I am a first year undergraduate student studying philosophy. One of my lecturers does not speak English as their first language, and is extremely difficult to understand. I could get over this if the lecturer was any good, but unfortunately they aren't. The module is a history of philosophy one, and they don't explain anything that's going on. All they do is read a quote from the text, put the argument in premise-conclusion form (which is not at all helpful), and then move on. There are other major problems with their teaching, but I won't get into them here as it would take all day. What the philosopher is saying, the justifications for their arguments, and everything else that is crucial to actually understanding the texts, are all left out. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I have learned almost nothing from their lectures. What should I do?

I've looked over some similar questions both on this site and others, but none of the answers to those have been helpful. Some of the same answers will probably be given for this question so I'll try and anticipate some of them:

  • The problem is not me just being stupid. I got quite good results in my last semester, and I haven't had any problems like this with any of my other modules. The lecturer is definitely the problem.
  • There is no textbook or other resources for the module. It's just the historical texts and the lectures, so I can't just "do the readings" and figure it out. Again, this has never previously been an issue, as other lecturers have always explained the texts well. I have tried to look at secondary literature to make up for the lecturer's inadequacies, but much of it is beyond the level of a first year, I struggle with it because I don't even have the foundations that the lectures should provide, and in any case I shouldn't have to go looking for extra material just to have a basic idea of what is going on.
  • I don't know if other students in the module are having problems to the same extent as I am. I had planned to ask others in a tutorial if they were also struggling, but the opportunity didn't arise. Tutorials are fortnightly for this module, so by the time the next one comes around the semester will almost be over, and there'll be little point in it then.

I really enjoy philosophy and what we are doing now seems really interesting and I want to understand it, but if things continue as they are then I feel that I'm going to finish the semester having learnt absolutely nothing from this module.

  • Do you have or could you form a study group?
    – Dawn
    Mar 27, 2021 at 14:35
  • 1
    "The problem is not me just being stupid." It is a very strong statement.
    – user135405
    Mar 27, 2021 at 14:42
  • 2
    I've seen a few "brilliant" engineering students having similar issues with some lecturers. Usually it's because they are really good at learning and repeating stuff from books, but haven't started thinking yet.
    – Mark
    Mar 27, 2021 at 14:44
  • @Dawn Unfortunately, no. With everything online there really hasn't been much opportunity for anything of that kind.
    – Spailpín
    Mar 27, 2021 at 18:03
  • @dodd Sorry if that came off wrong, but many other questions of this kind got some answers that basically insinuated that it was just that the student was an idiot and it was their fault for not being able to understand, which I really don't think is the case!
    – Spailpín
    Mar 27, 2021 at 18:06

2 Answers 2


You seem to have three options, but I think only one will lead to success if you want to continue in Philosophy.

The first is to complain to the administration about your issues. This might work, but I don't think it is very likely. The administration may have limited options in the time frame available. Of course it might make a change long term (not assigning this instructor to this course in future or firing them), but not on a time scale that will help you.

Second, you could approach the instructor and let them know that you aren't able to learn from lectures. It would be better to do this as a group than and individual, I think. It would be a bit safer and might be more effective if you have the support of your peers.

Third, and I think the best option, is that you figure it out for yourself using lots of resources available at the library and on the internet. History of Philosophy has been widely written about, of course, so there isn't a lack of materials. And learning how to learn, how to teach yourself, is an incredibly valuable skill for anyone, both in academia and in the outside world.

The third option can also be taken as a joint project with a few peer students. Form a study group to discuss sources related to the current course topics. You can do this remotely if necessary, but in the days before the pandemic (and zoom) a few students would get together to do this. They would even break up the topics so that one member studied something especially deeply and passed on their knowledge to the other members. It wasn't a matter of cheating, but just a form of joint learning. (I hope the rules don't forbid such things. If they do it is an even deeper problem.)

And even in the best of situations with a brilliant lecturer, not everything that you learn in a course needs to come from the lectures. Your learning is much more dependent on what you do than on what the teacher does.

  • 1
    Complaining to administration or the department head was a solution often recommended to other questions of this kind, but as you say, it's unlikely to get anything done soon. I also think it might be a bit extreme, or at the very least come off as arrogant for a first year student to be complaining about a lecturer. Approaching the instructor is also something I'd be afraid of. I don't want to come off as rude or insulting, and it would be especially embarrassing if I'm the only person with issues. I think I'll just have to tough it out and go the third way. Thanks for your recommendations
    – Spailpín
    Mar 27, 2021 at 18:11
  • You should definitely reach out to others and do a study group rather than tough it out. Learning to study in groups is a good skill, especially if you want to do graduate studies, and should be learned at the first opportunity.
    – Dawn
    Mar 27, 2021 at 19:59

I've had bad lecturers in the past as well, and in my experience there wasn't a lot that could be done that would matter in the near term. The one thing that comes to mind is to try talking with the instructor. You would need to approach it in a non-confrontational manner, and see if you get a positive response. They may be new, or unaware everyone is struggling. I've definitely noticed this with the switch to remote (I'm assuming you're remote right now), that it can be very hard to get feedback from students, and therefore hard to know if what I'm doing is working.

You should also make sure you get in direct contact with other students. Figure out how to form a study group. Is there a class forum or other place for dialogue? Once you're in a study group you can ask how others are finding the lectures, to see if they share your feelings.

In the longer term, if the short-term solutions don't work, you'll need to make your feelings on the lecture known to administration. Usually through student reviews, or direct contact with advisors. But it will help immensely to show that you tried to solve the problem yourself first.

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