“Some Professors Suck at Teaching!”: A Parent and Student Voice Concerns

Posted by on Oct 24, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 19 comments

Need help with these problems? (I would… for sure). You shouldn’t just be told, “Go back to the book!” if you’ve done everything you can and you’re still confused.

(We’re back to college success! There are some frustrated folks out there. As a recent guest on Women’s Talk Radio, bunches of students called in about negative experiences with profs–and it was only the first week of school! Here are two comments I recently received. When I read them, I had two thoughts: a) We don’t always help as much we should; and b) Some of us suck sometimes. All faculty were students and we experienced great and not-so-great profs. I hardly have all the answers, but I’m willing to share what I know and open up the conversation. I also admit that after a year of being on leave, I feel like I suck a little, myself, this term–and I’ll discuss that in part 2 on Friday. Here we go…).

Comment #1: From a parent: “What about the college student who asks for help and gets the look from the professor like, ‘You don’t know this material? Then go read the book!’? I have been appalled by the lack of concern for students that I know that have asked for help and have been looked down upon for asking or receive the above aforementioned treatment. Why is the student in school? To learn the material or to have an already working knowledge of the subject matter? Help is a two way street. Who wants to go back to someone who has given little help or interest the first time around? This has been the experience with my university student.”

Comment #2: From a student: “Some profs just suck at teaching. The problem is the colleges hire profs who meet the academic requirements to be a prof and most of them turn out really good, but some of them are just really smart and have minimal teaching skills. Just because you are smarter than the student does not mean you can teach. It takes a certain person to be a teacher. Lecture halls are not teaching you anything, you could obtain the same information over the internet and take notes from that. Teaching makes the student learn the material, it doesn’t just say “Here is some material you need to know… Good luck…”


I want to tackle both sides of this argument. Here goes:

1.  Some profs feel that students won’t really try to help themselves.

I’ll tackle the parent’s concern in a moment, but I have to start with what happens to profs possibly just as often: Students put in small (or no) effort, throw up their hands, come to us and say, “I’m so confused!” Now when this happens, I have two choices: I can either do the work for the student (which is what I feel the student wants me to do) or empower the student to turn right around and go back to the available resources first. This might be the book, notes, the course management system, etc. Then I tell the student that after he/she has done those things, I am glad to help.

If I know I’ve provided enough instructional materials, I need to teach the student how to wade through what I’ve provided, then come back to me and say, “Professor (or, in my case, ‘Ellen’), I’m working on my journal for our Interpersonal Communication course and question #3 asks about interdependent self-perception. I have looked in the chapter and in my notes and I don’t see that term defined. Can you help me?”

I’m forcing the student to show me what he/she has already done to solve his/her own problem before just saying “I’m so lost!” This is a critical life and professional skill that I know I have to help the student cultivate. So, in this case, we don’t suck. We are trying to create responsible, empowered learners.

2.  Some profs won’t help, for whatever reason.

Absolutely… some profs just don’t help students. There could be a million reasons why, but none of the reasons justify the behavior.

I realize that I what I’m about to say may sound unrealistic, particularly when we are talking about potential freshmen who have never encountered a college classroom, but students must self-advocate when profs won’t help. A college student must get a quick lesson into adulthood and say, “I deserve to receive assistance if I’ve done everything I can to help myself first.” (The latter is key, however: You have to help yourself first!).

Go to your professor after class or during office hours (which are contractually required at most colleges–I’ve blogged about this before) and say, “I’m struggling with __________. This is what I’ve tried to do to solve it (be very detailed with your explanation). I’ve gone as far as I can on my own and now I need your help.”

If the prof says, “Go read the book”, then you say, “I have read the book and I’ve taken notes from your lectures. Unfortunately, I’m still confused. I need your knowledge to help me interpret this material further.” I realize you shouldn’t have to say that. Your prof may need to be reminded.

Bottom line, and I’ve said this before: Even if the prof is part of a research institution, someone has a responsibility to assist you–a teaching assistant, graduate assistant, whomever. And I still stand by that if a prof is teaching a course, there is at least some responsibility to carry out the duties that come along with teaching, and one of those duties is helping students … like it or not!

Still not receiving help? Go to another professor in the same department, or even above the professor’s head to a division or department chair. You say, “I have tried to get help from this professor repeatedly (explain everything you’ve done). I have not received help. I need some recommendations.”

I agree with the parent. Students are not supposed to come in knowing the material. We don’t expect them to, do we? We don’t want students to feel like they can’t come back to us for assistance. That feeling can resonate outward and students will feel hesitant to ask for help elsewhere, too. We can’t have that. Resource-seeking is a critical skill to foster in our students.

I’m going to end this post here, but continue it on Friday. In that post, I’m going to share a couple other times when professors may not be as strong in the classroom, such as when we are brand new or trying things that we haven’t tried before (that would be me right now–feeling moments of “suck,” but at least I am being creative about it). I will also discuss one reality that the parent raised: When the prof is relying on just the book as a teaching tool.

How would you respond to the parent and the student? I’m very interested to hear other thoughts.





  1. This is great advice Ellen. I am always advocating the same things – students need to realize that they are making a big investment of time, money and energy in their education so seize the day and be polite but persistent with instructors when you are unclear about something. And, of course the idea that students should be embarrassed about asking for a clarification of course material or more explicit advice is complete hogwash. And it is widespread. I call it Academic Darwinism – the idea that anyone who needs a little extra help is somehow unfit for school. YUCK! Most students will do very well if properly instructed AND if they make a big effort, so both parties have a responsibility. That’s how I try to teach, anyway. But the whole issue highlights a much broader problem in the universities and some colleges – that faculty are hired for their research primarily, and not so much their teaching skills. And there are plenty of profs. out there who don’t like teaching and are just not very good at it. And there’s lots of great ones….

    • Hi, Susan,
      I love it: Academic Darwinism! I have gotten nailed once in a review for #STNT because I make it sound like all profs want to help students and they don’t. A student wrote the review. How sad is that? What are we doing this for if we aren’t in the business of working with students and helping them? Even for faculty involved in research, I recall there being some responsibility for teaching level–or having that assigned to someone else, right? It was someone’s responsibility, wasn’t it?

      I appreciate you writing.

  2. My daughter attended a California community college for two years and graduated with honors. I never had to help her and she was excited about her professors. A couple that I looked into were high quality. She then transferred to a highly ranked university that I shouldn’t mention here (UCI) and qualified for advanced classes. Professors showed up day one and introduced themselves, never to be seen again. TA’s took over for them. I ended up having to teach her courses in computer programming. She quit after a semester and a half and went to work for me full time. After a year of that she began getting her own contracts and was earning a 6-figure income. Her peers who graduated a year and a half later were lucky to get half of what she was earning, even those with “practical” educations. Strange story, isn’t it? But, true.

    • Hi, Jack,

      Your story does not surprise me at all. This is why the value of a college education is being challenged so much right now. Like Professor Nance said in her comment, there is excellence and failure in the system, like in every system, of course. Your daughter is lucky she had you to rely on for computer programming–that is for sure! It sounds like your daughter had you to teach her about business, too, and so many of our students are not so fortunate when they are met with academics that are not what they expect.

      Have you considered going into academia? Sounds like we need you!!! ;-)

  3. I agree with the post. As long as you can show your professor, or TA, whatever…that you are investing time into your studies then most will do whatever it takes to help you; however, some professors really do SUCK!!!

    • I can count on you not mincing words, Matt :-) . I appreciate you commenting!

  4. I absolutely agree on the fact that it takes some kind of a talent to be good teacher – academic background is not enough. Its just a gift and no studies can teach how to teach.

    • Thank you, Alexandra! Academic background is hardly enough. On Twitter, I had this comment:
      J. David Zacko-Smith ‏@CatalyzedLeader
      @SusanMazza @ChattyProf That’s because 95% of doctoral programs involve no TEACHER TRAINING! I sought it out to make sure I was educated.

      I think that says quite a lot!
      Thank you for your words,

  5. Sigh. Unfortunately, it’s true. Some faculty members simply do not want to be teaching or do not know how. I’m not sure what can be done about that – except that students are learning how to deal with difficult people and unfair situations. It will not be the last time in life.

    However, for those students who are working with someone who cares, I love your suggestion – beautiful in its simplicity – that they be able to define the problem and show what they’ve done to try to solve it. Any professor who cares will meet them halfway. Parents (always my angle) can help students learn early – even by elementary school – how to use this technique. It will help them then and will become second nature by college.

    • Hi, Vicki,

      Thank you for writing. I love your idea that students need to cite what they have done to solve their own problem EARLY in their lives. I’m going to start this with my 9 y/o. This suggestion is brilliant!


  6. Being a good teacher does require a little more than great academic qualifications. I had a secondary school teacher who most people said had answers to a few questions memorised. Students used to joke that if you ask him anything else besides those few questions he would be of no help. But I learnt the most from him because he knew how to pass on that little knowledge that he had. It was enough for me to be able to learn the rest on my own.

    I believe that professors are there to guide students and not to spoon feed them. I have also noticed that professors are more willing to help when students show them that they have tried to solve a problem and are doing their best. It’s always easier to work with students who display a positive attitude towards learning.

    • Churchill,

      Eek! It sounds like the students were on to that teacher. Scary! You are lucky that you thrived in that environment and were self-motivated. What happens to people who aren’t?

      I agree with you about the spoon-feeding. That is the other side of this argument. We do see many students who are not self-motivated. But it is up to professors to bring that out in students, isn’t it? Or can they?

      Thank you for your comment!


      • Self-motivation is what usually makes people excel at whatever it is that they do. I agree that it is up to the professors to bring out the best in students. I always try not give direct answers when pupils tell me that they don’t know how to solve a maths problem. I guide them to the answers by asking them questions. In the end they usually agree with me that they could have found the answer to their question without my help. The negative result of that is that sometimes pupils think that I am just too lazy to explain. :-)

        • Churchill,

          I guess it is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Right now, I have students who are really struggling with speech organization and citations. I thought we went over the material, but then that didn’t manifest in their product or grades. I’m employing some mastery learning now. Had I taken the less direct approach, I perish the thought of what might have happened. However, a colleague reminded me today that I really need to cut loose because ultimately, they have to show that they can do this without me.

          Teaching is not for the faint of heart sometimes, eh?

  7. Ellen, thank you so very much for putting so many good thoughts on this topic into one well written article. I am sharing it with the Student Caring community! Prof. David Pecoraro

    • David,
      Thank you! I can’t wait to share your posts, too, and to read your book.

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