This term I'm taking a (graduate) course which is crucial for my degree. The teacher's plan for the course is quite ambitious and all along he's been following the structure of a given text, but he doesn't follow it completely and quite often omits (what I consider) key results from it, e.g. results which motivate or deepen the understanding of definitions or other results. To put it bluntly, he leaves a lot of gaps that the book covers nicely.

It's been a frustrating process and we're soon going to start with a very important topic and I've been wondering how to approach him about this. My idea at the moment is to ask him to follow the textbook more closely, even if by doing so we sacrifice how much we cover, but I'm looking for suggestions.

Final edit (concluding remarks): I've chosen the answer which I think gave me the best course of action and I think summarizes some of the most important points in comments and other answers. Anyone reading this thread in the future should definitely check all of them anyway. They all provided valuable feedback for me.

I'd also like to point out that Shane's comments in chat are spot on. I believe said comments capture the exterior root of my problems, which I was unable to see at the time when the question was written. On my end I also learned a couple of important things on how to deal with these kind of situations.

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    Good pedagogy is organized around objectives, not texts. It sounds like your objectives are different from the teacher's. In graduate education it is reasonable to expect you to study independently. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 4:36
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – aeismail
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 4:42

9 Answers 9


David K.'s suggestion that it's up to the professor and you are responsible for any additional study that is required is essentially correct; however, I do not think his approach of asking politely and expecting a "no" is all there is to it. I would suggest a different approach. (Also, I would not follow Dan R.'s advice.)

Rather than assume that you know how the course should best be taught, figure out why the professor does it the way he does. See your professor in office hours and say that, because you may yourself have to teach this material in the future (doesn't matter if teaching is actually in your plans), you would like to know more about his approach to the material. At that point, you can say something like, "I noticed, for instance, that you didn't cover some cases and skipped some sections. How do you make those choices?" That's still a rather broad question, so be prepared to give examples of specific things that the prof. skipped that you thought would have been interesting to cover. Do not tell him that he should have covered them. Simply ask how he made the choice to skip those particular ones and not others.

This way, you'll come across as an interested and motivated student, not an overconfident, whiney type. Good luck.

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    Might choose better wording than "You gloss over big points", especially if the instructor doesn't think they're big points, and/or doesn't think the treatment was a "gloss", for example. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 16:56
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    You haven't really explained what you find wrong with my advice. Care to elaborate on that?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 18:14
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    Dan, sure. My own feeling is that if the professor is not actively soliciting feedback, suggesting a substantial change to his course format in the middle of the semester is not helpful or appropriate. It is simply not among the student's prerogatives. I think the better approach is to try to learn why the professor formats the course as he does, learn from that, and study the extra material not covered by the prof. in the way one thinks best on one's own.
    – Atlas
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 18:44
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    Okay, thanks for the explanation. For what it's worth, I'm a professor and I really appreciate it when a student comes to me with feedback about my course (unfortunately this happens much too rarely, perhaps because of the common misconception among students that offering such feedback is a rude or disrespectful thing to do), Whether I end up agreeing with the student or not, giving feedback and making requests (even mildly unreasonable one) should always be a prerogative of students and something they should be able to do without fear of negative repercussions.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 19:56
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    +1 for treating the teacher as a teacher who has made conscious decisions with an experienced concern for the students' learning. Always better to ask -- politely, wanting to learn, not demandingly or dismissively -- why choices were made by someone who knows the material way better than you do.
    – Wayne
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 21:25

You may certainly ask -- politely! -- but you should expect to be told "no", and you should accept that answer if it is given. In most graduate courses, it is the privilege of the instructor to decide what are the important points and how to organize them.

If the course is preparation for a qualifying exam (for instance), then there may be a more rigid syllabus that needs to be adhered to. In such a case, if the instructor were deviating strongly from the expected objectives it would make sense to complain.

As an aside: since the book presents things so well (from your perspective), you can learn the material from it and consider the lectures as supplementary. It then seems to me that having lectures that approach things from a different perspective than that of the text is a benefit. An instructor who parrots the text would be redundant.

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    If the course is preparation for a qualifying exam (for instance), then there may be a more rigid syllabus that needs to be adhered to. And in some cases, the instructor may well be deviating from the book in order to more closely follow that syllabus. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 13:18
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    The job of the lecturer is - especially in advanced topics - not to cover the book but highlight how to read the book. If it is well done, you have a birds-eye-view which allows you to use/read the book more easily as it connects aspects from further apart. A lecturer that just covers the book, does s/he add value? Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 21:26
  • Hi David, thanks for your reply! Fortunately I'm past qualifying exams by now :).
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:41
  • @CaptainEmacs I hadn't seen it from that perspective and it makes complete sense. Thanks.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:44
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    If you decide to say something, you should present it as a problem instead of presenting the solution you expect the teacher to implement. Nobody likes being handed solutions, but if you explain why you're struggling, the teacher may find ways to help you out (possibly more elegant ways than what you thought he should do)/ Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:40

Wow. I deliberately "leave a lot of gaps that the book covers nicely" in advanced courses. I say "this is in the book." And I actually aim to leave them especially in the parts that the book does best.

Now, I always ask for any questions from the class, about anything I say, whether it is in the book or not. But I do believe advanced students should get what is in the book from the book unless they have specific questions they want to raise in class.

So, if your teacher does not even take questions about textbook material that he does expect you to learn, then that is your problem. Ask the teacher to take questions -- and of course ask it politely.

If the teacher does take questions, though, then rather than ask the teacher to better anticipate your questions maybe you should work on asking more questions yourself.

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    Suppose a student approached you trying to get you to cover less material in favor of spending more time covering everything the book covers. The student is reading the book and understands the material you did not cover. How would you react? Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 9:25
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    @PatriciaShanahan I would listen to their request. But, you say this student does understand the material in the book? Then what is the problem? Is it just that they want to learn less than I am teaching? Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 14:08
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    @PatriciaShanahan Maybe asking specific questions the student does not understand is better than generally just asking for less material. In the later case the students effectively ask the teacher to modify (reduce) the requirements for that grade.
    – Greg
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 5:17
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    Hi @ColinMcLarty, thanks for your answer! "I deliberately "leave a lot of gaps that the book covers nicely" in advanced courses. I say "this is in the book." And I actually aim to leave them especially in the parts that the book does best." Point taken.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:38

I'm seeing a general disdain for postdocs (who are simply more junior than the professors; one day, some of them will be the hotshots of your field), and I can't decide if your feeling superior comes from the actual bad teaching, or from your disdain. Are you sure that the postdoc is omitting important results? Are they important in your opinion, or did you get this information elsewhere? In any case, a bit of respect would go a long way, when you ask the "postdoc" to follow a single reference.

I am more concerned by your attitude than your professor's plans, however. It is quite common to not recite an entire book, and pick and choose the important topics from a text. This leaves room for your proactivity: if you want to learn the material in more depth, you can do so by reading the text, including the part the instructor has left out. That's really what grad school is for. You take control of your own studying.

That being said, most postdocs are very receptive to feedback, as they have not been teaching for very long, so if your comment is a valid one, and if you can do it without hurting his feelings, he should be open to your suggestions (however, don't say things like "you should sacrifice the material you intend to cover for clarity", as the power to decide on the syllabus rests entirely with the postdoc.)

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    Hi Anon, after rereading my message I don't see the 'disdain' or my 'feeling superior' in it, but maybe noticing why you think this is the case could help me realize how I'm failing to solve the situation (for me). On the other hand, I want to clarify that my personal opinion of the teacher is good. I personally like him and realize he's putting a big effort into the course (I know teaching a course can take a huge amount of time and effort). But I think that his inexperience may be showing [1/2]
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 3:30
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    OR MAYBE NOT and I'm completely wrong in how I'm perceiving the situation and need to re-evaluate what I think is wrong. In any case, that's the reason I'm asking, to listen to some constructive experienced advice. [2/2]
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 3:31
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    Here is why I think that there is underlying disdain towards postdocs: you assumed that the postdoc was assigned to teach this course because there is shortage in the faculty. In fact, a lot of graduate level courses in my department get assigned to postdocs because they are judged to be the best ones to teach the course. Furthermore, the fact that you even had to mention that your instructor is a postdoc (and the fact that you find it relevant) means you feel some mistrust towards his position.
    – Anon
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 3:35
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    "who are simply more junior than the professors; one day, some of them will be the hotshots of your field". In my field a lot of them already are.
    – PVAL
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 3:36
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    This is more a comment than answer - perhaps a good comment. Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 4:37

How to ask a teacher to follow a single reference?

In the same way as you would ask him anything else: respectfully, and in a way that makes it clear that it is a request, that is, that you are aware that he can say no and accept his authority on the matter. For example, if you wanted to do it in an email, the following may be appropriate:

Dear [title/name]

My name is [your name] and I am a student in your class [name of class (useful to mention in case he is teaching more than one class)]. I wanted to give you some feedback about our class. I noticed that you sometimes skip results from the textbook that seem to me to be an important part of [topic] - for example, the other day you did this with [insert a recent example]. I'm not sure if you were expecting us to read those results on our own, and I'm prepared to do that if necessary, but my feeling is that this part of the theory may be important enough to justify covering in detail in class. I realize that would take more time, and I would hate to miss out on [some advanced subjects the teacher is trying to get to], but at the same time I feel like covering the material in such a way may have the effect of leaving me and the other students with somewhat shaky foundations, which would make it difficult for us to handle the more advanced material when we get to it.

If you feel my feedback is reasonable, would you perhaps consider covering the textbook material in a more uniform way and not leaving out important results like the one I mentioned? I feel that would be helpful, at least for me personally. Of course, I know that I don't have enough of a perspective on the subject to be able to tell for sure which results are the most important, so I completely understand if you think it's preferable to stick with the current approach. I also wanted to tell you that generally speaking I'm really enjoying the class - thanks!

[sincerely, regards, best wishes etc.]

Finally, I'd like to add that although I see nothing wrong with you making such a request (and for all I know it could be a very sensible and reasonable one), you should keep in mind that what I wrote in the second paragraph of the template email could very well be true: your teacher, although he may not be very experienced, still likely has a much better understanding of the subject of the class than you, and generally speaking is better equipped than you to judge which results are worth covering in detail in class. So be prepared for him to say no. At the same time, even very experienced teachers can still benefit from feedback, so I think this email can only lead to an improved quality of teaching, whether your specific request is granted or not.

  • Hi Dan, thanks for the great answer. I understand perfectly all you say, and your email seems spot on. I completely understand that I'd be making a request, and it's up to him how to respond to it. I'm just perceiving a problem (for me) and trying to fix it in the best possible way. He's very receptive to feedback (we've talked about the class structure once before), so I'm pretty sure however this turns out it will be for the better.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 8:44
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    I would consider this email super long, quite annoying and patronizing, and I would have probably preferred that the student come and talk to me face-to-face where it's easier to express nuances of how we both feel about this issue.
    – jwg
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 10:01
  • Thanks @jwg, actually I agree face to face would probably work better. I don't know what is patronizing about the email though - it is trying to give feedback to the instructor in a polite way, but I guess some people will be annoyed about such feedback no matter how it is delivered.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:31

Personally, I would expect the lectures and the text-book to complement each other rather than to duplicate each other. If the lecturer was merely reading from the text book I would feel cheated. It's good that there is material in the book that's not covered in the lectures, and vice-versa.

  • Hi @MichaelKay, thanks for your reply! I don't have to much to say about your answer, I completely agree with it.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:15
  • You and me both! At least one of my syllabi reads: Course lectures are designed to augment (and not simply rehash) readings from the course textbook. We have better things to do in class than cover what the book already covers quite nicely.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:50

(Student here)

In my experience, books and lectures are meant to complement one another.

In some courses, lecture follows the book to a T. In others, the book is unrelated to the main idea of the lecture and is really just helpful material.

This being said, I don't want to take a course where the instructor just reads the book to me. This is kind of insulting -- I know how to read. I go to lecture to get information from a different angle or to get the main points.

If I don't understand a concept in lecture, I read the book and likewise, if I don't understand concepts from the book, I get more detail from the lecture or just ask the professor.

Since your course has a book, perhaps it should be assumed that it is required reading and should be used in conjunction with the lecture instead of following an approach where one or the other will suffice.

  • Hi @MelanieShebel, thanks for your reply! I completely agree with your first statement, which is the same as Michale Kay's in his answer. There are different ways to base a lecture off a book. I also believe an instructor simply copying the book in class is terrible. But I also think there's a whole spectrum between this and "leaving a lot of gaps" and such. In my particular case the point of the spectrum in which my lectures are do not help me too much by themselves. In any case, I think I'll start relying on office hours more heavily from now on.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:23

I would suggest you ask indirectly. The first thing I would is look at the skipped sections and decide if they are useful or not. For the ones you think are useful, try and learn the material on your own. When you get stuck, go talk to the instructor. At that point you can ask about the sections whose importance you are not sure about. By showing the instructor which sections are important to you and that you are not equipped to handle, you will be indirectly telling him where he should go in greater depth next time. The instructor may even be able to extrapolate to what he should do in the future.

  • Hi StrongBad, thanks for your reply! After all the feedback in this post I've decided not to take action for now. I'll use the classes just as a guideline and learn the material from the book and office hours, pretty much doing what you say in here.
    – hjhjhj57
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 9:14
  • I used to ask lots of questions after lectures. And some of them even coincide with the examination question (final year Physics in BSc). Well, that is just pure coincidence. But generally, by talking and asking about it, the abstract contents usually become much more easily understood/intuitive. And you will remember better by talking it loud.
    – Peter Teoh
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 6:31

First, my advice is to not ask him to change his teaching technique. I'll give you 8:5 that you will get nothing more than a dirty look and some form of "No. If you don't like the way I teach, then there's the door."

Some reasons that teachers will do this:
1. They want you in class! If they just teach from the book, then you don't really have to attend lecture, do you?
2. They have their course materials set up a certain way, and they don't want to invest the time into overhauling them.
3. They have tenure.
4. They don't really want to teach, they want to be working on their research. They will put minimal effort into teaching; enough to satisfy their job requirements.
5. They don't really know how to teach. There is a huge difference between being a good Mathematician, and a good Math Teacher. Example, a Ph.D. may have taken years of advanced mathematics, but not a single course in Education! They really don't have a grasp of pedagogy.

Some options for you are: 1. Switch sections, and take with a different teacher. I used to do this when I was in school. I would scout out all teachers for a specific class, and take with the one that I liked best. If you have the foresight, do this the semester before, so that you can audit a class and see them in action. 2. Perhaps you can defer this course next semester, if a different teacher is available. 3. If it's really that much of an issue, or even take an equivalent class with a different school and transfer the credits. 4. Knuckle under, and take the best from both sources of information. This is also a good reason to team up with others in class. Strength in numbers :)

  • A note: points 1-3 might be applicable only to a few, probably very few, countries (the OP didn't specify which country he is from). Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:48
  • Your answer seems to imply that the student would be better off in a section where the instructor covered the book more closely. That may or may not be the case.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:16
  • +1 to all your points. Teaching really take up a lot of preparation, and so changing the directions how it is taught may not be easy. on the other hand, if the teacher did not spent much time preparing for his lessons, and you want him to change the way it is taught? well, will he spend the effort of doing that? the way being taught (which is spending minimal time preparing) comes naturally from his insights, intuitions, and background training and therefore requires minimal preparation, and changing this is not easy.
    – Peter Teoh
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 6:26
  • It can be very frustrating for a student when lecture content is different from book material, especially homework and assignments. Imagine a teacher that lectures on fractions, but homework assignments are problems from the book, on decimals. It leaves the student in a position where they have to teach themselves from the book, when this is really the teacher's job. the student thinks, "These problems have nothing to do with the lecture, why didn't they teach this in class?" Worse still is when EXAM questions are different from lecture material.
    – kmiklas
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 9:04
  • @kmiklas this is a rather bizarre answer. So you wouldn't ever try something that could be beneficial for you but only has a 38.4% (5:8 odds, per your cited estimate) chance of success, where the sole risk of failure involves someone giving you a dirty look? Such an extreme level of risk aversion doesn't sound like a recipe for success in life, and I strongly doubt that you even practice it yourself. I suggest you reconsider if this advice really makes sense, or clarify what you were trying to say.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 9:42

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