal" as in people do it, but it is definitely not the norm. Many professors get hired because they are brilliant researchers. Some researchers are passionate about education and go above and beyond to make sure their students understand the material. Some are not. Lectures, even for online courses, have included supplementary material - be it PPT files, practice exams with solutions, pre-recorded videos, office hours, or additional literature - for every single course I've taken, including courses where the professor just read out of the book. I would say most professors prepare more for their students than this one does. That said, others will have different experiences. Take my assessment with a grain of salt.
  2. Depends on whom you ask. Some people like being able to do work at their own pace without having lectures (which sometimes raise more questions than they answer if the instructor makes mistakes). Some professors - brilliant as they are - are disconnected from their students and simply do not have realistic expectations for what people can learn on their own. Some students are comfortable learning that way, and would have just absorbed the textbook regardless of the instructor. Expecting some sort of supplementary material or help is more than reasonable, though.
  3. So here's the thing. After high school, you will be expected most anywhere you go - whether it's in academia or in industry - to more or less teach yourself. College is about "learning how to learn," so at a certain point you should be prepared to learn material on your own whether the instructor is "good" or not. The expectation is that you are a self-driven adult, and that you know how to ask questions and get the answers - whether it's from a person (like a professor or teaching assistant) or a reference source (book, tutorial, article).

I think this expectation is limited; yes, you need to develop the skills to learn effectively and resiliently. But I also think some (keyword: some) people use this mindset as a reason to excuse low-quality education and absolve instructors of responsibility that they place onto the students. Everyone starts as a beginner somewhere, and expecting people to pay high opportunity costs to not receive the attention or resources they need is baffling. I absolutely agree that students should be held accountable for being active learners and taking initiative, but they also need a foundation from which they can begin to ask and answer those questions.

  1. This question, while fine, is not really suited for StackExchange. It's subjective and not actionable. However, whether it's valid to strangers on the Internet is irrelevant. You deserve to feel however you want. Even if he were an engaging and focused professor, you don't have to enjoy his teaching style or have a high opinion of his teaching.

Furthermore, the problem will not be solved with feelings. It might help to treat this situation as the first trial of many in life. And to do that, as per others' suggestions, look into other resources and research the professors before enrolling going forward. If it's too late to drop the course, just try your best to learn as much as you can. With that in mind, make sure to take care of yourself above everything else. Sometimes students' mental health really takes a backseat in academia and that should never be the case; your health and well-being should be supported by your education, rather than the other way around. If your frustration bubbles over into something more dangerous, please leverage mental health services.

(And on a personal note, I felt the exact same way as you about this teaching style when I was in college and can sympathize a lot. This, too, shall pass. You can do it! :) )

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    Wow, thank you so much your response is very encouraging. I appreciate you taking the time to answer in a well-thought out response. I definitely have been letting my feelings take control of the situation, but it is a great learning lesson for the future. :) Thank you for the encouragement. – Lori Oct 24 at 19:31
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I agree with Buffy's answer here that, in principle, your professor's teaching method here is sound - and, in fact, for particular kinds of subject matter, may be much preferable to a more "traditional" structure. But I also agree with cag51's answer, that it sounds like this may be a poorly executed example of an otherwise sound teaching strategy. I want to complicate things a little, here, though.

Most schools have now been fully online for three academic quarters, one of them summer. Many faculty do not teach at all in summer quarter, because enrollment is lower and there are fewer classes to teach. So this is likely your professor's second quarter - ever - teaching fully online. And, speaking as a professor myself, teaching is itself a skill, and online teaching is a very different version of that skill. Just like you wouldn't expect yourself to master philosophy in one quarter, don't expect your professor to master online teaching in one quarter. And yes, other professors may be doing better - but other students may be doing better than you are, and that doesn't mean you don't deserve support. And, just as a little window into the life of an instructor: I received a grand total of one week of training in online teaching, and that was outside of my contract hours, so I was mostly unable to attend because my other jobs got in the way. Your instructor's situation might well be similar.

So, you're probably right to feel like the professor should be doing more here. My advice is to think about what exactly would help you learn that you think would be in the professor's power to provide. Would it help to have video office hours where you can talk through ideas with him? Would it help for him to record short "commentary" video or audio to accompany the readings? Would it help for him to participate directly in the class discussions, and if so, how - since it presumably wouldn't help for him to just take control of those discussions? Once you have a couple of concrete suggestions, contact your instructor directly (or, if you want to be anonymous and are okay with waiting, put them on the evaluation form many schools provide at the end of the quarter). I can't promise he'll take those suggestions, of course, but I know that's what I would want from my students.

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    I appreciate your response. This class has been offered previous years online since before the pandemic. I guess what I think would help is if he offered short commentary to accompany the readings. I think a lot of people have misread my question and thought I want him to be giving us all the answers. No, I just think it would be beneficial to have a professors commentary for us to better understand the concepts to then form our own thoughts. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:05
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    Was it taught online by this particular instructor before the pandemic? If so, I'd recommend removing the "covid-19" tag from your question, since the pandemic doesn't seem relevant to the course. If not, then the learning curve I was talking about still applies - even when you're given a pre-made course to teach, learning how to meaningfully interact with students online is not easy. – Reese Oct 22 at 18:11
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    Yes, this instructor has been teaching this course online since before the pandemic. I agree it is difficult to meaningfully interact with students online, but can you understand the frustration of the student? I am paying to learn and succeed but do not feel like I am benefiting from this class, only meeting deadlines. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:24
  • Of course! I don't mean to minimize your frustration or make excuses for your instructor - you're perfectly right to be annoyed at what sounds like an ineffective approach to teaching. My goal was to suggest a way for you to relieve that frustration and make your learning situation better; because this may be inexperience rather than intent or laziness, making your concerns known to the professor may help. Now that I know he isn't new to this, that seems less likely, but it's still worth a shot. – Reese Oct 22 at 19:15
  • Thanks! I think I am going to try to email him questions I have after doing the reading and that might help. Thanks for your input. – Lori Oct 22 at 19:47
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In addition to all of the other, good ones: It is worth keeping in mind that "teaching" is not the same as "lecturing", even if maybe in your past, teaching has always taken the form of lecturing.

At its core, "teaching" means "facilitating learning", and that can happen in many different forms. Lecturing is one approach, but we know from educational research that it is often not the best one.

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  • I guess I used lecture by default, I essentially meant that there is no interaction with the teacher at all and this does not benefit us when we read the text and do not have insight from the teacher. I am not asking for lecturing I guess I wanted some teaching. For me, this is my first time taking a class like philosophy, so the subject in the text is difficult to understand for the first time and I think it would be beneficial for the teacher to provide some engagement to better understand the material. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:11
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I would expect a professor at this level of class to lecture (that is, teach). It is important to guide students through the material.

Due to COVID restrictions, one could use virtual meeting strategies (e.g. 'Zoom', etc.) to protect people. However, there should be view-able lectures.

What does your course catalog say about the course? What does the syllabus say?

Economically, sometimes a school will offer a refund, but that is highly variant depending on which school, what type, which country it is in, and so forth.

Best wishes with this.

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    Thank you very much for your response. This course does not have assigned meeting times. Every other course I am taking in this style provides recorded lectures or video commentary from teachers to understand what we are learning, that is why I am frustrated. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:13
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Different people learn in different ways. It may be that the way your professor is expecting you to learn is the way that he finds most effective for him to learn, and he assumes it will be most effective for you too.

A perfect teacher provides resources and opportunities to suit many different learning styles. There are not many perfect teachers.

If you have 100 pages of text to cover, you probably couldn't get through that in one hour of lecture.

If the professor is not good at the kind of lecturing you are hoping for, then you might well find that his attempt to provide it would be even less useful than what he is currently providing.

It doesn't matter whether you are right to be frustrated, the important thing is that you are frustrated.

I suggest you prepare and ask one question about the course material each week. You might be pleasantly surprised by the answers.

I suggest you look at alternative sources of information, such as Coursera and edX.

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    Thank you, I appreciate your response and advice. I will try it out. – Lori Oct 22 at 18:08
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Ok Lori:

The most important thing here is for you to note lose your focus from your primary reasons for being in school and for taking this class. There will be many occasions in the rest of your life where you will feel like you're being shortchanged by someone and you have no recourse. It will be frustrating and you will feel like the deck is unfairly stacked you. But you cannot allow those circumstances to derail you from your mission.

Some more observations:

  1. College is hard and reading a 100 pages a week is super challenging when you first encounter it. The skill you need to develop is to first focus on how to get a bigger picture understanding. Try to see how the ideas in a particular chapter connect to those in other chapters. Once you have this big picture, it will enable you to have some context for a particular week's material and help you absorb it better. This is a critical skill you need to develop.

  2. No lectures, particularly for freshmen, is a bit rough. If you were a graduate student in a Ph.D. program then this would be totally acceptable but its a touch extreme for freshmen undergrads. But these are the cards you've been dealt. Make an appointment with the teacher to discuss what you can do to get a better handle on things. The teacher might give you good tips. Always be ready to reach out for help. If the teacher is unresponsive then reach out to the department head. Not to complain but to explain how you're finding the current setup difficult and what you can do to help yourself. Again, don't complain to the professors. They are human and they may start to tune you out if you do. Try to work with them to get tips on how to absorb the material better. It's possible that the department and the teachers are jaded and don't care about the quality of instruction for elective courses but as humans they might try to help you at a one-on-one level.

  3. It's ok to be frustrated but try to use this energy to empower yourself. Look inwards to see if there is anything in your own study approach that can be changed. College is supposed to be several levels harder than high school and it is supposed to challenge you and stretch you. It's possible that the teacher is mailing it in or it's possible that you're not used to a more challenging environment and you need to step up your game... or both. Try to empower yourself to change your circumstances here. Worst case, since its already October end, at least commit to not letting this course hurt your GPA.

Good Luck!

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