I sometimes have professors who use their own names for things. For example in lecture one kept referring to the "perfect marriage algorithm" but after talking with him I'm fairly certain he was referring to the Stable marriage problem. This is a challenge for me as I prefer to learn a little about a topic before going to a lecture, or read up on points discussed in the lecture after it. Are there any suggestions on how to approach this? The prof from the example above told us not to use Google to learn material for the class. With that said, he's a very reasonable and intelligent man, but I've been in other classes where profs have used nonstandard terminology (such as in math saying solve a problem by symmetry) and it would be difficult to talk to them.

I don't want to offend them by suggesting the name their using is wrong, but it makes studying from other resources hard and I don't think it's practical to try to learn everything just from lecture.

  • 7
    I know some cases where faculty make up their own names for things precisely so you can't just google the topic easily. Often the point is to make you try to think for yourself, which is not a bad thing.
    – Kimball
    Nov 20, 2014 at 8:36
  • 4
    To paraphrase Feynman: when you learn the name of a thing, all you've learnt about is how people name things; you haven't learnt about the thing itself.
    – 410 gone
    Nov 20, 2014 at 9:03
  • 8
    It is also possible that the same concept has different names. For example, the famous Squeeze Theorem in maths is also known as Pinching Theorem or Sandwich Theorem or Policemen Theorem. Especially if the teacher comes from a different culture, it may genuinely think its notations/terminology are standard. Using point 3 of grauwulf's answer helps to know if you are in this situation.
    – Taladris
    Nov 20, 2014 at 9:45
  • 2
    I would use Google anyway. As long as you only use Google to learn concepts and don't use it to give you hints on the homework problems, I don't see how a professor can reasonably stop you from going online. That would be like saying "I'm teaching you real analysis, but you're only allowed to listen to ME, you're not allowed to talk about real analysis with anyone else." Which is super controlling in my opinion. (For instance how would you know he's not feeding you wrong information, if you can't verify it with other sources?) It's not fair to prevent students from getting second opinions Nov 20, 2014 at 21:37
  • 3
    @Ben Bitdiddle: There are certain pedagogical approaches (such as the Moore method) that rely on the students developing standard material for themselves. In that sense, the entire course is homework, and the approach is spoiled if the students Google anything. Nov 21, 2014 at 13:33

2 Answers 2


This is a tough one because it is a topic that meanders into psychology. I have encountered similar problems when professors insist on calling, that thing that everyone else calls agrees on as blue, pink. I will also add that I agree that this is an "academia" problem, as it relates to distribution and comprehension of information.

Three techniques for clarification that I have tried. YMMV.

  1. Ask the professor why they feel the need to be an opaque and pedantic prat. Tell them to stop making up new names for things to feel better about their pathetic little existence and use the language of the field. This method has been met with some ... "resistance". :-P
  2. Ask the professor is X has any adjacent concepts or theories that might be good to look up. This is dangerous as sometimes the prof. will decide to wax poetic on the art of Edvard Munch when you started out talking about impedance mismatch. Use with caution.
  3. Ask the professor about the similarities and differences between X and Y. On a few occasions I have been VERY surprised to learn that I had completely misunderstood the point they were trying to make. All I needed to do was ask the simple question of "is this like such and such?" This has worked several times. BONUS: This approach has also led to some interesting discussions that worked back around to my area of research.

Jokes aside, the common theme here is 'to ask'. :-) As for "don't use google"... I don't know what to say about that. I guess you could ask for other reference material to gain a better understanding of the topic but google scholar is a pretty awesome/terrible research tool to use as a handicap. (IMHO)

Good luck with your class.

  • I'm really glad that (2) is a well-established pattern.
    – 410 gone
    Nov 20, 2014 at 9:01
  • I agree with 2 and 3, but I doubt that 1 will be much help in this situation.
    – Thomas
    Nov 21, 2014 at 14:05

Politely asking for a little clarification has worked well for me. Is "term x" similar to "term y"? Sometimes this is met with "Yes, term x is what I call term y."

For example, my Data Structures professor was using a term that I would deem "non-standard". He was discussing "k-trees", but it was clear from the context that he didn't mean k-trees from graph theory. I asked him if "k-trees" were similar to "k-ary trees". That led to him explaining the similarities between what he calls "k-trees" and "k-ary trees".

Then again, not every professor is so helpful.

You must log in to answer this question.

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