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I am having a lot of trouble understanding the material in one of my courses. I feel like the professor often rushes through the material, leaving me without enough time to catch up in my busy schedule.

This professor is also really esteemed for his/her research contributions and speaking to my adviser about this (who also happens to be close to this professor) would make me feel very uncomfortable. I even spoke to my peers in the course about this and they seem to agree about the speed at which things are delivered.

Anyway, I often think about what I can do in this situation since exams are coming up. One idea that I ponder is the possibility of privately hiring a tutor within the faculty who could better explain the ideas in the course to me; after all they have relevant teaching experience.

I'm not certain if this is a good idea or not and because of this, I would really appreciate feedback relevant to this idea. If there aren't any appropriate solutions, what else can you suggest?


Note: I don't really want to give out any other details that would compromise his/her reputation. So I'll just leave it at that.

  • Just want to make sure the tutor will not be the same person who teaches the course, right? – scaaahu Jan 24 '14 at 5:47
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    Of course, it won't be the same person. – Georgia123 Jan 24 '14 at 5:48
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    @Suresh: no, it does not. – Georgia123 Jan 24 '14 at 6:04
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    Do other students also have trouble keeping up ? maybe an intervention is in order. – Suresh Jan 24 '14 at 6:14
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    I protect this question because it is an attractive target for spammers. – scaaahu Mar 21 '14 at 8:33
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As a faculty member, I feel that most students who struggle

  • don't put enough time into the course materials; most courses are designed with the expectation that you put into the course around 10 hours a week.
  • don't seek out help, or don't speak up to communicate their difficulties; there are office hours by the professor, as well as the TAs, and most of these people would be very open to hearing your opinions of the course. If the course is going too fast, tell them.
  • don't talk to their peers; sometimes understanding the material requires talking to others about it. You may all have been confused by the material, but by struggling through the assignments together, you will probably all learn (but remember to credit your friends).

If you have done all of the above and you are still struggling, then hiring a private TA may be the next step. One tip for choosing a good TA: I actually think that asking someone just a couple of years ahead of you is the best thing to do. They see from your perspective, and they often understand/remember what was hard about the material better than the faculty members. It's cheaper, and you'll learn better. As a faculty member, I would never agree to privately tutor a student. Teaching is only a small part of my job, and I prefer to be doing research instead of spending more of my time with an undergraduate student.

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    Just a comment about 10hrs/week. This varies and is not a general law. We expect 40 hrs/week because we do not run parallel courses, which I assume is the case in your school/country. – Peter Jansson Jan 24 '14 at 8:03
  • @PeterJansson: I'm pretty sure that in both the question and this answer, 'course' means what in the UK we usually call a 'module'. A student would normally be taking roughly four courses per semester, depending on the university. I would be surprised if at your university the things students study are not broken up into units in a similar way. – Tara B Mar 21 '14 at 11:36
  • @TaraB Our students take one course at a time (could be four in consecutive order in a term) and are expected to work full hours on each course. So as I stated, one cannot necessarily compare workload per week per course (module) between systems. – Peter Jansson Mar 21 '14 at 12:13
  • @PeterJansson: Oh, I see. I've never heard of that before! But of course I would have agreed about not being able to compare between different systems anyway. – Tara B Mar 21 '14 at 13:10
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Let me give you a few thoughts (which might be slightly off-topic) from a professor's perspective:

  • I usually design my courses in a way that the average student has a significant work load to keep up with the topic without frustrating them. (with 'average' I mean what I think the average student should be able to do after finishing the class - so this is a bit biased and independent of the actual students in my class)
  • This leads to the situation that there is about 20% which keep up with (more or less) ease (I try to give them some extre assignments which are usually to hard for the rest of the course), ~50% are doing more or less fine (they have to work hard, but come along), and ~30% are having a very hard time.
  • The ones which are having hard time are usully not having the required pre-requisites for the course (I talk to each of them and try to find out which problems they are having), this could be they dont have the knowledge and skills needed, but some have problems organizing their daily life etc.

Depending on the group you are in (I know, it's very rough classification and might not be helpful in your case), you can follow different strategies:

  • If you are usually among the top performers in your class, you just might have some misconceptions which prevent you from putting the topics in the right part of your brain. I'd suggest talking to your adviser or your professor about this. They can help to disentangle your thoughts.
  • If you are in the "average" group, you are the core audience of the class. Your professor should be interested in getting feedback about speed and perception of the content, but you must decide by yourself whether they are interested or not. If they seem to be open, I would suggest talking to your adviser and ask him about additional material or whether s(he) can recommend a tutor.
  • If you feel you are missing some pre-requisites, you should clearly identify for your self, what you are missing. Try to get this first, even if it's not part of the course or you already shoul be knowing it. If you skip this opportunity kow, life will only become harder. After you know what you are missing, try to find appropriate ressources to learn thos skills (online courses, personal coaching, taking a class again, whatever). Additional tutoring will not help as long as your brain is not ready for the topic (unless the tutor helps you with getting this knowledge and skills).

In general, I assume that my studnets are working in groups. Many assingments are very hard to complete for one person, you often need discussion about the topics. One thought gives the other and having a group of peers working on the seem topics is very helpful. If you are learning alone at the moment, try to find some peers and team up with them. It is optimal if they are a bit better than you, but the most important thing is to talk about the course content and try to find different approaches to understand it. Tackle the problems from different directions and see which one is the best for you. That's the real skill you are learning when you are studying.

I personally regard taking a tutor as a last resort, but that's a bit opinion based. A good tuutor is a coach helping you with the things described above (which is great, go, get one!), a bad tutor tries to think for you and focuses only on the course topic which is at hand. You won't learn much.

And coming to the question whether it is ok to ask a faculty member: It depends! You can not ask someone who is actually involed in the course (directly or indirectly), otherwise one could argue that the course is intentionally to hard and the faculty members are doing side business by helping the studnts to succeed. This would really be unethical (end even if it is not the case, it might look like this to an outsider).

If you can find someone, who is not involved in the course, and (s)he is willing to do it, I see no problem, unless there are no rivalries between your professor and the person. Still, I would prefer someone from a different institution since teaching students should be their main job, anyway. I personally would not take any students for private tutorship.

I hope this helps a bit.

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I'm going to provide a completely different perspective, mainly based on your comment

"Well, I would say in a class of 16 students, I spoke to 7 of them about this issue (at different times) and most seemed to talk about their issues (with the class) quite a bit. I'm not sure about the other remaining students though"

if you have confirmed that many people in the class are struggling (note: it's not 100% clear from this quote that you have), this is enough to warrant talking to the professor about the general pace and difficulty level of the class. In this case You may want to schedule an appointment with the professor and speak to him/her about your troubles with the class and how you have talked with other students and that these students are having similar issues. Ask the professor about what he/she imagines the average work load is for the class.

Most professors want the class to learn and are willing to teach to the ability of the class, but many of them are not so good at adapting to subtle cues from their students; they need to be explicitly told to slow down or cover more basic concepts. Find out what your professor thinks about what the course should be like and then adapt what you say based on that.

Sometimes the instructor does not modify their course (or they try to but really don't change as much as they think they are). There isn't too much you can do about this, however, many professors will change the course significantly and you may find yourself happier because of it.

However, whatever you do, do not make any accusations and try your best not to come off as entitled. Stay nice, and spend more time listening than talking. You may not end up needing a tutor

That said: for most research colleges the answer is NO to your question (graduate students would be more appropriate, perhaps someone who TAed the course before - but not currently, and possibly not while this instructor was teaching the course). For teaching colleges, there are often not enough professors in the department to even find one that would be an appropriate match to the subject matter.

  • You're reaching a lot of conclusions that are not supported by the very vague description given in the question. – Ben Crowell Mar 24 '14 at 0:58
  • The description is vague I agree, modified the response by starting it with "if". The op clearly states in his comment that others talk to him about issues they have with the course. You are right that such a description is vague, but if students are having difficulties the instructor should at least be made aware of it. – WetlabStudent Mar 24 '14 at 1:19
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From a student perspective, there are actually several things you can do:

First, you can go to the professor and/or the TA's office hours to get help with the material that you're struggling with. You didn't mension whether or not you've tried this, but often if you aren't understanding things in class then the professor or the TA would be happy to go over it again with you and to try explaining it in alternate ways or more slowly. If you're having trouble making office hours because of scheduling, the TA or the professor will often be able to schedule alternate office hours to meet with you.

Second, you can ask other students for help. You could try starting a study group or many students have mailing lists where you can ask for advice from people who have taken the class before. In addition, in a graduate level class there are likely to be graduate students who are working in/doing research on some of the topics covered in the course---these are definitely people who might be able to help.

Last, as someone mentioned, it's unlikely that other faculty will have the time to provide private tutoring. It's much more likely that a TA or another graduate student, probably one who is doing research under that professor!, would have the time and the inclination to tutor. Some ways to try to get in touch with someone like this is through student mailing lists, the professor or lab's website, or by asking other graduate students.

Most graduate students are pretty open and nice because they've been where you are in not getting a course, so don't be too nervous about approaching them.

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