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Once upon a time in a lecture I attended, the lecturer had clearly not fully understood the material and was struggling to explain it. I was a student, but very knowledgeable about the topic, and had taught it many times in informal settings, so I felt silly just listening.

In the interest of the other attendees' learning, I considered offering to take over the lecture. However, I stopped myself, out of concern that the lecturer might feel humiliated, or think I'm questioning their authority more generally.

In such a situation, is it appropriate for a student to offer to teach a topic? What about other teaching staff who are attending? How would one politely suggest it, or otherwise deal with the situation?


Related questions: From a student's perspective: offering alternative viewpoints on lecture content, handling unintelligible lecturers and handling lecturers who just read from the book. From a lecturer's perspective: teaching a class you've never taken.

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    In near future, expect another question, "What should I do if another person offers to take over my lecture which offends me?"
    – user
    Mar 8, 2015 at 1:36

6 Answers 6

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Perhaps the best approach would be to ask leading questions that helps the lecturer head in the right direction. Or, offer an answer to a question that wasn't going well.

I've taught classes (especially ones that use complex libraries, such as parts of a game engine, that I wasn't a seasoned expert with), and have had students who had more experience with a specific topic chime in to the discussion with details I didn't know. It was great. I've also had students who were aggressive and conveyed arrogance and had them derail the class by setting up a me vs them dynamic. Not so great.

The most important thing is classroom dynamics: let the lecturer retain control (ie. facilitate the discussion) but you actively participate. The lecturer should be there to create a learning environment, not bestow knowledge on the class. You can make it clear you know the topic, and let them have you participate as much as they are comfortable.

Asking to "take over" would not go over well; offering your knowledge on bits and pieces and nudging the lecturer in the right direction through questions would be better.

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    Blair is speaking the word of truth here. I think everybody who teaches applied computer science knows the situation where a few students are really knowledgeable about a specific subtopic. This can end great or horrible, depending on the personalities and maturity of the involved persons. The OP's idea to "take over" the lecture worries me that this specific case may easily end in a disaster, though.
    – xLeitix
    Mar 9, 2015 at 11:03
  • Well, having knowledgeable students is a great opportunity to letting them participate and show students that you can appreciate good knowledge. If someone were trying to derail me, though, there is always something I know which is beyond their horizon (what do you have your experience for?). However, I found that the really brilliant ones are never arrogant, actually. Feb 1, 2016 at 1:16
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No, you should not.

The lecturer isn't trying to give a single lecture, but deliver a complete course. That means connecting many lectures together, alongside supplementary material (notes, textbooks, etc), whilst pitching it at a level so that all can engage (taking into account the background and prior knowledge of all).

It may be that the lecturer really didn't understand the material. Or it may be that the material was difficult to teach coherently with the rest of the course, in a way that matched the expected prior knowledge of the others in the room.

It's most likely that your first impression is right: the lecturer was poorly prepared. But unless you're truly confident that you could explain the material to all in the room (you know all their background knowledge?), and link it to the rest of the course (you know how future lessons will be delivered and approached?), you can't expect to do better in the context of the whole course.

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    Is OP talking about a course? I got the impression they were talking about a single lecture (if it's an entire course, and OP knows enough about it to teach the whole course, why are they taking the course to begin with?) Mar 6, 2015 at 22:18
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    @BlueRaja To clarify: Yes, I meant an individual lecture. However, I think Ian intended to point out that the lecturer had planned the course, and my delivery of the material might not have fit that plan. I think it's a good point.
    – Anko
    Mar 6, 2015 at 23:00
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    @Anko : that's exactly my point. Sometimes in planning for the course I've backed myself into a difficult corner over an individual lecture, or assignment. It's still a failure of planning on the part of the lecturer, mind.
    – Ian
    Mar 7, 2015 at 9:16
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You should also keep in mind the reactions of other students in the class. Most people are aware that what you propose (getting up, telling the lecturer they don't understand the material, and starting to teach it yourself) is wildly inappropriate. This will almost certainly earn you a reputation you don't want to have, both with teaching staff and other students.

Your concern about balancing the needs of students to learn with the ego of the lecturer is noble, but you taking over the lecture is not only rude (or socially awkward at best), it's probably going to be ineffective. There's a high chance that other students will be turned off from the lecture based on your behaviour, no matter how technically accurate the content. Behaviour management in the classroom would be difficult after such an interruption. And as others have commented, knowing the material and being able to teach it effectively to a large group are very different things (I have tutored 1-on-1/in small groups as well as in larger classrooms, and they are very different environments).

In the immediate situation, do what other answerers have suggested and ask leading/clarifying questions in situations where you know the material is clearly wrong. If it's more a matter of ineffectual lecturing style and you just think the material could be explained better, perhaps you could start a study group or similar, to help other students to understand the material without embarrassing the lecturer?

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Does not likely work anyway. Students are "entitled" to lecturers with "proper qualification". A student does not qualify, and probably assistant teachers must not exceed a particular percentage of lectures either.

Never mind who does a better job for the particular task. There might be less formal tutoring sessions where you actually might be able to get a small job. But the lectures themselves more likely than not are off-limits.

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If you feel the lecturer doesn't have a full understanding the material. You should make a list of documented cases of the material being mis-explained or misleading.

Then make an appointment with the Department Head or with the Academic Dean of the College. If the faculty of the department are not informed about the lecturer, then they can't take steps to fix the situation.

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First of all: If you approach the teacher about anything like this, make sure to do it privately.

Secondly, offering to take over something he is doing may generate feelings of hostility, so tread carefully.

Finally, if you think you can do a good job, consider offering your services as a guest speaker for the next semester. Preferably after you have aced the test that covers this part.

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