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This actually happened to my wife, but for the sake of simplicity I'll talk about it as if it happened to me.

I wrote a final exam for a university course last week, and a couple days ago I got my marks and the correct answers back. I disagreed with one of the questions I answered wrong, so I pulled out the textbook that was assigned to this course and found that it supports my answer. I sent an email to my prof with the page number and the exact quote from the textbook that supports my answer. His reply was (with slightly changed wording):

In class I said that correct exam answer... This is an issue with any text and shows why class is so vital: Texts rapidly go out of date or (such as the broad text used for this course) demonstrate a lack of depth. Lectures are usually much more up to date.

Keep in mind that this is an Archaeology class, which in my unprofessional opinion really doesn't "go out of date" all that quickly. The textbook is the assigned textbook for this course by the university. The online lecture notes posted by the prof make no mention of the disagreement. I was not present at the lecture.

Do professors have an obligation to recognize the assigned textbook as an authority in the context of the course? In my experience, when confronted with such a problem they typically go "Ok, fair enough, I'll give you the mark", but are they just being nice or are they supposed to do this? He's not a senior prof (not even PhD yet), so do you think going to his superior would help?

If I get this one extra mark it will bump me up 0.4 GPA for the course because I'm right at the cut-off.

Edit: Since several people asked, the question was something like "Which Aztec god is the god of war and is associated with water". The book said one god, Huitzilopochtli, was the god of war, while Tlaloc was the god of fertility and rain. When studying for the exam, Huitzilopochtli stuck in my head as the god of war, so I picked him. The prof said that in class he mentioned that Tlaloc also had militaristic aspects.
Note that I'm not saying the prof is wrong objectively, only that our book makes no mention of Tlaloc being war-like and instead makes emphasis on fertility and life, being a beneficial god, which seemed totally opposite to war. When I sent my email I explained that I picked Huitzilopochtli because the book lists only him as the war god, but that I recognize my answer is only half-right due to the water reference, and that I feel that Tlaloc is also only half-right since he's not a war god.

Also, the prof agreed with me that the book was misleading, but said that I should've come to the lecture. Hence my question here focusing on whether the book should have any authority without getting into the details of the question itself.

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    Already mentioned in some of the answers but be careful of 'Archaeology really doesn't "go out of date" all that quickly.'. As an example only this week has research shown that Neanderthals 'overlapped' with modern humans for longer than previously thought. Also more modern ways of analyzing Archaeological evidence are always being brought on stream. – gman Aug 21 '14 at 21:56
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    You may also want to check for any errata that's been published for your textbook. It's possible the textbook authors agree with your professor. – Patrick Collins Aug 22 '14 at 0:46
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    @hd1: No, he means the extra mark would have increased his GPA by 0.4, not to 4.0. – Pete L. Clark Aug 22 '14 at 2:05
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    I have always considered everything I say in class as overriding the my course texts. In my subject, we don't normally have multiple-choice tests so there is no right vs wrong answer, only good or bad analysis/argument/evidence. If you had outdated information I would mark you down but I would not give you a zero. – earthling Aug 22 '14 at 8:39
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    You could say, "if everything is subjective, how can anything even matter when I can't trust any book". But it's not a matter of books. Your professor told you to come to class and listen to the lectures. You didn't do it. You have only yourself to blame. – Superbest Aug 23 '14 at 2:02
36

My opinion -- as a university teacher for four years pre-PhD and eleven years post -- is that your story is balanced precariously on the border between "unfortunate" and "actionable". What is to be done about this probably depends a lot on your national and local university culture, the culture of your department, and even on the judgment of your own instructor.

Here is some advice about how to best deal with the situation:

I sent an email to my prof with the page number and the exact quote from the textbook that supports my answer.

That is already not the ideal strategy. This is a matter that requires some discussion, and email -- especially email exchanged between people who don't know each other well -- is not conducive to discussion but rather to one-sided statements of position, often of a nature which is more definitive, defensive or combative than a person would be in a face-to-face meeting. You should go to physically meet with your instructor. It is not too late to try to do so.

"In class I said that correct exam answer... This is an issue with any text and shows why class is so vital: Texts rapidly go out of date or (such as the broad text used for this course) demonstrate a lack of depth. Lectures are usually much more up to date."

That's a pretty good answer. If the textbook is incorrect, superficial or out-of-date on the point which was covered in the lecture, and if you did not attend the lecture, then you are showing that you did not receive and learn the information you were tested on.

Keep in mind that this is an Archaeology class, which in my unprofessional opinion really doesn't "go out of date" all that quickly.

Definitely don't say that again. This sentiment is indeed unprofessional. It is also ignorant and insulting: academia is about the progression of knowledge, not just keeping it preserved for posterity. Archaeology is no different from any other field in that manner.

The online lecture notes posted by the prof make no mention of the disagreement.

That is not definitive, but it makes me more sympathetic to your situation.

I was not present at the lecture.

That's bad. You have every right to expect that when you miss lectures you miss critical information. That's desirable, really: otherwise what's the point of lectures? By any chance did you contact the instructor and ask to be updated on what you missed? Did you get notes from some classmate that did not include this point? Either of these would mitigate your absence (the first more than the second).

Do professors have an obligation to recognize the assigned textbook as an authority in the context of the course?

No, of course not. On the contrary, they have the obligation to correct the textbook when they feel it is helpful and/or necessary to do so.

In my experience, when confronted with such a problem they typically go "Ok, fair enough, I'll give you the mark", but are they just being nice or are they supposed to do this?

I agree; "I'll give you the mark" is the more typical, nicer reaction. Not to do it is being a little callous, in my opinion. But it is unlikely that "they are supposed to do this", at least not officially. The instructor of a course has a certain amount of authority. This decision, although it may not be a "nice" one, seems to fall within that authority, at least in my experience.

He's not a senior prof (not even PhD yet), so do you think going to his superior would help?

At most universities I'm familiar with, someone who does not have a PhD is not a "professor" at all. But that probably doesn't really matter: what matters whether he is the "instructor of record" or a "teaching assistant". (Probably: in some places, one does in practice have more or less classroom authority according to one's academic rank and seniority.)

Yes, going to his superior might help. But you should think very carefully about this and have at least one face-to-face meeting with your instructor first. Before you do that:

Find out whether your answer was actually correct, or arguably correct.

If it is, you'll have much more of a leg to stand on. If it isn't, if push comes to shove...well, we mark the right answers right and the wrong answers wrong, don't we? Finally:

If I get this one extra mark it will bump me up 0.4 GPA for the course because I'm right at the cut-off.

This is the line that tipped me over a bit into recommending that you pursue the matter at least a little further. It is one thing to mark a question wrong because it is wrong. It is another thing to stand on this to the extent that it lowers your final course grade. There's a proportionality issue here: yes, you were apparently wrong to go with your textbook rather than the instructor. But were you that wrong?

It seems likely to me that some more senior personnel in the Archaeology department will feel the same way. If you can find such a person, then maybe they can influence your instructor. However, if you are very confrontational with your instructor then he may be inclined to stand on principle, even in the face of senior personnel. You really want to make changing the grade the easier, more palatable option for all involved.

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    I tried to write an email that was not confrontational, explained why I chose the answer I did and asked if he agreed with my reasoning. Missing lectures is bad, but people get sick, etc. To be honest, I don't agree that missing critical information is ever desirable. Sometimes I feel that profs create artificial incentives to attend lectures to validate their own importance. Is the goal ultimately for students to learn, or for them to come and hear the prof talk? Why does the course have a textbook at all if we can't trust it? There is no list anywhere of errors or omissions in the text. – Egor Aug 21 '14 at 21:48
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    "There is no list anywhere of errors or omissions in the text." That's (in part) what the lecture is for, but I feel we are going in circles here. Yes, the lecturer is certainly being uncommonly strict about this, but I don't think you are able to construe this in a way that makes him entirely in the wrong. – xLeitix Aug 21 '14 at 22:00
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    @Egor: I agree that lectures can be missed for valid reasons. In that case you should approach the instructor to find out what you missed: did you do so? "I don't agree that missing critical information is ever desirable." I agree, and I see that I did not express myself clearly on this point. What I meant is that it is desirable that lectures present information which is so critical that one would not want to miss them. "Sometimes I feel that profs create artificial incentives to attend lectures to validate their own importance." That may be true, but it is not directly helpful to you. – Pete L. Clark Aug 21 '14 at 22:00
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    "Is the goal ultimately for students to learn, or for them to come and hear the prof talk?" The goal is ultimately for students to learn. As I said, it seems that by missing the lecture you failed to learn something. You should find out whether that's true (and thereby learn what you missed!). "Why does the course have a textbook at all if we can't trust it?" No one source is perfectly trustworthy. Why do people buy the New York Times when it makes mistakes? "There is no list anywhere of errors or omissions in the text." Except for the one given by the instructor in class? – Pete L. Clark Aug 21 '14 at 22:03
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    @Egor If you did not even bother to try to find out what you missed during your absence, then this is a serious problem — and your attitude about validation of self-importance a bigger one. If you prefer mail-order type courses over those involving a human being, those are available to you. I’m sure you would not be happy if you went to the trouble of attending a course and your professor were a no-show. A course whose material does not require a human being should not be presented in a format requiring one. This one apparently was, and you did not execute due diligence in your end of it. – tchrist Aug 22 '14 at 1:45
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Do professors have an obligation to recognize the assigned textbook as an authority in the context of the course?

No, there is no such obligation. It's a bad educational practice to choose a textbook that's seriously unreliable, but even good textbooks slowly go out of date, and they sometimes have a lack of detail or even outright errors as well. It's important for professors to try to be clear about any deficiencies the textbook has, for example by highlighting them in class. I provide a written list of any typos or other issues I am aware of (although I note that of course there may be others as well). However, there is no obligation to accept the textbook's version as a correct answer, and there are no specific rules about how things must be brought to the students' attention. It's entirely up to the lecturer's discretion.

I would expect that many professors would be more flexible or accommodating than what happened in this instance, but not all of them. At least in the sort of universities I'm familiar with (in the U.S.), there's no way an administrator will change the grade under these circumstances if the faculty member who assigned it is unwilling to do so.

On the other hand, it's not clear to me from what you say whether this person is a regular faculty member (due to the lack of a Ph.D.). If you are dealing with a teaching assistant, it could be worth asking the professor in charge of the whole course. This will probably upset the TA, but it might work (since the professor will want to maintain common policies among all the TAs assigning grades). Other than that, I don't see any recourse.

Added in light of Pete Clark's answer: I'm assuming your answer is definitely wrong. I.e., either the textbook had an error in it or it's out of date regarding a clear scholarly consensus. On the other hand, if you can make a case that your answer is actually correct or accepted by serious researchers (not just that the textbook says it, but that authoritative and up to date scholarly sources agree), then you've got more of a basis for disputing the grade.

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    I think a written list of errors would be reasonable. Otherwise, even going to the wash room is risky - you could miss the prof verbally correct something that ends up on the test. I think he's a faculty member, and is a "PhD candidate". I think my biggest gripe is "How do you study with a book that's wrong?" Of course texts are not perfect, but I thought that an answer from the assigned textbook would always be accepted on a test, unless there's a written correction. – Egor Aug 21 '14 at 21:59
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    How do you study with a book that's wrong? — As opposed to what? I assume all textbooks have errors. – JeffE Aug 22 '14 at 2:30
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    All textbook has errors. Also, we hear the story from a very peculiar point of view: someone tells it on behalf of one party without even himself would be familiar with the details or having any experience in the given subject. I can imagine that if e.g. someone spends 10 min in a class with a problem and even underline that the recommended textbook is outdated/not valid, be less happy with a student who maybe demands a better grade on basis that "how would I know that?". The devil is in the details, and we don't know those. – Greg Aug 22 '14 at 5:15
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    @JeffE For us it's "easy": mathematical errors can be clearly identified by careful reading. In less formal sciences, you have a much harder time. Also, there are often several competing "scholarly consensi"; the correct exam answer might change from term to term with the professor reading the course. (True story.) – Raphael Aug 22 '14 at 9:09
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    And, "how do you study with a book that's wrong" -- you take better notes in lectures. There may be a systematic problem that one part of the university tells you lectures are optional, while another part of the university (this prof) treats them as essential. If so, you could argue to the university that this prof is unfairly requiring students to attend lectures (!). Otherwise, they're essential, and if you miss essential things and don't have a good reason for special consideration, then you lose marks. That's what "essential" means. – Steve Jessop Aug 22 '14 at 9:43
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"In class I said that correct exam answer... This is an issue with any text and shows why class is so vital: Texts rapidly go out of date or (such as the broad text used for this course) demonstrate a lack of depth. Lectures are usually much more up to date."

Well, your lecturer is right. Text books are sometimes factually wrong. If he indeed pointed out the error in class and you were not aware because you did not go to class, you can hardly blame the lecturer.

That being said, most lecturers would probably be open for a sensible argument, but you should certainly approach it as a nicety or concession of the lecturer, not something that you can force by applying to some sort of obligation.

He's not a senior prof (not even PhD yet), so do you think going to his superior would help?

Rank doesn't really have a lot to do with it. Going to his superior (if such a person exists, which may depend on how your university works) may help, or kill your cause entirely. In my home university, complaining to the department head was generally a horrible idea. Department heads never decide against a lecturer in a case that is not a clear-cut violation of university policy. All you would do in this case is make the lecturer much more unsympathetic towards your cause.

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    Going to a superior with an attitude like "Do professors have an obligation to recognize the assigned textbook as an authority in the context of the course?" does not sound like the most sensible way. – Greg Aug 22 '14 at 5:17
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    @xLeitix: However, it's a different scenario if this is a multi-sectioned course with a "head lecturer" in charge of overseeing all of the individual sections. – aeismail Aug 22 '14 at 16:22
  • @aeismail Good point. In the case of a teaching assistant, going to the person actually listed as the instructor might help. I did that successfully a time or two in labs, but it was generally where the TA had actually marked something incorrectly or was being unreasonably pedantic, not because I missed something mentioned in class. In the case of a professor, though, you're generally just at their mercy unless you have a really, really strong case that your answer is correct. – reirab Nov 9 '14 at 9:36
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Textbooks, even very good textbooks, can contain errors, even egregious errors. When that happens, I try very hard to emphasize the error and explain why something else is correct and the textbook is not. I'll probably mention it in two or more class sessions. For one book, I have an online errata sheet.

I will not accept an incorrect answer on an exam, no matter what authority the examinee might bring forward. (But I will also consider that I might be the one who is wrong!)

There are already several good answers to this question. I'm writing because you bring up the effect of this answer on your GPA. The goal of a university course is not a grade; the goal is mastery of the material. Master the material and the grade will take care of itself. You have your eye on the wrong goal.

Unless it's already luminously obvious, go to the professor (in some universities, everyone in charge of a class is called "professor" regardless of academic rank), apologize for the email, and ask for help in understanding why the book's answer is not appropriate. That probably will not get you any slack on the exam in question, but you'll get at least one item right on the final exam!

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    That's unfortunate. "You" should still ask for help in understanding the reason for the difference. – Bob Brown Aug 21 '14 at 22:31
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    The question is not whether I am right, the question is whether the answer given is right. I did not say I will accept no answer other than my own, I said I will not accept an incorrect answer. That's why the other respondents to your question were so insistent that discussion is the right approach. – Bob Brown Aug 21 '14 at 22:34
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    I hope you haven't been as argumentative with your wife's professor as you're being here. As I am here to help and not to argue, this will be my last comment. I think we're finally getting down to the problem, though. You write, "The book made no mention..." which is very different from the book contradicting what the professor said. Lectures are supposed to add to what is presented in the textbook. And students are supposed to learn that material. – Bob Brown Aug 21 '14 at 22:39
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    @Egor: It seems to me that your explanation in these comments is not consistent with your framing of the question. When you said "the textbook supports my answer", you meant that it supported it by having some information on topic X but not all the information that was given in class and then appeared on the final exam?!? Based on that understanding I've deleted my answer. Please feel free to provide additional clarification. – Pete L. Clark Aug 22 '14 at 2:01
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    @Egor: You've made some important clarifications in these comments, and it would be helpful if you could edit your question to include them there. In particular, it's a crucial detail that the book didn't actually give wrong information; rather, it failed to mention something that was discussed in class, and you interpreted this absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Not knowing this is leading others to give misleading answers. – Nate Eldredge Aug 22 '14 at 19:09
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"In class I said that correct exam answer... This is an issue with any text and shows why class is so vital: Texts rapidly go out of date or (such as the broad text used for this course) demonstrate a lack of depth. Lectures are usually much more up to date."

All you need to know is right there in the professor's response.

  1. The professor covered the correction in the lecture.
  2. You missed the lecture.
  3. Therefore, you missed the question.

That makes it officially, "Your problem."

The lesson is twofold:

  1. Attend the lectures.
  2. Textbooks are not the ultimate authority.
  • Is there an implicit assumption in this answer that the student chose not to attend the lecture? – Andrew Grimm Aug 25 '14 at 6:21
  • @AndrewGrimm he stated he'd not attended. In my experience the vast majority such cases are by choice. If there's a good reason to not be there (say a medical emergency) there's usually a chance to get the notes afterwards (from a fellow student at least, usually the teacher/lecturer). And as others have noted, things like corrections to books and other literature are often given several times, not just once. – jwenting Aug 25 '14 at 10:39
4

You've just learn two vital lessons: first, books are not holy texts that should be taken without doubt, and second, even if the lectures aren't obligatory, it's crucial to attend them if you want to get higher marks. Generally, that was on the lecture is more important than that, what's in the book, when it comes to the exam. University is not a school.

Archeology is the topic very prone to change. We made some speculations about the past, based on limited hints. Any new discovery can make the whole book invalid (because some hypotesis, which was taken for granted, was overthrown by that discovery).

What's more, after the details, it's not that the textbook is contradicting the lecture. The questions was about the war god associated with water, and according to your input, the book doesn't say that Huitzilopochtli was associated with water. In that case, it was the lack of depth (according to your professor) of the book that made your answer incorrect.

So you were not on the lecture (or you were not paying attention), but you feel you deserves good grades anyway, and to proove that, you try to find some contraditions between the correct answers and the textbook, which are not there. Just learn from that lession and not think of university course as of school class with single 'correct' elementary book.

0

If I get this one extra mark it will bump me up 0.4 GPA for the course.

I'd say this is the only real impetus present. Without this, either the instructor or you ought to let the marks slide. Have you discussed with the instructor how this seemingly small matter can substantially affect your grade, chances for future scholarships, grad school apps, etc..?

I say, ethically, the instructor was justified in their response, for the reasons that Pete lists. But you may as well schedule a face-to-face meeting and play your sympathy trump card.

0

Presume the professor has power.

In my first job as an instructor, here is my basic memory of what the department chair said to me:

"Here is the syllabus. You are required to talk about each of the items of the syllabus. Just talk about them for 2-5 minutes. Of course, talk about them more if you want, at your discretion. But our goal is to create students with high quality. Do whatever it takes."

In fact, I did once use that strategy immensely. I was also required to give a final exam. However, the exam didn't actually need to be about subject material. When I found out that the course I had to teach was about Microsoft Internet Secure Accelerator, and I found out that this proprietary software had been discontinued in the marketplace for a couple of years, I spent 40 minutes covering the software, and then just took the course in a totally different direction which would actually be useful for students.

On the other hand, I recall at a different institution where I learned that a math instructor was required to assign very specific problems from the text book, and the topic covered each day was assigned to her. So her department gave her no leeway whatsoever.

You could try contacting a department chair or dean or whomever, but know that you're likely to be "burning bridges"/"making enemies" by doing such things, and it might not help you at all. Chances are that the dean of your college isn't going to care if you get a GPA that is 0.4 higher. (S)he will be more concerned about the ideas that you skipped class and that you are not responsibly accepting the consequences of your action. If this experience causes you to learn that you should do what is expected of you, such as showing up to class and paying attention to lectures, then that will likely be far more favorable for the chair/dean than worrying about your grade.

If I were a dean and a student approached me about this, the best that the student might hope to get for is an "I will look into it". And I would be diligent enough to get the instructor's side of things. However, I would not be inclined to take the student's side and order the instructor to make a change. I would be far more inclined to want to show my fellow instructor that they have my full support.

Sometimes, your instructors might not have full autonomy in assigning grades. For example, there might be a rule printed in the syllabus which says that exams will determine 40% of your grade, while quizzes will count as 25% of the grade, and remaining grade points may come from other items (like in-class assignments, participation, homework/research papers, etc.). Your instructor may or may not have full control over the syllabus. I would expect your instructor to be absolutely bound to whatever is written in the syllabus. However, if your instructor decides to make one quiz worth more than another quiz, that could be fully within the instructor's rights. And if an instructor wants to say that one question has multiple accepted answers, and that another answer isn't accepted, I would expect that may be (and probably is) fully within the rights of the instructor to determine.

In a lot of ways, you don't have much power as a student. This is by design, as instructional institutions try to impose compliance to make sure that students can, naturally (from experience), easily adhere to certain professional expectations.

To summarize a lot of the above: Exactly what your professor is allowed to do may vary a bit, but if you do not have something in writing, chances are pretty high that your instructor has full leeway to make lots of decisions, certainly including disagreeing with the textbook and deciding what answers to accept as correct. (I recall as a community college student when an instructor even dis-enrolled me from a class, I think even after a class had started.)

And since the professor took an approach of defending a decision, and hasn't offered you any points yet, your bet bet is to seek points from some method other than getting points for your answer to that question. You are not likely to win this one.

-4

I'm actually very surprised by the answers to this question.

First, I think it's very bad form for a lecturer to deliberately include a question on an exam where the assigned textbook gets it wrong. I would certainly never do that.

Second, if the lecturer thinks it's important that the students get the correct facts about this topic, (s)he should inform the students through a forum that all students are required to use (whether they use it or not), such as e-mail or a class website (I would do both, actually, just to make sure). Again, I think it's bad form and sloppy to think it suffices to just "mention it in class", especially if the lecturer intends to include it in the exam. All lecturers know that all students cannot make every single class, and I would think it's both unfair and childish to "punish" the students that didn't make that specific class in this way.

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    It's not clear if the lecturer knew about the discrepancy before Egor's wife complained about it. – mhwombat Aug 22 '14 at 17:49
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    The professor did not "get it wrong." The material wasn't covered in the text, but was covered in the lecture. In a comment above, Egor writes, "The textbook makes no mention..." And, I believe "coming to class" should count as a forum all students are required to use. – Bob Brown Aug 22 '14 at 18:19
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    @Sverre to assign a textbook means to choose a respected textbook that covers the required topics sufficiently, nothing more. The lecturer is not required to proofread the textbook, and most likely would not read it in as much detail as the students do, as s[he] would have likely learned the topic from a different textbook, and taught it from a number of different textbooks as well. Especially with often released newer editions, I wouldn't assume that the prof has even read the latest edition of the textbook, if [s]he has used an earlier edition before. Textbook is just extra reading material. – Peteris Aug 22 '14 at 18:20
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    I have to downvote this. It would be a bit distasteful if the professor intentionally set the question as a trap for those who missed lecture, but we haven't seen any evidence that this is the case. I don't think it's incumbent on the professor to call out every place where the lecture differs from the textbook, especially (as in this case, see comments on Bob Brown's answer) when he is merely discussing something that the textbook omits. – Nate Eldredge Aug 22 '14 at 19:14
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    Yes, that's what the OP wrote, but as we found out later, that's not what happened. It came out in the comments that the textbook was silent on the subject and the professor added material to a lecture that was not in the textbook. – Bob Brown Aug 22 '14 at 19:48

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