I'm a grad student teaching assistant for a freshmen undergrad non major multivariable calculus class.

What they didn't tell me is that the second half of the semester is not calculus but "finite math". This week's topic is game theory, which I've never learned myself.

In preparing tomorrow's material, I realized I was getting all the answers wrong from one of the sections, and have no idea how to do the problems I'm supposed to teach. Normally it only takes a day to read the textbook and prepare.

I've been up for hours struggling with the same problems and need to leave in 5 hours to get to class on time - and would still like to sleep.

My school never gave me any training or told me any rules; am I allowed to just cancel class?

I'll take any advice at this point.

Edit: I would just like to say how much I appreciate everyone's responses. I'm running on little sleep, (and extremely new to Stack Exchange so still learning how the site works) but you've all given me great ideas when I was truly stressing out.

Edit/Update: turns out I was not doing it incorrectly, just did algebraic work when I should've used a graph so I considered points that I didn't need to which is why my answers were wrong. I met up with the individual who TAd for the course last semester and that's how I figured out my mistake. I sorta winged it in presentation and got the correct answer, now just have to repeat the lesson for the rest of the sessions.

Thank you all for your input.

Edit (from comment): Game theory is just one week of the course; they have two lectures with the professor prior to one 50 minute session with me. This is the only session with me out of a year long course that has been or will be like this.

  • 47
    sounds like a highly dysfunctional situation. What I would do is go to class and talk about something I know (filibuster) until I can present any game theory Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 5:13
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    I would encourage you to roll back to your original question. I found the edits contributed by @henning stifling and unnecessary. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 6:51
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    @JessicaB - someone will feel the need to anonymously whine on Facebook if you bring free chocolates to class. You just can't ever win 100% approval, so that can't be the goal
    – DVK
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 14:43
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    How did you not know at the beginning of class what topics you would be teaching?? Isn't there a syllabus?
    – Kat
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 20:18
  • 1
    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/86953/…
    – Kat
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 20:07

7 Answers 7


I would like to add on top of the answers of @aparente001 and @Anonymous Mathematician.

So, first thing, in 5 hours it would be very hard to come up with something solid that you would be comfortable lecturing about; thus I second the suggestion of doing some review and exercises for now.

My opinion is: you can do it.

If you have been teaching calculus so far, chances are that you are a very competent student. You can learn almost at the same time as you will be teaching. And this does not have to be a stressful experience, I would say you can be upfront with your students and let them know that you are learning at the same time as them (they already know that you are a student too).

Actually, this can be beneficial for both parts: you) are learning a new topic and because of that you better understand the difficulties that students may come upon; they) have a TA that understands their difficulties and that is able to explain things in a way that a student would learn (it may not be the best way, but I would say that is OK).

In the case they make you questions you do not know how to answer, again, be upfront: say that it is a good question, you will think and research about it, and you will explain it later, either in the class, e-mail directly to the student, whatever you prefer.

In order for this to work, like mentioned in the other answers, you have to talk to your supervisor and let him know that you were not prepared to lecture this topic. Ask him for help about learning those concepts, or a reference to whom could provide such guidance.

  • 13
    Thank you for your response. I have a pretty good rapport with the students, and worked with most of them for their first semester of calculus in the fall ending with great reviews. I think being upfront with them is a good idea. Your response was a bit of a pep talk, and I'll admit I needed it.
    – user71118
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 9:12
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    That's very bad advice: telling the students that you don't know what you're talking about either just never works. The day after you will have 90% drop off rate or, even worse, 100% attendance with nobody paying a penny of attention to what you are saying.
    – gented
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 15:06
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    @GennaroTedesco I disagree with you. I have experienced that both as a student and as a lecturer. It may depend on how you say things. You should not say: hey guys, I know nothing about this. That is not what I meant. It seems the OP is a good lecturer, from his reviews. If there is a topic that he may not be so comfortable, it does not mean that it lacks confidence. Conversely, I have had teachers which did not admit they may lack knowledge, the students can smell the lack of confidence, and the class becomes a boring and awkward experience.
    – iled
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 19:42
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    I've been in this situation as a student, and I couldn't take they instructor seriously. It's insulting to charge students for a class being taught by someone that has no knowledge of the topic. They should definitely not admit that's what's happening!
    – Kat
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 20:15
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    Gotta admit, teachers who admitted they didn't know the material was a cue for me to check out. I was extremely busy in college, had a hard time making it to class in the first place some times, and this would just tell me that I was wasting that effort getting there since I apparently could learn just as well just reading the book.
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 21:53

Use tomorrow's class for review of what's been covered so far, including problem solving. Then go straight to your supervisor.

Do you have a graduate student employee union?

Edit (after having read the additional information in a comment -- which I just incorporated into the question):

The additional information gives me a different view of the situation than I first understood.

Now that I've gotten this fuller picture of the situation:

  • Prepare your discussion sections more in advance, so you'll notice in good time if a particular topic needs more careful preparation.

  • Try a different resource, and/or ask the professor or a more advanced student for help understanding the material.

  • We do not have a graduate student employee Union
    – user71118
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 8:53
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    @user71118: Clearly you don't, as any half-decent union would not stand for this kind of travesty. Sending people into class without preparation and with them not even having gotten an overview of what they're supposed to teach at the beginning of the semester. Not to mention the fact that the teacher/lecturer in charge should have known better than not to check whether his/her TAs have studied the subject matter at all.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 20:53
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    I've learned that my school is overall quite unorganized. The Dean used to require that all TAs have an entire semester of training (since most have never taught in any form before) prior to beginning work. But the departments decided they did not want to pay the TAs for their time and cancelled the training. Over winter break they asked me two days before the winter Intersession semester started if I would TA a separate multivariable calculus course for engineering majors, the course was 6 days a week and I would find out the next days topic 6pm the night before. Very hectic and annoying.
    – user71118
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 20:58
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    @user71118 - The lack of training is pretty typical, I think, but not the rest of what you described. Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 23:42
  • @user71118: Seriously, you guys need to form a union. If the situation is so bad it might not even be that difficult. I mean, it's super-difficult and demanding always, but in your case it seems to be quite doable. What country/state is the university in?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 15:59

You almost certainly aren't supposed to cancel class arbitrarily, just because you feel like it. If you admit that you are cancelling class because you weren't able to prepare adequately, you'll look bad. If you have to cancel, your safest option may be to pretend you aren't feeling well or have some other extenuating circumstances. Aside from the dishonesty, that will put a lot of pressure on you to catch up in time for the next class. (If you cancel because of illness and then have to admit you really aren't prepared to teach this material, it will look terrible.)

Instead, I'd recommend the following priorities:

  1. If you can sort things out in the five hours before class, that's the best option. Do you have any friends who have taught the class before and could help? That would be far more efficient than trying to figure it all out yourself while in a panic.

  2. If you can't prepare in time, can you rearrange the material a little? For example, you could insert a review of what you've done so far before you move on to game theory, or you could start by introducing just the aspects you understand, and delay the hard parts until next time.

  3. If you are completely stuck and can't figure out any plan that won't humiliate you and waste the students' time, then it's probably best to call in sick and then work as hard as you can to catch up.

  • 31
    -1 for suggesting to lie.
    – AnoE
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 13:05
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    @AnoE I "love" the way that twelve people have upvoted your comment but only four actually agreed with it enough to downvote the answer. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 21:06
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    Guess there is a scale of escalation for these things, @DavidRicherby. ;)
    – AnoE
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 0:21
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    @DavidRicherby: Some people's downvotes are not publicly displayed by the system =)
    – justhalf
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 2:56
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    This is a terrible answer, both practically and ethically. This would not be artibrary cancellation. The best option is not to "sort things out" a few hours before having to teach something you haven't studied. etc.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 20:55

Sounds like you took care of it well.

For those considering in the future, I'd say you can cancel class. There's no need to be very specific in your reasoning for why to the students.
As a TA, I was to make a 4 hour drive back to campus after a weekend away, and my car wouldn't start. Not much I could do. Not a situation I was excited to explain. But not one with much choice at that point. It means less learning time, which is no good for anyone (if you are properly interested in seeing them learn as much as possible as well!). But there are all kinds of reasons people cancel class, many where teachers don't want to go into details. And even some potentially valid ones involved with class preparation (a large project/test you'd built the class time around suddenly disappearing into the computing void, vital class materials not coming in, etc). It's not something you should consider lightly, but if it's important to cancel class, then it's important to cancel class. You're fairly unlikely to get significant challenge. The only ones who really might be in a situation to challenge you are your superiors. But even in that less likely circumstance, you can try repeating the limited explanation... or give a full explanation (they may not be TOO happy with it, but they'll probably just have to take it, give a warning about being prepared, and move on). If you you've done your best and you're really convinced it's the best option, you do what you have to do, you take any consequences it takes, and you move forward. Quality teachers sometimes have to face unhappy individuals, and if it's your fault, that you didn't pay enough attention to the course plan or did not prepare soon enough, you commit to working hard so it doesn't happen again, and then you deal with the current fallout. You can't change the past, you can only make the best choices in the current. And if that means canceling classes, so be it.

But, indeed, see if you can adapt your class so that you don't have to cancel to get around the trouble. Review, cover a topic scheduled for another time, focus on the background aspects that you do understand, show a video, whatever will usefully consume the time. Usefully being the key word. Cancelling isn't the worst option. Wasting time is worse. Maybe not to how you are thought of, but to the betterment of your students.

If you do have to cancel, try your best to supplement the missed time. Send out extra homework. Make a YouTube video lecture. Put together an application project. If the students are expected to check electronic medium, you can probably fairly expect them to do it (you could also put a printed copy of your message on the classroom door for any who may unaware come to the classroom). If they aren't expected to keep track of media, you can probably still reasonably expect them to make up some of the lost time with a bit of extra homework later. Meet them in the middle, you don't want to swamp their schedule, especially with busywork, but giving them, for instance, a 20 minute video lecture + practice problems posted later in the week when it was to be an hour class probably won't be seen as too problematic for most... and you can be a little more adaptable if there are some that maybe don't have scheduling flexibility to do more extra work outside of class later in the week. The point is, you try to do your job the best you can, and be supportive to them in doing it, they'll meet you half way. I believe every student did the replacement work that I sent out for that class that I missed 11 years ago. Undergraduates usually are so excited to get an hour off classwork, they don't mind doing a bit of extra work at home!

Not understanding material well can be a very dangerous situation. I saw one of the other answers or comments suggested that being transparent on such shortcomings would lead to revolt, but the alternative, pretending that you know it well when you don't, can be absolutely devastating. In situations like a preset college course, maybe you don't tell them you're struggling. But you also work very hard to get ahead of it. Going in and trying to work a few "simple" problems when you're struggling with the topic is just asking for a mess. The one thing worse than cancelling class or delaying (or even skipping) material is to come into class and teach it wrong, make repeated mistakes, and absolutely confuse everyone. We've probably all had teachers come in and absolutely make a mess of problems, and we left understanding the material less than before. I had a teacher in my major who repeatedly did that. That's where you lose control of a class, when you pretend to know what you're doing but don't show it. Your number one job as a teacher isn't keeping the schedule, but making sure you're improving upon any that they learn independently. As such, in many courses, textbook reading is required. Indeed, in many courses the the expectation isn't that they're necessarily reading it all the time before class. But when they do reading, most students should at least a loose handle on the information. Coming in and making mistakes is bound to destroy that. If indeed you cancelled class, emphasize to them that this is the one time where the textbook reading is even more necessary, so that you are able to pick up moving ahead next week, and reduce the hit of the missed class.

I've certainly been hit with situations through the years where I had new material to suddenly teach. As a private school teacher, I often substituted in a variety of courses. Or in my own classes, like chemistry or history, I offered a little freedom to investigate any topics that particularly interested my students... and ended up doing cram sessions on stomach digestion or Native American tribes. Students threw new-fangled common core math approaches at me, and occasionally it'd appear so abstruse that I needed to pass on it until next class to not waste time and focus. No one expects us to know everything. Even a major professor will get a question they don't know how to answer occasionally, or a problem that they'll manage to struggle with unexpectedly. Instead of trying to force it, take a step back, tell them you'll look back into it further, and then follow up the next week, or online, (or directly to the student outside of class, if it's indeed an unnecessary tangent that will be more detriment than gain to other students). Pretending to know something you don't seems the cardinal sin in teaching. It suggests the students should have learn the same undercurrents of pride and dishonesty. It may not be quite so fitting for college courses, but there are definitely many teaching situations where you should admit to your students you don't perfectly understand. It shows them that you're not so different from them and need to work at it sometimes too**. And ends up encouraging confidence and effort from the students who need it most.

And you did well. If you're hit with a situation where you're just not making it, don't be afraid to ask for help. You may be embarrassed, you may even look poor in the eyes of your superior, but it's better to do what is necessary than to pretend. There's no guarantees you'll get the help, but there's often a wealth of assistance right at your front door if you'll just be bold enough to seek it.

Overall, you adapted. You fought hard to overcome it, and you kept the best interest of your students at the front. Decorum be darned, that's what teaching is all about. And we need more teachers doing that!


This semester, after a few months of teaching a very specialized but little known programming language (INSEL), students were pleased with my lessons but expressed the desire to learn something more well-known.

I know Ruby very well, and could write Ruby code in my sleep. It's not really widespread in academia though, so I feared they would also complain about it. In comparison, Python is probably used in every university on Earth.

For some reason, I claimed "I could teach you RUBY or (whispering) Python, if you want". All the students cheered "YEAH!!! PYTHON!!!!". The big problem was : I didn't know Python at all! The syntax is often similar to Ruby, but that was about all I knew about it.

I had less than 2 weeks to learn it before teaching it. It was stressful but exhiliarating to learn so much new material in such a short time. I used https://learnpythonthehardway.org/ and began answering easy questions on stackoverflow.

I also was very honest with the students, telling them I still had a lot to learn about the language. I also warned them that I very well might not know how to answer a question. If that happened, we would train a very useful skill together : Using Google with the correct search terms, finding the corresponding StackOverflow thread, picking the correct answer and adapting it to our problem.

During 3 full days of hands-on Python programming, it only happened once. Students were happy and learned a lot. They asked very insightful questions, which often helped me learn the language better. Depending on their progress and feedback, it was also easier to adapt the next lesson to their needs.

So yes, you can do it, you just need to be very honest, humble and motivated. Be sure to bring enough material (books or laptop+Internet). That way, if you don't know an answer, you can involve the students in the process of looking for a solution. You will learn something, they will train an essential skill and time will pass faster that way ;)

Good luck!


A few ideas sprung to mind when I read about your dilemma.

1) Skip ahead to a topic that you are ready to handle. That would give you a couple days to keep working on the topic that has you flummoxed. You can always go back to it next week.

2) Buy some time by holding a “review session”. Take a handful of the more recent topics covered, and reexamine those topics. One good way to do this is to come up with a complicated problem that requires a couple different techniques covered. That way, this becomes a worthwhile lesson in how to synthesize some of the techniques recently taught in the class.

3) Try turning this into an active learning exercise. Typically, you would solve a problem in front of the class. This time, have the students guide you into solving the problem. Chances are you’ve got a few bright students in your class that can crack this nut.

Admittedly, #3 is a risky proposition. If the students ultimately encounter as much trouble as you’ve had in figuring this out, it might make for an awkward moment in the classroom. But I have tried this before, and it was successful. (Even if they can’t solve the problem completely on their own, a student might provide a nudge in the right direction that helps you figure it out on the fly.)

If things don’t work out how you’d like, you can still “save face”, as long as you’re able to figure it out down the road and eventually explain to the students what you were unable to solve during the “active learning” session.


Sounds like you or your department is very disorganized. That "winging" mentality is what got you in this situation in the first place. I suggest you change the way you approach things, get rid of the "winging" mentality. Know your sh*t. Teaching is not theatrics, it's not a show. And for the teachers that believe it is about theatrics they're garbage.

  • 3
    My department is incredibly disorganised (see above comment about my work over Intersession). I have been a math tutor for 8 years for an incredible range of students, privately, as well head math tutor of my undergrad and working for a tutoring company placed in low income public high schools. "Winging it" in that sense was always part of the job as I never knew what type of material, or attitudes, a student would have in a session. As far as my work as a TA, this is the only day I have been unprepared and normally have solutions available to students days prior to class.
    – user71118
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 4:11

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