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I am not a course instructor, but I am a teaching assistant for a large course in STEM in the large US school. I have been soliciting advice from students to improve the course and tutorial for the past some eight months.

However, during this time, I have been dealing with a series of taking students suggestions (or witnessing the instructor taking students suggestions) that "steer" the course, but then regretting it because it made things worse.

For example,

  1. I host tutorials using PowerPoint slides. Students requested en masse that I should post my tutorial slides ahead of time. I followed their suggestion and the tutorial attendance plummeted to around 10 students, down from 80ish and the tutorial interaction disappeared altogether. Now I am basically talking to an empty room.

  2. Students requested that the course problems should be more representative of the course, i.e., they should look like exam questions. The instructor and I decided to put test questions as assignments. Now the students complain that it is too hard and too lengthy. We augmented the questions and made them easier, now the student demand to see the actual exams and solution because now the questions are not the original ones.

  3. This happened in the last semester. Two very vocal students went on week long rants about how hard the course was and how because of COVID-19 and all the stress we need to lower our exam difficulty. We took their advice and made the exams simpler. The course average wind up to be ~95% and those two vocal students were actually the best performing students all along. Even a snail could pass this advanced, highly technical undergraduate level course. The past year average were around 75%.

I have reached the perhaps pessimistic conclusion that

  1. some students don't know what they want

  2. some students just love to complain very loudly, even in anger, knowing that we have to remain placid, professional no matter how bad things get

  3. students don't care about learning, only care about high score on exams. Some students would love it if the entire course was just one guy explaining the solution to all the previous year's exams.

How do we deal with following student suggestions in the online setting? I noticed that due to various online platforms and discussion board we provide them, in addition to semi-anonymity, some students are much more vocal, persistent. The instructors I've worked with are also more likely to give in to this small minority, lower the course standard, and basically getting steered by students into making the course worse.

Obviously I am a TA and my power is limited. But this might be useful for when I become a instructor myself or for other course instructors.

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    (1) Yes, some of them don't know. They're young. (2) I think you're ascribing too much malice here. Argumentative doesn't mean evil. (3) Of course students care about grades. Grades are important for their future. And everyone's scared their grades are going to suffer because of Covid19. So of course they're lobbying to safeguard their grades. Just because it turned out they did well doesn't mean it was strange for them to lobby. And it doesn't really say anything about whether they care about learning.
    – ObscureOwl
    Feb 6 at 16:22
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    I don't see a problem with (1). Some students decided they learn better without being present at the lecture. So what? It's their decision, the exam will show if it was a good one.
    – user111388
    Feb 6 at 19:04
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    I think you should add a 'US' tag - in the European countries where I studied and then taught such demands would be first met with incredulity and afterwards simply ignored. It is probably because we are not customers of our students but we have experience in how to best teach them (which is of course megalomaniac, I am not saying that this is better, just different from the US)
    – WoJ
    Feb 6 at 19:59
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    "I have been soliciting advice from students" current students? That's a kick-me sign. 'Meet it with incredulity', aka: learn how to say no. Or read the page length answer below that amounts to winning friends and influencing people.
    – Mazura
    Feb 6 at 23:10
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    I've had profs whose policy it was to make homework harder than exams, because you only have so much time to spend on an exam, so naturally people won't be able to solve the same kinds of problems in a shorter amount of time; it'd be unreasonable to expect otherwise. I've also had profs whose policy it was to make exams harder than homework, because, well, it needs to gauge and differentiate the level of mastery between different students, and that requires it to be harder. So what's the right way? Idk, whatever floats your boat. I was fine with either, but both approaches got complaints...
    – user541686
    Feb 7 at 4:01
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The game is: you listen, but then, you decide. Just because students don't like something, you do not have to do what they ask. Check whether what they say has merit, if so, you can promise to change for next year (or for the current if there is enough flexibility).

Well-designed courses often cannot be massively adapted on the fly. I always explain to students my rationale about unpleasant things, and I do that upfront (very important!). If you have no rationale, it means you have no good reason to do it the way you do and you should strongly consider to change it.

Note that giving in to every whim of your students is the surest way to lose respect. I am considered strict, but make sure I find out what students need, not what they want. And I practically always explain my rationale. I most certainly not always do what they ask, but I take it into account where it makes sense and they always get an insight of my decision process.

Most react well to that. If someone complains, I give them one opportunity, tell them I will decide whether I take it aboard, but then close the discussion. They have had their input, I will contemplate it, and apply either in that round or in the next years' one. Once the decision is made (which needs to be balanced and fair), you thank them for their input, but the discussion is closed.

In your case:

  1. If absence damages the learning, revert to not giving out the slides, and explain why. However, if you are simply piqued by them not attending while the performance is fine, let it go. Ego has no place in the consideration. Alternatively, if they can pick up everything from the slides, maybe the latter are too detailed, or the course is too easy. Which of these is it?

  2. Don't make the homework questions easier. Keep them hard and explain to them why. I mean, they need to have a chance of solving them (it shouldn't be impossible), but it needs to be a challenge. They will initially complain, but as they get better, they will start understanding why this is university and not just a continuation of high school. They should be harder than exam questions, as in an exam you have limited time. However, lengthy homework is not always desirable, there can be short, hard questions. You do not want to waste their time for hours with tediosity, you want them to learn.

  3. Because of Covid, you could easily argue, the exams need to be harder, not easier. As they are carried out at home, they can be given access to material they can not access in class. This makes it possible to crank up the difficulty. Their argument works against them.

People react to what works. If you give in into any request made, not only they know they can play you, but they perceive you as inconsistent, and the situation will become increasingly worse. When you make clear how inputs are treated and how you will work with them, usually people respond well. Make clear that ranting, and emotional complaints or pressure will not cause you to change your opinion, but only rational arguments have a chance to do so. Make sure you yourself know that, that will reflect back implicitly to your students.

You set the ground rules early, and stick to them. It may be difficult for people who strive to be liked, but if a teacher blows like a leaf in the wind, few will like them, and none will respect them. On the other hand, some people are just randomly strict without rationale ("because I said so"); make sure you do not fall into that trap, either, by always considering an argument and understanding why you dismiss it.

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    Thanks. Maybe this is what I needed to hear. I agree that the slides need not be too detailed to encourage attendance. However I doubt this solves everything because these tutorials are recorded anyways for people in different time zones. So I think the students simply will just watch it a their own convenience. I don't think there is a way to resolve this challenge. Feb 6 at 8:08
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    @SanjayGupta If you have different time zones, then be kind. Not everyone has the same body clock and being remote means being detached. What you can do is to give "added value" to your presentations by encouraging questions or giving extra advice. Feb 6 at 13:48
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    To a certain extent, if they then choose to not attend, or only watch the recordings, that's their problem and their loss. Feb 6 at 13:55
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    @SanjayGupta: Captain Emacs' point is that the instructor has to resolve this challenge by not being a pushover. From your question, it seems that the stated instructor just did what they want. That is not the way; you should do what you think is best, after taking into account their difficulties, not their whims and fancies, and doing so in as fair a manner as you believe possible, not only fair among students of that cohort but also fair to students of other cohorts.
    – user21820
    Feb 6 at 15:38
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    @IanSudbery or their win. had one lecture recorded back in my day and that model was great, because I could rewatch the pieces I had problems with over and over until I got what was going on and skip over those I already knew or watch the (to me) easy stuff while having lunch. Only reason to go to the lecture was to see if I get into topics quickly enough to ask questions then and there, which at that lecture never worked because I needed time to warp my head around the content (was certainly not my strongest area^^). So saving the time to not go there typically was an improvement. Feb 6 at 19:57
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Your aim is to help educate better, in broad terms. So you need to look at everything in a class, primarily through that lens.

What will help students best gain from the course? Is this going to help students become competent at the required material? That sort of thing.

What you're doing now, is more "of they want it and it doesn't sound too awful, sure, be helpful by giving what's asked for". You now know that some things work,some don't, and much more importantly, you now know the consequences/payoffs for your primary aim, of doing those 4 or so things.

That's inevitable. Trial and error,learning by doing, voice of experience... You have to try things, within limits, to see what happens. Watch for the rich learnings.

Be prepared to be surprised, too. Your PowerPoint thing... Attendance dropped. But if they only needed the PowerPoint slides and mastered the work, then you've discovered that in some cases that's actually what they need - they can use the time to study the presentation. Or perhaps they didn't... in which case take corrective action. "That didn't seem to work, but it was interesting to try. How did you all find it?" And maybe next time "that doesn't work well in practice for all students, so I'm going to give them out after." Again, learn.

As a professional everything educates you as well. Let it do so. Over time you'll figure what works and doesn't,but you'll always learn new things.

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This is mostly the instructor's problem.

I host tutorials using power point slides.

You're using a non-interactive teaching technique. That's not very helpful to students.

tutorial interaction disappeared altogether

The instructor should have required tutorials to be interactive, and that interaction should contribute to student's grades. Then they would show up and interact.

Students requested that the course problems ... should look like exam questions.

If the exams are well designed, then the students are right.

Now the students complain that it is too hard and too lengthy.

Course difficulty should be determined by a consensus in your discipline. You don't control that and neither do your students. Explain to them why it is hard.

some students just love to complain very loudly, even in anger

Teach appropriate classroom behavior. Teach constructive feedback.

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    Thanks. It is tough to be interactive in the online setting with only a few students that you can't see. I have no idea if they are even paying attention. I sometimes pause and ask them questions and no one answers and it becomes super awkward. Feb 6 at 8:05
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    If you were talking and showing power point slides in person, they would not be paying attention. Why would it be different online? Use graded, interactive activities. This isn't the TAs responsibility to manage. Feb 6 at 8:27
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    Using power point slides does make things necessary non-interactive. Feb 6 at 13:49
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    @IanSudbery I think there may be one or two typos in your comment that substantially change its meaning. Feb 6 at 18:26
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    @Daniel Hatton Ooops, yes, should have said "Using powerpoint slides does not necessarily make things non-interactive." Feb 7 at 1:43
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This answer is based out of my own experience as a teaching assistant.

I didn't do much to respond to complaints because I'm a TA, not the professor. Since this is the professor's course, I defer to them when things like this happen (they generally have better decisions). I also generally feel that I'm not the one to set the rules; the professor is.

Students also don't argue when they know this is the professor's policy and not mine. If they dislike the policy, I recommend them trying to discuss it with the professor and not to argue with me. If I happen to dislike the policy, I just go on with it for the semester. After all, my responsibilities are to help the professor on this course, not to deliver knowledge on my own.

Regarding homework vs. exam: So far, my professors have been assigning equal difficulty for homework and exams, i.e. if both are worked on under no time-limit, both have roughly the same idea. The catch is, exams have very limited time as opposed to homework, and in itself it already makes exams harder than homework.


In hindsight, I know this answer does not represent the case where the professor simply says it's up to TA to decide the best for assistance sessions. Frankly I've never been in that position.

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What will be most useful for them going forwards?

Ultimately the test of any change is whether it helps the students learn the subject. Your course is not an island to itself - as an undergraduate program, it's delivering essential skills that will let your students become professional engineers/scientists. If they haven't learnt this, they will fail to progress further on their courses. Or perhaps worse, they will arrive in industry unable to do their jobs; and if this looks like a pattern then word will go round industry to avoid hiring people from your school, and then students will stop coming, and then your department gets shut down.

Slides available? Honestly, I've had lecturers who could have been replaced by a speak-and-spell, and the teaching would have improved. So that's a definite question mark.

Course exercises? I'm rather worried that the instructor doesn't know how to pitch coursework so that it assesses what students have just been taught. This indicates either complete inexperience or profound incompetence from the instructor. It very much sounds like the instructor needs mentoring from senior members of the department.

Making the exams easier though? Hard nope. If the exam can't show that the student is competent enough to continue, or (for a final exam) to show what grade they deserve for their degree, this is every kind of wrong. The instructor needs a PIP right now.

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