23

Assume you took a math class at the university and didn't ask any questions during the lectures. Now, during the semester break, when your exam is also taking place, you are studying from a script that the professor gradually wrote during the lectures. You relied on this script and did not take many of your own notes, especially for a certain part of the script.

Now, you realize one week before the exam that you have a question about this specific part of the script. It's more a minor question about a definition. But it has significant implications for other aspects of the material.

Is it appropriate to ask the professor a question one week before the exam?

From the professor's perspective, it might give the impression that you weren't fully attentive during the lectures. Also he is a kind of a person that gets angry if you waste his time.

11
  • 39
    What’s more important to you, clarifying the point or your fear of making a poor impression? Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 1:19
  • 20
    You could, if concerned, begin with asking the TA or your fellow students, maybe they understand the point. If they cannot help, you have a good case to upgrade to the professor. Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 2:02
  • 6
    @knzhou "That's a term from continental Europe. Lectures tend to be very rigid there, with the professor basically reading from their notes." [citation needed]
    – Pål GD
    Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 6:45
  • 4
    @knzhou I don't know where you're from, what your experience is, or how you got to that conclusion. But I've taken and given lectures in various countries in continental europe, and have seen very few professors reading from their notes. The better lectures were the ones that were prepared well, but those were also the least likely to want to read anything during lectures. I've also never heard anyone refer to "scripts". Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 22:27
  • 7
    @AgnishomChattopadhyay: "script" is likely to be a mistranslation from another language. For instance, in German the word "Skript" is quite common, which is a short form of "Vorlesungsmanuskript", which is the German word for "lecture notes". Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 23:02

6 Answers 6

64

Yes, it is appropriate to ask the professor a question one week before the exam.

Professors and other university teachers are very well aware that students often defer exam preparation until a few days/weeks before the exam. It is part of their job to support students in their learning journey beyond just the contact hours in the lecture theatres. University teachers expect emails in the days leading up to any exam and many set aside time specifically to address these questions.

Moreover, university studies in mathematics (and I assume this is true for the majority of other fields) are very much about guided self-study. Contact hours often form just a minority proportion of the time a student is expected to spend on any module. Nobody is expected to fully grasp all concepts from just being attentive during lectures. Therefore, questions that you develop during exam preparation will not suggest that you "weren't fully attentive during the lectures".

4
  • 65
    I would also add that from the professors perspective I would count 'a week before the exam' as a student with good time planning skills. The students who send you an email the evening before the exam and expect a long answer immediatly so they can study all night through are a lot more troublesome.
    – quarague
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 9:47
  • 24
    I’d add: However late you are, it is always reasonable to ask. The difference if you ask last-minute is just that you shouldn’t count on receiving an answer in time.
    – PLL
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 11:56
  • 3
    Just to pile on -- the timetable is fine. Heck, when I was teaching (and younger, with no children), I would often stay up somewhat late (though not as late as my students) answering last-minute emails and so on to prep. Not that it was expected. I just feel like any study is better than no study and I'm happy to help. It's why I'm there, after all. I wouldn't stay up late to do that anymore, but I wouldn't take offense if I got an email after I went to bed; just "oops, they missed the window." But maybe they could get help from another student or etc. I would take no offense. Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 13:56
  • 4
    Perhaps also add that you might be doing the professor a service by pointing out things in the lecture notes that are maybe not completely correct, or that can in the very least be improved. I'm always grateful for that kind of feedback.
    – Pål GD
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 16:14
9

From the professor's perspective, it might give the impression that you weren't fully attentive during the lectures.

You betcha! But most students are like that... Also, the issue is not really being attentive during the lectures, but keeping up during your prep time on the evenings between the lectures, if you catch my drift.

Also he is a kind of a person that gets angry if you waste his time.

Best make sure you formulate your question in a crisp, clear, and to-the-point way. (In fact, do your utmost best to locate your point of difficulty as precisely and clearly as possible. It is dollars to doughnuts you will have answered your own question by the time you are done.)

2
  • 23
    People can be fully attentive and still have follow-up questions when they actually start working with the material.
    – Pål GD
    Commented Sep 18, 2023 at 16:14
  • 11
    I'm not buying this either. When following a convoluted argument (such as a delicate proof of a non-trivial result) in real time (= in class), it is perfectly normal to just try and keep up with the general outline of the argument. And then later, when trying to check all the details at the painstaking snail pace, realize that there a few subtleties you missed out while the prof talked. Those may even be intended to be details left as exercises for the reader. I think it more likely that the professor would be delighted to learn that somebody goes through the material like that. Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 5:05
7

To add to the other answers: it's possible that even if you understand the material well, you will occasionally be faced with some subtle question that you cannot immediately resolve. I'm not a mathematician, but here's an example from physics. It's been many years since I studied Newton's 3rd law and conservation of momentum, and I'd certainly say I know both of those concepts well, yet when I first encountered that question I could not immediately pinpoint the answer. (And neither could several of my friends who are also familiar with high-school level physics.)

This kind of thing can also happen at research level. You write a paper, then when you read it again five years later you might think "Wait, what about this effect? Shouldn't we have included it in the analysis?" Maybe you should have, but perhaps you just didn't think about it at the time.

So yes: ask your professor. If you're concerned that the question is simple and you're just forgetting something, then ask your classmates first, and only ask your professor if none of them know either (per Captain Emacs in the comments).

2

Based on my own experience, I'd do it, but with care.

About 40 years ago I did exactly this with a question for an enginering electrical masters degree paper. It was only one question and I felt it was reasonable to ask, despite the short time before the exam. Maybe a week or so.

To my astonishment they reacted immensely negatively and did not answer the question. They said that I had had a long time to approach them and that doing so at the last moment was inappropriate. I was very surprised at their reaction, and, 40 years on still feel that it was unreasonable.

As it happened the exam had an "answer all questions" format and it happened to suit my knowledge and style very well. A co lecturer in the subject (later the professor when the other died suddenly) remarked to me subsequently that they were surprised at how well I had done. The professor never commented subsequently.

2

In the big picture, there's a clear dichotomy: I can either admit my ignorance now, or I can do so one week from now.

Whatever harm may befall me by admitting my ignorance now will seemingly also befall me in one week, but it will also carry with it the lasting pain of poor exam scores. The poor scores might be averted if I fix things now, though.

I do not believe that a choleric professor will view a poor exam more charitably than a question asked very late.

1
  • This is the core of the question Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 20:37
0

From the professor's perspective, it might give the impression that you weren't fully attentive during the lectures.

Also he is a kind of a person that gets angry if you waste his time.

Sounds to me like the kind of teacher who wants to be effective, so put their doubts to ease by beginning your interaction with something like "Thank you for your time this semester" and some form of "I really learned a lot" or "you really opened my eyes to A and B" or to some "new connection" you were able to make between previously seemingly disparate things.

Then, "As I was reviewing everything, I ran across this one definition; at first I had thought it was straightforward, but when I later looked closer and tried X and Y I realized I don't fully understand it."

And as others advice, quickly zero-in and focus on exactly the problem part:

"I still can't get from here to there, Somehow I'm missing something important here. Perhaps it's obvious, perhaps it's subtle. *Can you help me to connect the dots? I'd really appreciate it. I just can't rest until I can bridge this gap.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .