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This is my first semester being a TA for this course. However, the professor has changed since I took the course. The content seems to have grown in difficulty since I originally took the course, and I feel that the professor has been giving inadequate or unnecessarily difficult problems to get across relatively simple concepts in lectures, which I then have to explain in tutorials.

I have compared to my previous notes and although the major concepts are the same, the examples used are overly complex, and I can see some students are falling behind as a result. Is there an appropriate, professional way to get this message across to the professor without sounding like I am not familiar enough with the material for the position as an assistant for this course?

  • The level is the professor's to determine, so it's probably better to back off there. However, the lecture (and prior courses) should enable students to cope -- if there is an imbalance, that you can bring up with the professor. Maybe they'll realize they have been overly optimistic, or they can fix something so students can reach the desired level. (Don't discount the idea that maybe your iteration of the course was of too low a level, and that some students fall behind because they are not competent enough.) – Raphael Mar 12 '15 at 7:03
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Begin with the assumption that there are good reasons for the change: professors rarely make a large change in a course without thinking about why (it's just too much work to bother). Rather than beginning with your judgement (which might or might not be justified), open with an observation and a question, something like:

I was looking at my old notes, and I've noticed that the examples have changed a lot and gotten significantly more complex. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about how you've changed the course and why?

Maybe the professor actually wants the class to be harder; maybe they just wanted it to be more current and don't realize it became harder as well; maybe you are overlooking something... all of these are possible, and until you understand how the professor is thinking about it, you don't have enough information to figure out how to proceed.

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    And I would add, the best way of figuring out the reasons is talking with him. He will probably welcome the feedback, and the TA can understand the point better. – Davidmh Mar 10 '15 at 22:16
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    Contrary to your first sentence, it seems likely to me that the new professor doesn't have a specific reason for giving examples that are harder than the old professor did, but simply doesn't realize that his or her examples are harder. – Trevor Wilson Mar 10 '15 at 22:56
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    You're assuming that the professor changed the course using the existing material as basis. With the few courses I retook, I had the impression that different professors created their own material with little regard to how other professors taught the course before them. – CodesInChaos Mar 11 '15 at 10:41
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    In my experience, the difficulty of a course can vary quite a bit depending on who is teaching it. Part of this may be that some instructors are more inclined to be demanding than others. Part of it may be, as @TrevorWilson points out, that the instructor does not realize that the material is more difficult than it used to be. I have found this to be especially true with junior faculty; they are "all over the map" in terms of course difficulty. Some are too demanding and others not demanding enough. It takes them a while to figure out what a reasonable difficulty level is. – Paul Mar 11 '15 at 23:35
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Is there an appropriate, professional way to get this message across to the Professor without sounding like I am not familiar enough with the material for the position as an assistant for this course?

Yes: just send a short and polite e-mail to the professor mentioning that a lot of the examples seem to be too difficult for many of the students. There's no need to overthink it. If you make it clear that you are just passing along information rather than asking the professor to change the way he or she teaches the course, then I don't see how this could be objectionable.

I think your worry about "sounding like [you are] not familiar enough with the material for the position as an assistant for this course" is unfounded. I always like getting e-mails from TAs about how the course is going, and my reaction to such e-mails has never once been to think "sounds like this guy doesn't know what he's doing."

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    +1: I think the key idea is to phrase it as relaying information from the trenches -- "these students seem to be having trouble with many of the examples from your lectures" -- rather than the more judgmental "Your examples are more complicated than the ones that Professor Y did when he taught me the course." Maybe the professor means for the examples to be as complex as they are; but the issue is that if the students aren't getting them very well at all, he needs to know that and be given the chance to adjust accordingly. – Pete L. Clark Mar 11 '15 at 2:32
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Every teacher has his or her own approach to a problem at hand and sometimes the viewpoint can be quite different. I believe it is good manners for a teaching assistant to give feedback to the teacher about the progress of their students.

I assume you have access to the lecture notes and can check on what level explanations are given there. If you do not have access, that might be a good point to start, asking for them. Make sure when you tell the teacher, that you notice your students are falling behind. It might also be worthwhile talking to your colleagues about this situation, if they notice similar trends in their classes.

Another good way is to ask the teacher for more examples and or exercises (or literature thereof) on a more fundamental basis. These can then be seen as leading up to the more complex problems. Especially when teachers are giving a course for the first time, it can be a little rough around the edges, and some might the misjudge the principle level of their own exercises.

When I was a student, we had a similar problem with a new professor for mathematics. My teaching assistants talked to him, and successively to the other staff, about these observations. Unfortunately he was improvement resistant, even though it then came from other professors of the same field, and the whole problem had to be resolved by the faculty dean. But this is only the worst case scenario. When I was a TA myself I had vivid contact to the lecturers and they always appreciated the input.

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