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I am nearly finished with my master's degree. Recently, I enrolled in a required course that is a terrible mess. I'd like to wait another year, and take it again with an instructor who has their stuff together and will actually answer student questions and prepare lessons that match the exams. Delaying graduation seems preferable to wasting more time on this course.

  • Some classmates gave the teacher what I believe are reasonable suggestions, but the instructor just gave excuses.
  • I looked all through the course catalog, but only see policies that assume students are the problem-makers. For instance, after one week into the term, students get no tuition refunds and a "W".
  • I'd rather not create problems for the instructor, who is new to this job.

Are there any steps I can take to clear myself of this mess?

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    Since it is required course, do your best to pass it this year with a reasonably good degree and move-on. It is not worth another year just for a single course. – Alexandros Sep 22 '14 at 13:01
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    I had a similar situation in grad school. I initially hated my last class, an elective intro course that had a 50-page paper requirement. You need to weigh the costs and benefits of such a decision as delaying graduation. When you say "another year" is not a big deal, I would like to counter that it is. That's a year's worth of potential salary you're throwing away. Compare that to the worst you'd get out of this class if you finish through with it, which is likely at most an inadequate learning experience you can supplement with your own studying time. – Compass Sep 22 '14 at 13:14
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    And to add to the other two comments, there is no guarantee that next year instructor is going to be better! At this level, you should be able to learn by yourself anything that is useful for you. – Davidmh Sep 22 '14 at 18:46
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    If it is consistently like that and everyone gets 40% Fs at the end of the semester, that is grounds to complain to the school. Classes should never be impossible, and a failure rate that high is both impractical for the student and the school. – Compass Sep 23 '14 at 2:49
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    Personally I would complain. You are paying money for this course and if there is no correspondence between what you are being taught and the exams, then there is no hope of any of the students doing well. Take it higher. The instructor needs to know what is and isn't acceptable - it shouldn't matter that they are new to the job. You wouldn't forgive a nurse or doctor for doing their job wrong just because they are new! – emmalgale Sep 23 '14 at 10:22
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+250

some have suggested complaining or going to some authority, but offer no specific suggestions about how to do this

First, you need to understand how the authority chain is structured in academia. Your first course of action is to confront the instructor, which you've already done. The next step up would be the department head, and after that, the dean of the school – but I wouldn't recommend going past the department head with your complaints.

You need to do this very carefully. You need to be level-headed, respectful, factual, and specific. Be sure your case is compelling. In the event of a "he-said/she-said" debate, assume the department head will probably lean toward having the faculty member's back, rather than believing an offended student. Many students are too quick to complain when things don't go their way, making it easy for complaints to fall on deaf and jaded ears.

For example, in the scant details you've provided here:

  • Assignments are graded without rubric.
    I won't dispute the value of rubrics, but this is hardly a grievous offense. Many instructors don't opt to use rubrics.

  • Homework is graded inconsistently with instructions.
    This will be very hard to prove. A lot of assignments are by nature subjective, and it's hard to pinpoint why grades are given the way they are. Students often turn in work that is inconsistent. For example, say I assign some problem to be answered with an essay question. One student gets right to the heart of the matter, but the overall work is sloppy, and it reads like a draft that was hastily written 10 minutes before class. Another misses the point a little bit, but the essay is carefully crafted and has a lot of supporting detail. A third addresses the matter from an angle I hadn't considered before. How are my instructions supposed to cover all those cases, and more? (Moreover, assignment instructions are often very hard to get right the first time around, because you don't yet know how students might misinterpret stated requirements.)

  • Tests are very hard, but contain no relationship to the course assignments and lessons.
    The first part of that is not a problem, although the second part is. If you start out by complaining about difficult tests, you may come across as a whiner and get very little sympathy or support. Be very careful about even mentioning that "tests are very hard."

You'll also have to figure out what you want the end goal of your complaints to be. Do you want action taken before the semester is over? Or are you only looking to give feedback so that next year's students don't find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances? If you're hoping for intervention this term, probably the best you could hope for is for the department head to counsel the instructor, urging him to get his act together before the end of the term. But there are two sides to every story, and, unless your complaints are true on a large level, you're unlikely to get much sympathy. In other words, a bad question here and there on an exam is part of getting a new course underway, as are confusing assignments. If these are just normal "growing pains," you'll come off as a malcontent. On the other hand, if these are verifiable, wholesale shortcomings in the ability to conduct a course fairly and effectively, you might get a department head to step in, and urge the professor to get his act together. Even then, though, you'll probably have to make it to the end of the course, and you might see very little improvement. It's unlikely that the instructor will be reassigned midstream.

In short, you'll have to convince the department head that this faculty member is bordering on incompetence, and that it's not merely a case of an unpopular professor. This might be a tough sell.

16

I have seen cases where the instructor is given a module just two weeks before it starts, has no time to prepare, and might not have the proper background to teach it.

You might consider that the instructor is doing his/her best with what they have to work with. You might consider talking with the instructor to see what they believe you should be doing in order to succeed in the course. If they say "read the book" then you should read the book and study with little support.

Not all instructor are good and some are good but in a bad situation (that is, a situation not of their own making but rather one forced upon them). Either way, talk with them and find out what you can do to succeed.

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    +1 for "talking with the instructor to see what they believe you should be doing in order to succeed in the course" – mhwombat Sep 23 '14 at 11:36
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I haven't seen this suggested...

How connected are you to the other students in the course? Is it possible for you to meet as a group with the department chair?

You've got little power in the situation, but one thing you do have in your favor is that a new instructor is unlikely to fail a huge proportion of the class, particularly if those students have politely met with the department chair to express their concerns and provide samples of the lectures, homework and exams.

You can't get out of the class, but you can make it advantageous for the instructor to give everyone a good grade.

  • I think you mean "give everyone a fair grade," not "give everyone a good grade" (unless everyone has truly earned it). That aside, I like your "there's power in numbers" approach. One person alone may be regarded as a whiner and a dissenter, but a good percentage of the whole class might indicate could be more to this. – J.R. Oct 11 '14 at 19:17
  • I would like to mean "fair grade." But if this poor instructor is unable to make tests that show some vague relationship to the material covered in lecture or the homework then I think "fair" has left the building. I meant that if the instructor knows they did a poor job, they may give everyone an A- just to avoid drama. – Adrienne Oct 12 '14 at 16:18
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Warning: my answer might be out of focus for you because it takes into account only the information on your question, while some of your comments complement that information.

Unfortunately, some instructor do waste students' time by doing a very poor job; I'll assume this is the case here (but note that sometimes students feel that a course is done very badly but realize later that they learned more than they expected: student need not know better than instructors what they really need).

Here is basically what I told to students complaining that their instructor made the course impossible to follow when I was responsible for a 500 students, 20 instructors course (they were not the first to complain about these instructors, and I had other evidence preventing me to blame them for the problem): I know your teacher is not the teacher you would have wanted, but I cannot do anything beside reporting the issue to him, which will certainly not solve the problem instantly. We have the same issue as teachers, having some students that often do not know the prerequisites for the course, are not willing to learn them as we tell, and/or do not believe us when we say that the course needs a fair amount of personal work. Both teachers and students should do their best in the situation they are given, which means that you can and should try to talk with your teacher to mitigate the issues you have, but at the same time be prepared for the issue not to be solved before the end of term, and find a way to learn what you have to learn. There are books, there are other students with whom to work, etc. If you think it is best, don't waste time with the instructor's course and learn by yourself while keeping in touch with the important information (homework, exam dates, etc.)

So to state this again in fewer words, it seems much more efficient for you to make your best to master the course content, judging this content from the syllabus and what related books discuss, rather than expecting next year's instructor to be better.

I would say that the expected outcomes of such an attitude should be:

  • you learn valuable things and pass the exam, because ultimately it tested what you learned,

  • you learn valuable things and pass the exam, because your institution realizes that there is an issue and makes it right somehow,

  • you learn valuable things and fail the exam, which turns out to be indeed impossible.

Even in the last case, you get more from this attitude than dropping the course altogether.

Edit: this answer was written under the assumption that the class is mandatory, as I (mis-?)understood the question. Of course, for a class that is not needed or that can be switched with another, then these would be options to consider seriously. If the course can be delayed without losing the benefit of the other courses, this would also be an option to consider. So my answer is really about what to do if dropping or failing the course implies one has to take the whole year again.

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    In the last case, you may have gained in the sense of personal enrichment, but a failing grade on your transcript may hurt you in a practical sense. I'd be a little more hesitant to recommend "stick with it regardless". – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '14 at 14:06
  • @NateEldredge: I find unexpected that the course of action I propose results in failing the class; I just do not promise that it will be sufficient to pass it. In other words, I find unlikely that mastering the class' content would be less effective in succeeding than any other strategies, even if it might not be sufficient. Also, recall that the course is described as mandatory: if one has the opportunity to switch for another class the same year, then that is an option to consider. – Benoît Kloeckner Sep 23 '14 at 18:05
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    Based on the asker's comments, the instructor is not making it sufficiently clear what material they are expected to master, and the asker doesn't seem to have any confidence that any efforts of their own would significantly improve their chances of passing. "Mandatory" means they have to take the course eventually but not necessarily now, so their other option is to withdraw from the course (which will be duly noted on their transcript) and take it in a future term, accepting that their graduation could be delayed. I think that merits serious consideration. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '14 at 18:53
  • @NateEldredge: ok, I might have misunderstood the context. In French it is not very common to be able to continue the studies with a mandatory course lacking: one would have to either compensate by other grades if the rules permit it, or take again the whole year of study. – Benoît Kloeckner Sep 24 '14 at 10:33
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My thoughts:

First, you need to make sure that the problem is the instructor and not you. Are a large number of other students having the same problems? In my experience, it is also often the case that a class appears badly taught to a student who is missing something key about the material. For example, when I was a grad student TAing for an artificial intelligence class, we often had people complain that we tested them on different material than we had taught them. In fact, however, they were missing the point: the real material was the methodologies for decomposing problems, not the particular examples of problem decomposition that had been used to teach this methodology. Their classmates who had grasped the key idea of the class, however, had no problems.

If, however, the problems are really a matter of the instructor giving a terribly badly organized course, then I think that your third premise (don't want to cause trouble because they are new) is fundamentally flawed.

If this instructor is expecting to have a career involving teaching, it's much better to have serious problems brought up early, where they can become part of a "plan for improvement" rather than several years down the line, where they are part of a pattern that will get them fired. Most departments really do care about teaching (among other things, because it affects the number of students they get and thus their resources within the institution), but often don't have a lot of resources available to devote to managing teaching.

You have an academic advisor in the department, yes? Go to that person with a report of the widespread problems, and ask their help. It's unlikely that anything will actually be able to change this semester (schedules are set too far in advance), but:

  1. It will help establish a record that can cause things to change in the future.
  2. Your academic advisor will be able to help figure out how to deal with the matter of credits in your program, and whether it's better to drop or to grind through or to attempt some sort of petition (in many departments, you can do anything if the right three people are willing to sign the right piece of paper)
2

I would not recommend going over your professor's head at this point. At least, it is not clear that you have done everything possible to turn the situation around. I'm hoping that your goal is to understand the content of the class so that you are not wasting the term.

I think that, instead of asking the professor to change, you should approach him under the premise that you want to adapt to do better in the course. To do this, I would propose the following strategy:


1) You want to understand the grading of the homework. So go to your professors office each week with your graded homework and tell him/her you want to find strategies for doing better on future assignments. Ask to go over the assignment to learn how/why you lost points.

DO NOT ASK FOR POINTS BACK. If the grading is fair, you will get a better sense for what is expected. If it is not fair, s/he will likely recognize this as you go through the assignment, and might offer to regrade it without prompting. Be polite and engaged with the material. You want your professor to take an active interest in your success in the class.

2) The midterm may or may not have anything to do with the content of the course. At the master's level you should be expected to go beyond regurgitation and apply your knowledge. Take your graded exam to your professor and tell him/her you want to learn the material better. If you do not understand how a particular problem is connected to the course, it is okay to say so. But, don't make it seem like it is the professor's problem. Remember, you are trying to learn. You might say something like "could you explain how you think about this problem? I didn't see how to solve it using the techniques from class."

Again, DO NOT ASK FOR POINTS BACK. Give your professor the opportunity to help you understand the test. If some aspect of the test is unfair, allow your professor to realize this on his/her own. As before, be positive and engaged. You do not want your professor to feel threatened.


In summary, I'd like to remind you that professors are people too. If you only give negative feedback, you are unlikely to get the outcome you want. If you are not receiving the support in class to succeed, it is okay to get more help outside of class. However, this is going to also require more work on your part.

It is going to create more work for your professor as well. If other students struggling in the class do the same thing, this will amount to a lot more work, and may be enough incentive for the professor to make the changes you are looking for. Just make sure you keep your interactions polite and respectful.

If, in the end, this strategy doesn't work, you will have taken concrete steps to improve the situation. This will be important if you ultimately feel you need to take the issue to the department chair.

  • I've discussed grading with the instructor. Each week, the instructor discovers new ways to give me a terrible mark. Features present in the first couple of assignments that weren't marked as a problem suddenly became a problem in the third assignment. Since there is no rubric, the teacher just grades as he likes and invents new reasons to give a poor grade, sometimes ignoring the assignment's instructions. – Village Oct 16 '14 at 23:25
  • @Village Have you asked for a comparison of grading? What I am suggesting is that you spend a lot of time with the instructor outside of class. You need to make it so that being unhelpful is more work than being helpful. If you are not satisfied with an answer, keep pressing. "I'm sorry, I still don't understand. Can you explain again?" – David Hill Oct 17 '14 at 0:06
  • RE: Features present in the first couple of assignments that weren't marked as a problem suddenly became a problem in the third assignment. This shouldn't surprise you. Early in a course, a professor might be more lenient, figuring, "Students shouldn't be expected to know this right now." Later, grading might become more strict, with the reasoning, "By now, students should know better than to keep making this mistake." You'd have to get much more specific before convincing me the problem is solely his and not partly yours. – J.R. Oct 18 '14 at 8:12
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If you are about to finishing your master degree I strongly suggest not to postpone this course another year. Study for it with the material the professor gave you and if you find that something is missing or not clear speak with the professors.

Doing a master degree is not only about having good professors and learning from them. You are also supposed to learn (a little) by yourself. Not like a PhD student, of course.

If you want to help your professor in getting the course better talk to him. Going through his superiors is not helping.

  • Yes, my goal of taking the masters degree and this course is to learn the material. But the instructor is not providing any support for learning the material. – Village Oct 16 '14 at 22:46
  • I read all the questions and comment. As @J.R. pointed out: "You'd have to get much more specific before convincing me the problem is solely his and not partly yours" – BiA Oct 20 '14 at 9:23

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