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I am an undergraduate student at a university in Germany. I already hold a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field from a university abroad, and I also have a solid secondary school background with above average grades in my school transcript. So I consider myself as having the necessary skills for academic success, in general. However, I am extremely frustrated with the state of my current studies.

I feel the teaching quality is very poor and the syllabus in any given subject is overly demanding. My biggest concerns are

  • poor teaching quality that manifests itself as insufficient instruction. An example would be the use of PowerPoint slides. The slides are, as a general rule, borrowed from other academics and often contain numerous mistakes or inconsistencies. I would expect a professor to spend more time at the blackboard actually showing how a problem is being solved visually step by step (as I often see in different online lectures from some other universities which turn out to be more helpful).

  • Unnecessarily demanding syllabi and mandatory homework assignments in most courses. On average, according to my own observations, a 3-hour lecture covers about 30-50 pages of a textbook on technical/mathematical topics. The recommended curriculum for every semester includes 5-6 courses which sums up to 150-300 pages of scientific reading on a weekly basis to keep up with the requirements plus weekly mandatory practical homework assignments.

I would really like to get any feedback or ideas as to how I can act to either change the situation at the university (it's quite ambitious but someone has to do something) or improve my strategies in dealing with it.

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    If your primary complaint about teaching effectiveness is that you wish your professor would develop original material and you wish your professor would use the board rather than slides, you're out of luck, because neither of those things are generally required of professors - they are left up to the instructor's discretion. – ff524 Apr 22 '16 at 19:14
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    @MassimoOrtolano I closed it because the OP said there is already this question about graduate studies, but this one is different because it's about undergrad. If the main difference between this new question and the other one is really Europe vs US, not undergrad vs grad, I'd reopen. But it could probably use some editing to focus it. – ff524 Apr 22 '16 at 19:25
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    While there may be a good question in there (variations on workload and style across regions?), at the heart of it it seems the the OP's problem is that they find the going hard - this belies the assertion that they have the skills for success. It would seem that the teaching assumes you can work out the details on your own, and they are assigning problems for you to actually work out the details. Sounds like a good rigorous education to me... – Jon Custer Apr 22 '16 at 20:10
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    I've taken good courses, I've taken bad courses (there is a bad country & western song in there somewhere), but I always expected to work hard. What you describe is a pretty typical engineering course load and expectations. Now, what can you do? Go to office hours. Find a good group to study with (not hang out with - study with). do the reading ahead of class so you can pointed questions on the hard bits, perhaps cut back on the course load.If you came to work for me afterwards, I would expect you to be able to take charge and work through ambiguous and hard problems. – Jon Custer Apr 22 '16 at 22:18
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    I am afraid this degrades into a rant. – quid Apr 22 '16 at 23:18
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There is already an answer for your question on how to change the situation. I add another to your other question on how to improve your strategies in dealing with it. My view is from teaching mathematics in Germany, so its not clear if it applies to other fields as well.

What you describe as "very poor teaching quality" does not strike me as "objectively poor". You describe short "classroom teaching" and "heavy mandatory homework". I may go as far and say that this is not a bug but a feature. It is on purpose. German universities generally work like this in that "teaching" does not happen so much (few hours per course per week), and "learning" happens mostly outside the classroom. Students are considered adults and they are suppose to plan their time and allocate enough time to learn the subject.

For example, when I teach mathematics, the whole "module" usually consists of four parts:

  1. The lecture. There I am at the blackboard and present things. I explain definitions, state theorem, put them in context, prove them and provide some examples. That I "spend time at the blackboard actually showing how a problem is being solved visually step by step" usually does not happen. I work through examples that may be similar to homework questions but this is slightly different. This is about 2 to 4 hours a week.
  2. Self-study. The students do this on their own, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups (which I encourage). This happens whenever the students want to. The students are supposed to work through the lecture, check if they got everything right and probably fill in some details. This is also about 2 to 4 hours per week but this varies individually.
  3. Homework. I give problems for homework. The students have to learn to use mathematics and not only know it. The problems vary from "standard calculation" to "tricky calculation" to "simple application of a definition" to "tricky proof". The student can do homework whenever they want, they can ask me or a TA basically any time if they have questions or get stuck but they have to hand it in on time. This should take roughly 4 to 8 hours a week and is the largest chunk.
  4. "Exercise classes". Here a TA works work with the students on the homework. Students present what they have, can ask questions, get additional explanations. This is about 2 hours a week.

You see, a small lecture of 4 hours a week will indeed mean about 18 hours work per week. Also, all four part serve their own purpose: In the lecture students shall learn the content and see how the theory in built up. In their self study they strengthen their understanding and "learn to learn mathematics on their own". In the homework they learn mathematical skills, i.e. to actually use mathematics to do something. Also they learn to write down mathematics. In the exercise classes they learn to communicate mathematics (orally) and also to present mathematics.

The lecture is the only place where an instructor has the lead. In the other parts the students are responsible for their learning. Not everybody can do this. Some people fail because than are not able to plan their time, do not have the discipline to work on their own or just don't manage to come to office hours to ask questions.

So in short: I as the lecturer are responsible for good teaching but the students themselves are responsible for their learning. That's sometime tough the realize but once you do, it may really help.

Problems start when the lecturer does not take his responsibility for good teaching serious, does not answer questions, give bad lectures…

So how to deal with this: Take the responsibility for your own learning. Demand good teaching but not expect that the lecturer will show you how to do your homework. Do not come to office hours and say "I have no clue where to start" but ask "I am stuck at this point. I tried this and that but I still stuck. I can make this technique work."

  • Can't you see the problem? If a single course has a workload of 18 hours a week and the recommended curriculum usually includes 5 courses per semester, that's 90 (!) hours a week, meaning almost 13 hours a day 7 days a week. This would be illegal under any labor law but there are no regulations in place to protect students from overworking. Straying from the recommended curriculum is not an option for many students for financial reasons. This was mentioned in my original question but was removed by moderators. – stillenat Apr 28 '16 at 17:18
  • "Problems start when the lecturer does not take his responsibility for good teaching serious". I'm afraid this happens quite often because no one controls how a professor teaches his subject. And when students complain about the poor teaching, no one listens to them and blame them for their lack of effort/knowledge/intelligence. That's why I would expect professors to at least prepare their own teaching material and to work at the board actually writing down stuff to show some effort on their part. Clicking through someone else's slides the whole lecture is not enough effort, in my opinion. – stillenat Apr 28 '16 at 17:53
  • This would actually be a problem. Where I am the usual workload is about 2 such courses plus some smaller reading seminar. Also there are only 2 semesters with 14 weeks each, i.e. 28 weeks per year. Hence, the overall workload per week is expected the be a bit higher than 40 hours per week. What you describe really sounds ridiculous. Germany has this credit point system (from the Bologna process) and a semester should be about 30 credits which amounts to 900 hours of work. – Dirk Apr 28 '16 at 17:54
  • You are right. The official workload is exactly as you described. But I'm not sure if it means anything. OK, you can measure the duration of a lecture or lab class. But it's actually just a small part of the workload. How do you measure how much time a certain topic or homework assignment actually takes a student? I heard that the Bologna process reduced the time available for each course leaving the syllabus almost intact. – stillenat Apr 28 '16 at 18:30
  • "How do you measure how much time a certain topic or homework assignment actually takes a student?" I'll take this as an actual and not a rhetoric question. It goes like this: First a curriculum is designed where one guesses the workload for an average student based on experience. Then every course will be evaluated and students are asked about their actual workload (in hours per week) and also if it is more or less the what they expected. If there is some crass discrepancy, something will be changed. Hopefully you university does evaluations and uses them wisely. – Dirk Apr 28 '16 at 18:45
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Unfortunately, the German university system can be rather notorious for its orthodoxy—things are often done the way they are because that's the way they've been done. And many courses, particularly in engineering, are taught by faculty members who are way too over-committed time-wise to develop their own instructional materials; lecture slides may be developed by graduate students or postdocs within the professors' institutes or chairs (Lehrstühle), rather than bythe professors themselves. Moreover, the initial years of the curriculum in some programs are often used to weed out students who are unqualified, since most universities cannot restrict enrollment beyond requiring a certain minimum GPA in high school.

If you'd like to change the system, just about the only way to do so would be if your school offers students the opportunity to sit on the Kommission für Lehre (Committee on Teaching) or its equivalent. Coping with it is a bit easier—there are usually resources offered by the Fachschaft (student union) for your program.

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    Indeed. And for each hour in lecture we expect students to spend another hour or so at home, for lab work this should be doubled. We don't offer textbooks in Germany (with rare exceptions) as in the US. You are expected to be responsible for your own learning - so ask questions! I'd much rather people ask then surf around on their phones... – Debora Weber-Wulff Apr 26 '16 at 20:03
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    @DanielR.Collins: Students are normally provided lecture notes, but usually no specific textbook is assigned. – aeismail Apr 26 '16 at 23:57
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    @aeismail: The keyword is indeed assigned. I have often seen books being recommended by the lecturer for further reading, but students were not expected to necessarily read those particular books instead of others, the books were not guaranteed to cover everything that appears in the lecture, and students were still supposed to also identify and read other suitable books/information sources on their own. With that said, in the rare cases where a textbook was actually required (only saw that once or twice, by very old and traditional professors), it was ensured that the library has enough ... – O. R. Mapper Apr 27 '16 at 10:27
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    -1 from me. This is way too much generalized. I don't think that one can reasonably say that "lecture slides are usually developed by graduate students or postdocs" neither that "faculty members who are way too over-committed time-wise to develop their own instructional materials". I personally do not know a single professor in Germany who lets his PhD students or postdocs write their slides. In fact it's the other way round: All prepare their lectures themselves, most develop their own lecture notes. (tbc) – Dirk Apr 27 '16 at 13:25
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    (cont) Also the quote that "the initial years of the curriculum are often used to weed out students" bothers me a lot. I teach service mathematics for engineers, and no, I am not expected to weed out anybody. Neither I want to do anything like that, nor does anybody expects me to do it. In fact it's also the other way round. If too many students would fail my exam, there would certainly be an investigation of what has happened (this really has happened, but not to me). – Dirk Apr 27 '16 at 13:27

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