I am currently doing Physics undergrad at a first tier university. Due to my previous experience in Mathematics and slightly advanced age (five years my classmates' senior) I look at my classmates from a different perspective, and am honestly slightly disturbed.

Despite having received a class in LaTeX (with the express purpose of encouraging its usage) most students continue to use Word for reports (with sometimes shambolic results), most students neglect bibliographies, and I've witnessed students using only Wikipedia as a source, even when I pointed out that some of the information was inaccurate and referred them to a paper with correct information.

I've talked to one of the librarians, and he virtually pleaded for me to bring up such issues with the staff. Stating that he'd like to give a course on how to use the library, access online papers, write a report etc. to first years. Most students I've talked to were unaware they had free access to most scientific publications, and almost none seemed to have ever read a scientific paper.

I'm not quite sure what to do. On the one hand I feel it's not really my place, and I have other stuff to do, it's not my fault if other students are sub-par, and they are unlikely to go very far anyway. However, in second year (approx half of students fail out after first year in physics), my partner in Experimental Physics performed so poorly I ended up doing almost everything myself in order to ensure my continued good grades.

I got special commendations from two of the three PhD students overseeing my three projects (the third didn't have the time to actually grade my report yet), though I personally feel my reports were simply on par.

Is it feasible, or even acceptable, for me to communicate concerns with staff, or to relay the request of the librarian with my own concerns added?

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    I'm not quite sure what to do. — You do you. Offer to help other students if you see an opportunity, but don't force it; their performance is really none of your business. Meanwhile, thinking about transferring from a "top-100 university" to a school with a significantly stronger physics program.
    – JeffE
    Aug 7, 2016 at 16:01
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    You didn't say how advance your age was, but welcome to the awkward 'real world'. In industry Word is common, as is the horror of mixed fonts and templates. The academic ideals are replaced by other goals when you get there. Do keep helping others and making the faculty a better place where you can, but but don't expect any rapid change soon. Remember 50% will be below the median! They will work in areas that use a different measure, hoping to be above the median in that ;-) Aug 7, 2016 at 19:25
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    most students continue to use Word for reports Nice to see that some students resist the hype and focus on content instead of loosing hours worrying about how frugal their typesetting looks like.
    – Cape Code
    Aug 7, 2016 at 19:51
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    @CapeCode, At my dayjob (Engineering), especially with newer versions of Word, I often meet font (and template) incompatibilities in large documents and reports, usually because of the multiple origins of the component parts and the parts one wants to insert - some times one just has to go with the horror. Latex (which I don't use), and it's use in acedemia, does greatly reduce that issue - it was designed for good typography (IIUC) Aug 7, 2016 at 19:58
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    It's not clear what you're asking us, exactly. Are you asking whether you should tell your professors that you're disturbed by your classmates' lack of attention to detail in their reports? Whether you should try to raise your classmates to your higher standards (how?)? Tell someone that the librarian wants to teach a course for first year students (surely the librarian is in a better position to do this than you are)? Something else?
    – ff524
    Aug 7, 2016 at 20:06

6 Answers 6


An undergraduate student is absolutely in no position to make any institutional changes in regards to the problems you've observed. In many cases, even the full professors have little ability to change the situation, due to departmental or administrative requirements for certain passing rates or median scores out of a class, etc. Possibly the faculty have seen this, and/or counseled concerned students about it, hundreds of times already.

You should take some amount of confidence that this is evidence you're ready for your next big step (which seems well-timed, in that your Master's starts next year). You know how to properly research, cite, support, and use LaTeX to write a paper; and you will doubtlessly be using those skills in your next position.

Frankly, the librarian was very much out of place to put the burden of responsibility for this on an undergraduate student. I call "foul" on that.

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    The librarian was probably just sharing their similar frustration with "students", and how they never learn. Twas ever thus. They just grow up and a new batch take over the mantle of being the 'will they never learn crowd'. Aug 7, 2016 at 19:13
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    That seems backwards. What kind of system doesn't allow participants to at least help to instigate institutional changes? I can understand that no individual would have a large influence, but if the OP has some ideas about how things could be improved, it is a major flaw of the system if they are unable (or even discouraged by individuals such as yourself) to make these suggestions heard and participate in the regular improvement of university life. Aug 7, 2016 at 19:16
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    @Morgan It doesn't sound like the OP has any new ideas about how things can be improved (presumably the librarian has already raised the idea of a course for first year students). Rather, the OP has a frustration that is most likely shared by many at his/her institution, but that nobody has a practical solution to.
    – ff524
    Aug 7, 2016 at 20:08
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    @ff324 Well the librarian in question seems to have some solution, and the problem may in fact be that the course/college organisers have not perceived enough student interest in the solution to go ahead with it. In what world is expressing concerns a bad idea? I'm mostly shocked at how dismissive all of the reactions to this question have been. Aug 7, 2016 at 21:11
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    @Morgan You confuse a null result with a negative result. Quixotic crusades are an actual negative result. Aug 8, 2016 at 14:38

It is very unlikely that any action on your part would help future students. The issues you report are already visible to the professors.

They can see whether reports lack bibliographies, or have bibliographies that reference Wikipedia. They could set marking rules that penalize those things to such an extent that students would have to do better, if they thought it appropriate.

If they cared, for some strange reason, what tools students are using to prepare their reports they could insist on reports in the preferred format.

  • I mentioned the Word thing because I've been in a working group where several students edited the same document and it ended up with a mess of different fonts, font-sizes and text alignments, not to mention LaTeX looks infinitely better.
    – Feyre
    Aug 7, 2016 at 16:32
  • @Feyre Multiple people editing the same document without attention to standards and consistency can be a mess, regardless. Suppose they used LaTeX, and picked different packages for the same formatting function? Aug 7, 2016 at 16:37
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    @PatriciaShanahan I guess, but the university has official LaTeX style guides. I ended up spending half an hour converting the end result.
    – Feyre
    Aug 7, 2016 at 16:39
  • Surely a complaint or comment on the part of a student can only encourage positive action? Why so dismissive? Aug 7, 2016 at 19:21
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    @MorganRogers the OP needs to be clear what his/her priorities are. At this stage, actually learning stuff should probably have a higher priority than trying to make the university a better place (measured using his/her own definition of "better") for future students. From a position of zero influence and power, and presumably in a minority of 1, complaining about things that only affect other students but not the OP him/herself is just time-wasting.
    – alephzero
    Aug 8, 2016 at 0:12

To answer your specific question, "Is it feasible, or even acceptable, for me to communicate concerns with staff, or to relay the request of the librarian with my own concerns added?", it is certainly OK to share your concerns. But recognize that, as other answers have indicated, the staff at your university are not blind to the work that your peers are submitting; they may have similar concerns, but lack the practical ability to do anything about them.

The natural question that arises then is: if the staff does not have the ability to address your concerns, what can you, as a student, do on your own? Here are some things that have proven effective in my experience:

  • Understand that your peers are dealing with personal and academic challenges, some of which they may have in common with you and some of which they may not. Realize that what is important to you is not necessarily as high a priority to them. You will be much more successful if you are able to address your concerns in a way that also addresses things that are important to your peers.
  • Get involved in student clubs and organizations, and organize workshops and other club events to help your peers gain useful skills. For example, as an electrical engineering undergraduate I was on the board of my university's IEEE student branch, and we organized workshops on technical and soft skills, participation in student research competitions, and other activities for our peers.
  • Look for opportunities to get more involved in your department. If you are the undergraduate research assistant who attends all the department seminars and helps faculty and graduate students with their research and teaching, the well-known and effective TA for the first year physics labs, or someone else who all the faculty in your department know and respect, your suggestions and concerns will be taken more seriously. Not because your concerns are unwelcome now, but just because you don't have a lot of insight into the inner workings of your department, what they are struggling with, and what their priorities are.
  • "Affirmative action is better than complaining is better than doing nothing." Aug 7, 2016 at 21:16

20% of what undergraduates learn is the technical content of their specialist curriculum, and 80% is general life skills such as managing their time, learning how to learn, and learning how to communicate and collaborate (and how to use technology to prepare documents). Because of your previous experience you've got a head start on the other students in those areas, and you shouldn't be surprised by that.

What should you do? The same as I do on StackOverflow: offer my advice, and sigh inwardly when it isn't accepted.


In the UK, most universities have academic skills modules which are often mixed with employability or the research skills module. So students are likely to know what the standards are.

Universities also have academic review boards although with different names such as the academic integrity department or the institutional compliance board which would be able to take in your views and pass this down to the programme leaders.

If you feel that other student's work is not up to standard you can raise this issue with the board, programme lead or the dean of the school but how they will implement your idea will be considered academic judgement.

In my opinion you should not submit this in the form of a formal complaint as there can be unwanted consequences.

Other students can however make an appeal to the review or assessment board if they feel that the teaching standards are not being observed and the outcome will be much like extenuation where they would be allowed to retake the assessment.

Furthermore, the students can take the university to court under breach of contract or on basis of procedural impropriety, etc.


To extend ff524's response, there is in many universities a Student Representative system, where students elect a few of their peers near the start of the academic year to pass on their concerns and questions to faculty and board members who control the running of their course. Becoming (or at least interacting with) relevant student rep's is in theory a good way to have your opinion heard. As an older student with more experience of university life, you would be an excellent candidate for such a role.

A vital point is that you mustn't let yourself be discouraged from positive action: too many universities suffer from their senior staff retaining and endorsing outdated or inefficient practices out of indifference, despite change being in the students' best interest. It may well be that the staff can't do much, but it could equally be that they consider other issues more relevant for discussion, and that which is being improved at any given time can be greatly affected by student demand.

In this example, the librarian you spoke with has probably requested funds and and a small amount of curriculum time for their idea, but whichever board they applied to has seen it as an unnecessary hassle or decided that there is not enough demand. Getting your opinion heard through, for example, student representatives could be helpful to many who don't even realize what they're missing.

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