Dan Kang

Dear Professor

At Princeton, I have the fortune of studying with some brilliant thinkers who also happen to be great teachers. As a computer science major, I’ve taken mostly technical classes but occasionally dabble in nontechnical ones – one of which inspired this post today. I initially looked forward to taking this course quite a bit, but I’m sorry to say after seven weeks that the course has been a huge disappointment. Conversations with friends and the fact that most students do not pay any attention during class indicate that many others feel the same way.

How did this happen? As a professor, how do you avoid losing the interest of your students and end up having them care only about getting that passing grade? I’d like to answer this question from the perspective of a student and encourage professors to examine themselves to make sure that they’re not disengaging their students.

Please note that my intention is not to attack or embarrass the professor who’s teaching the class described above but to offer insights that all of us can use in the difficult art of teaching. If I come off too harshly, it’s not meant to be taken personally. I’m very blunt about what I think.

  1. Don’t push your ideas as the correct one in a nontechnical subject.

    Many technical subjects have the luxury of addressing questions that have One Correct Answer. Either your formula for calculating the velocity of an object under constant acceleration is right, or it’s wrong. When it comes to topics like leadership, human relationships, and business, there is no single right answer. There are definitely some techniques and practices that have worked better than others in the past, but that doesn’t mean that a solution to a soft problem is correct in the same way that “2 is a prime number” is correct. When you’re always shutting down the ideas of students and pushing yours as the correct one, it’s hard for us to engage in innovative thinking since it seems like only you have the answers. Classes feel like planned sessions in which you dispense your Correct Answers when they should be meaningful discussions in which we talk about the trade-offs of making some decisions over others.

  2. Don’t base the course off of your work unless you are a thought leader in your field and have been recognized as such.

    If you’re going to establish a framework with which to analyze problems in the real world, I want to know that the framework that we’re using is credible. When the assigned reading consists of some articles you’ve written in the past and the subsequent class consists of teaching your framework instead of having any meaningful discussion about the merits and potential flaws of it, I have trouble seeing the value in your ideas. Too often, it feels as if we’re contorting situations or making up nonsense to force your framework to work instead of expanding the framework or admitting that it doesn’t handle every possible case.

    In other words, if you don’t have a Wikipedia article that talks about the significance of your ideas in the field that you’re teaching, you might want to reconsider using your work as the basis for the class. There are only two exceptions to this: either the class was clearly advertised as being based off of your ideas, or you take some time to convince the class of why you think your ideas are valuable and have an open discussion about it. Why would I want to accept your ideas as the most useful ones when no one outside of the class seems to care about them? Ideas have values in their own right, but knowing that others in the field have recognized yours as significant serves as a quality filter and provides validation.

    Note that talking about personal experience is completely different than what I’m talking about. If you want to talk about what worked for you in the past and why you think it’s valuable, great! Just don’t create a framework based on your experience and try to pass it off as something that can be applied to every situation. Forcing your ideas gives the impression that you only have your agenda in mind.

  3. Do not waste your students’ time with pointless exercises that are completely arbitrary.

    Our time is as valuable as yours. Please don’t waste it with meaningless exercises that don’t help anyone. An example of this is guessing how long a company should take in screening candidates when hiring someone. Obviously, this depends on the needs of the company, the role that you’re trying to fill, and many other factors. Needless to say, taking five minutes to call on various students and have them guess the exact time frame that you have in mind benefits no one. It would be much more valuable if you said something like “large companies typically take 6-8 weeks to accomplish this task” and moved on rather than have us play a pointless guessing game.

  4. Do encourage feedback, especially if you’re new to teaching or are trying an unconventional format for your class.

    My professor has actually been pretty good about being open to feedback, which is why I feel comfortable publishing this. For everyone else, if this is your first time teaching or you’re trying something new, please encourage students to email you on how you can improve. It’s painful when you act like you know exactly what you’re doing when it’s clear that you actually don’t. Help us help you.