I am taking a course this semester for an upper year undergraduate course in mathematics.

The course instructor had some experience of teaching lower year courses, and her performance in those courses has been noted as very good. This is her first time teaching an upper year course, her teaching style is minimalistic, instead leaving most of the questions (even the conceptually fundamental ones) to be solved by the students.

In this semester, she had made this course too difficult. There are many reasons, most of which I think surrounded the fact that she never reinforced any of the material she taught during the lectures and never had any checks in place to assess the class's over all understanding. The homeworks where injected with some tangential, open research type problems, and there were two very difficult midterms that were a bit detached from what she taught during the lecture.

The course started with 120 students and now we are at about 30 students. We just had the final, which was very lengthy and probably will be harshly graded. We are probably expecting around 25 students to pass, based on class averages from the previous midterms.

This course does have a steep drop rate from the previous years. But by looking at the course report gathered by some student union from previous years, the course would always start with 120 and drops to something like 70. The lowest was 5 years ago when the course dropped to 50s.

What are the possible consequences for the professor in this case? She is an assistant professor.

  • Depends. My experience:I am a teaching track professor in the USA (with PhD in engineering) and I have made my course "difficult". My attendance usually drops by 30% a semester (not the same drop as the person in your question). It affects my salary in the summer semester where salaries are recovered from student tuition fee at my university. In the Fall and Spring semester, my salary does not drop and I think the students who stick around gain a lot (IMHO). I suffer no negative consequence. I have been asked to do my course 7 times so far because I get good reviews from students who stay.
    – dearN
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 4:14
  • contd... In essence an assistant professor (who has research as primary responsibility) may not suffer harsh consequences unless she/he fails in research AND teaching and has a deleterious effect in the department's pursuits of some goals.
    – dearN
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 4:17
  • 5
    @drN: "It affects my salary in the summer semester where salaries are recovered from student tuition fee at my university." Seriously?!? I've never heard anything like that happening at a US university. Could you provide some additional context? (Added: I looked at your profile a little bit, and for me at least it would be less confusing if you said "lecturer" or "non-tenure track faculty member" rather than "teaching track professor": for me, professor means tenure-track. Not that this negates my surprise: I have never heard of any faculty having to return money for low enrollment!!) Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 4:50
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark Yes, Lecturer. But if the OP is from a system where "Lecturer" is part of tenure track (in some commonwealth countries), that could be confusing. My university's higher ups do not allocate funds for faculty salaries in the summer. (TT) Faculty salaries come mainly from research funds (part of it obv.) and consulting. Teaching track faculty get paid only through enrollment. If enrollment in the summer drops for a course, my salary drops. It is unfortunate. In essence, if I pander to students and make things easy-peasy, I get compensated richly because of large enrollments.
    – dearN
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 5:00
  • 5
    @drN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that. It seems unlikely that I am telling you something you don't know, but just in case: that is a really unfortunate and ethically compromising situation. The vast majority of US universities do not (so far as I know!) engage in this practice, so it might be for the best for you to take your services elsewhere. Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 5:04

2 Answers 2


All aspects of university teaching vary so widely across the academic world that it seems impossible to predict how a particular department will respond to a particular teaching issue without much more identifying information. In this case even the country was not specified. Usually I can get a pretty good sense of "inside the US" versus "outside the US" but this time I am not even sure of that.

I will speak from my own experience: namely at research universities in the US. At such a university, being an assistant professor -- which means tenure track faculty unless otherwise qualified, so I will assume this here -- is a long-term proposition. Although the contract is technically year-to-year, in all of my experience tenure-track faculty members who are not grossly, egregiously misperforming their duties are all but guaranteed to be retained through to the next review period. Reviews take place roughly every 2-3 years; most commonly there is one such review before the candidate goes up for tenure.

Because of the above, it is very unlikely that any one teaching experience is going to be the cause for drastic action taken against the faculty member. For that to occur, the "teaching mistake" would have to be something like deciding not to show up for class for the last month. Moreover, most assistant professors have a lot to learn about university teaching: even if they have teaching experiences under their belt elsewhere, these will in some ways prepare them for teaching at their present university and in some ways lead them into locally ineffective practices. In my field (mathematics), it is also pretty standard that most faculty members did their junior teaching at institutions with stronger undergraduate students than their tenure-track institution. If the crowd is sympathetic, a poor teaching performance early on can actually work out quite well, because the faculty member will be able to show significant improvement in their teaching over the years they spend as an assistant professor: a trajectory which starts out a little shaky and corrects to average could be viewed as more encouraging by many than a flatly average trajectory. (If the crowd is unsympathetic, you'll be nervous no matter what you do.)

All of this is assuming that the teaching performance in this one class was somewhat poor. From your description it is reasonable, but not guaranteed, that the professor's performance will be viewed in that way. The number of students who drop a class varies considerably from year to year -- for me, even teaching the same freshman calculus class at the same institution in different semesters I have had more than 30% attrition (which left me with very good evaluations from the remaining students, so there is something of a tradeoff here) and also less than 10% attrition. However if one instructor's pass rate is half or less than another's, then that will probably be noticed. The reaction may not be a punitive one, but the department may work to push this faculty member back to the mean. (I don't even necessarily agree that this will make the faculty member less likely to teach the same course again. That really depends on a lot of factors.)

Finally, one small point: you claim that the professor was very successful in teaching lower level courses, is teaching an upper level course for the first time, and has an overly "minimalistic" teaching style, not providing enough help and context to her students while demanding (you say) too much from them. That seems slightly odd to me: in my experience, it would be virtually impossible to be very successful teaching a lower level math class with the style described in the previous sentence. Maybe the professor thought she had to encourage the more advanced students to be more independent and overcompensated in that direction...but in my experience, that's relatively unlikely. So I have a little trouble picturing the situation. Oh, well.

  • 1
    Thanks for your feedback. To your last point, I think the reason is because the lower year courses are usually taught by multiple professors with dozens of TAs. Therefore, students have a list of professors to choose from. Maybe her way of teaching fits well with the top students who had years of math experience under their belt, therefore the good reviews. Commented Dec 11, 2016 at 5:07
  • I also found this odd. When it started off that she is considered a good teacher for lower level courses, I was expecting she was too slow or easy for the more advanced course. She could be overcompensating, but another explanation is, *** The upper level course is in her specialty*** Often within our speciality it is a lot harder to determine the difficulty of undergraduate material because we know it like the back of our hand, and get excited about the hard stuff. Commented Oct 16, 2020 at 4:40

This will likely depend on their contract, union membership if any, department-wide teaching load, department politics, any grants the professor may be pulling in, and the ability of the department to pull in a new instructor on potentially short notice. Any one of those could result in a strong desire to dismiss, or otherwise reprimand, the professor not being realizable.

Since you say this professor has performed well previously, this will probably not result in any significant, official consequences. The professor may be called in to a meeting with one or more faculty members to discuss the nature of the drop rate and the student reviews, with suggestions made about how to improve or avoid such situations, but probably not much else. Most universities and departments I know of give professors a wide berth on what they teach and how they teach it, as long as they meet certain minimums. Especially for upper division courses (and even more so for graduate ones). And for enrollment the minimum is usually "enough students that the University wouldn't have canceled the course if that was the total enrollment at the start of the semester".

The most likely consequences would be a lower likelihood of being assigned to teach that particular course again, and more importantly a potential souring of their tenure candidacy (see the "department politics" from before). This wouldn't be any sort of official or legal consequence. It'd be much the same thing as performing poorly on a project at a non-academic job. You may not get fired, or receive any official reprimands outside of an uncomfortable meeting to discuss what went wrong, but some of your superiors may think twice about offering you promotions, etc. They will be looking for indicators of improvement, or of exceptional skills elsewhere. An awesome researcher can "get away" with being a crummy teacher, but a mediocre one usually can't.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .