It's been a while (about 2 weeks) since I stopped understanding anything in class and I am afraid to tell the professor about my situation because she may get upset with me (which is obviously a not good idea). I feel the urge to tell her because I hope she will give me some helpful advice (If I use the correct words). If she doesn't help me my chances of passing the course are very low.

So how can I politely tell her that I'm lost in her class and that I would love her to give me office hours?

About her: She gets upset easily and she is busy almost all the time. The way she teaches us is this: she arrives 10 minutes late to the class and when she arrives, she sits on a chair the whole hour and explain us in a very fast way with some slideshows projected on the board.

It is a course with a few other students.

  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this question belongs on Academia SE. May 11, 2018 at 22:56
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    @StephenG Please don't. Interpersonal skills, when used in an academic setting, are on-topic on this site, just like questions about interpersonal skills used in a workplace or family setting would be. It's one thing to point out to the writer of the question that if they're not looking for a solution involving interpersonal skills, they could ask on Academia, but please don't close a question about interpersonal skills as off-topic because of the setting they're needed in.
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 13, 2018 at 12:07
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    @Tinkeringbell I've seen not dissimilar questions on Academia SE and I think they will provide more insight into the specific issues than IPS will. May 13, 2018 at 12:12
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    @StephenG Whether a question is on-topic on one SE network has absolutely nothing to do with the on-topicness on another SE network.
    – Belle
    May 14, 2018 at 12:35
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    Hello Michelle! Right now, your question has too much history here (mainly answers) that we're not comfortable sending it over as-is to Academia. If you want to, you could write a question over there too, focus it on the academia side (instead of the interpersonal side like here), feel free to mention that you only got Interpersonal Skills advice over here, but would also like some input from the academia side...
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 18, 2018 at 12:12

5 Answers 5


You can explain anything to the people provided you really want them to understand. -The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon

Fundamental facts relevant to knowledge, wisdom, and understanding

The instructor (or any environment) can only provide knowledge (raw data) of a particular subject matter.

Your have recognized that your wisdom (facts relevant to acquired and retained raw data) of the subject matter ceased to progress as of two weeks ago.

There are no guarantees that any individual will acquire general or specific understanding (ability to independently apply acquired and retained facts for practical purposes) of any subject matter.

Decide what your goal of taking the course is

  • If your goal for taking the course is to simply pass the course, ask the instructor what the requirement is for passing the course. (The requirement for passing the course might not be understanding of the subject matter. Recitation of the subject matter as dictated by the instructor might suffice to pass the course.)

  • If your goal is to continue acquiring wisdom of the subject matter, you cannot rely on a single source of instruction. (The instruction could be flawed, incomplete or patently false.)

  • If your goal is for understanding of the subject matter, that is your responsibility alone. Neither the instructor nor the institution can determine your own capacity for application of a subject matter outside of the confines of the instructors supervision or the institutions' purview or mandate. (A degree is a piece of paper, and cannot verify actual understanding of anything.)

If your goal is to pass the course, ask the professor directly what is required to pass the course

It is irrelevant if your instructor becomes "upset" with you. The most important aspect of your inquiry is what your goal is for attending the class in the first instance.

You, your family, or some entity is paying for your education.

If your instructor is failing to provide your with education, due to any reason, then state precisely to the instructor. Place the onus on the instructor to modify their approach. You do not need to ask for a specific remedy - allow the instructor to provide the remedy for your failure to understand the course material over the previous two weeks. It is the instructor whom is supposedly teaching the course, not you. It is the instructors' professional responsibility to put forth greater effort to instruct you if their present approach has failed to provide you with the education required by them to pass their course.

If the instructor does not adjust their approach - as to your statement relaying your received education as of the present date - then you can take steps to change your instructor.

If your goal is to continue to attempting to gather wisdom as to the subject matter

You must do this for yourself; irrespective of any syllabus, instruction style of an instructor or institution, or passing or failing grade issued by an instructor.

If your goal is for understanding of the subject matter

Only you can verify your understanding of a subject matter by your application of knowledge and wisdom as to that subject matter.

It is possible that you can spontaneously acquire understanding of a subject matter beyond the knowledge and wisdom of an instructor. Simply stating that you have understanding of a subject matter is not adequate. You must be able to apply your knowledge and wisdom in a given environment.

However, since your inquiry is based on receiving instruction from your professor, that professor cannot adjust their approach as to your individual instruction if you do not advise them - directly - of their lack of delivering education to you.

It is incumbent upon the instructor and the institution as a whole to provide you with adequate instruction and training. It is not the instructor whom you should consider being "upset", but the question is whether or not you are "upset" that the instructor has failed to provide you with clear knowledge and wisdom of the subject matter to foster your ability to understand the course material.

Someone already has paid or is paying for your education; you do not owe them anything but your attention; make them earn their payment for your education.

  • This is a really good answer, you made me remember that someone is paying for my studies and I am failing..
    – user6415
    May 13, 2018 at 4:21

tl;dr: that's the duty of a professor to answer reasonable inquiries from students. As professors tend to be very busy, keep things simple and go straight to the points that you have a problem with.

If you visit Academia.SE, you will see that all academics are busy. Besides research and administrative duties, they are busy preparing classes, grading examinations and... answering questions during their office hours!

So, the first thing you should keep in mind is that, as a student, you have a right to ask questions and be given additional attention outside the classroom.

Before asking for some time with the professor, check the syllabus to see what are the office hours for that course. Most professors are required by their department to have official office hours where they are, roughly, "at the disposal of the students for questions". In case there is nothing, you can approach the professor that way:

Professor [Name], I feel I have some difficulties to understand the concepts of [topic] and [topic]. When are your office hours? I would like to visit you to ask a few questions.

Alternatively, some professors don't have a specific time in their schedule reserved for students' questions, and prefer taking appointments. This should probably be mentioned in the course syllabus, so check it, but otherwise, you can approach the professor at the beginning or the end of a class. Or you could send her an email. For example,

Dear Professor [Name], I am [your name], currently enrolled in your class of [topic]. I have some difficulties to understand the concepts of [topic] and [topic]. May I take an appointment with you to ask you a few questions?

In particular, when sending an email, it is a good idea to include the topics of the questions you want to ask, so that the professor can have an idea of the duration of the meeting.

In particular,

  1. I don't understand the difference between [concept 1] and [concept 2]. Could you explain me the nuance?

  2. I read the solution of problem 2 in the assignment but I don't understand why you did [clever trick]. Could you explain to me how to get started on this kind of problems?

Very few professors would be upset by students showing interest in the course material. More upsetting are the more frequent cases of students that don't understand the material and didn't care to do any extra effort to understand.

Of course, when approaching a busy professor, you have to be reasonable and "do your part of the job":

  1. Try to identify the parts you don't understand as precisely as possible. "I don't understand anything" is not something a professor wants to hear. And is usually false, or show a complete lack of efforts.

  2. Learn the fundamentals of the course material: definitions and statements of the main theorems (since it is a maths/programming class). There is nothing more annoying than a student asking how to solve a problem about a basic concept X when they don't even know the definition of X.

In particular, to answer the title of the question, you cannot expect "a lot of office hours". What is more realistic is to get explanations on the key concepts of the lectures, detailed explanations of some key methods and problems, and pertinent references to complete the course material and study by yourself. If done well, this should help you understand the topic (after all, you seemed to do fine until two weeks ago).

Note: this does not seem to apply in your case since it is a small class, but in larger classes, the usual course of action would be to ask your questions to the Teaching Assistant first, then go to speak to the professor if you still have unanswered questions.

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    This is a good answer but speed is of the essence as every week that is spent not understanding it gets harder to catch up.
    – WendyG
    May 11, 2018 at 9:26
  • @WendyG: right. I am assuming that the OP has class with that professor several times a week, so she can take an appointment quite fast.
    – Taladris
    May 11, 2018 at 14:38
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    @Bilkokuya: the alternative I proposed is to ask right before or right after a class. If there no official office hours, an alternative could be an impromptu visit to the professor's office (keeping in mind of course that the professor may be busy at that time).
    – Taladris
    May 11, 2018 at 14:41
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    I'm curious as to where this answer is coming from. Could you back it up? Are you a professor, have you been a student asking for help in this way? What makes you sure this is the best approach?
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 14, 2018 at 10:03
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    @Tinkeringbell: I have held various positions in academia, both in teaching and resarch. And I have been student too.
    – Taladris
    May 20, 2018 at 7:06

If you know what you don’t understand, then try to find something online. Some colleges release all of their course lectures online for free.

If not, email her and ask her when you can come in and ask her some stuff about the course. When you do go in, explain the situation at hand and ask for her advice. Once she advises you, follow what she told you to do and see if it helps. If not, you’ve probably got classmates to help you. Talk to some of your classmates and see if they understand what’s going on.

It’s better to talk two weeks late than three, or four, or five, or so on. Talk to her ASAP, or you risk seriously falling behind.

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    @Michelle Realize sometimes that the appropriate words may be just flat out asking for help. Don’t be afraid of rejection, rejection will just mean incompetence on the teacher’s part. Just go for it, and if it doesn’t work out, ask your classmates anyways. Maybe one or two of them will help despite the competition (I’d help if I could, even if it was a competition or race). If all else fails, maybe find a book that helps with the specific part of the course. There is always a way, the only question is if you have the dedication to pursue the answers (I don’t know you, but gut feeling you do).
    – Sean
    May 11, 2018 at 4:19
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    I can definitely confirm that the most important thing is to ask for help. If you need help but are too embarrassed to ask for it, waiting to do so will only make you feel more lost and more embarrassed that you didn't ask earlier.
    – V2Blast
    May 11, 2018 at 5:01
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    @Michelle I hope you realize that you'll be forced to often use a computer for multiple hours at some point, be it when you're writing your dissertation or later in a job. This includes in particular also literature research. It's normal that this is tiring to the eyes, but can be dealt with – make it a habit to look up often and gaze at something further away whilst thinking, get in a good rhythm of breaks, etc.. If the problem is unusually strong for you, maybe consult an optician as well. May 11, 2018 at 15:03
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    @Michelle Regarding the eye thing, you should look into a way to overcome that. Students are pretty much expected to be able to use a computer for at least a few hours at a time. (And especially if your so called 'classmates' refuse to help.) You can buy eye drops that rehydrate your eyes. Even something like dimming your monitor might help. Failing that, do what leftaroundabout says and consult a doctor/optician.
    – Pharap
    May 12, 2018 at 1:05
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    Hey Sean! Do you have any experience to back up your answer? Because otherwise you're just giving your opinion on what's best. If a question can be answered with opinion only, it should be closed as primarily opinion based, otherwise, backing up the advice you give is heavily encouraged across SE. Also, how does 'find something online' answer the question of 'how to ask for office hours'? Is there a reason this is the first step, instead of asking for help?
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 14, 2018 at 9:54

Office hours, as you describe it, means free extra tutoring. There probably are students that do that function at your school, some for free. It really depends on the subject, class structure, and workload; along with the individuals involved - there's really no generic answer than to say: assess and politely ask.

You might inquire if it's acceptable to ask if particular portions can be covered slower, or in more depth, but you should appreciate that there's a certain amount of material to be digested within a certain amount of time.

Asking for homework that will improve your understanding of the material is a good first step, so is asking some of the other students what they think of the workload - if everyone's in agreement that everything is covered too rapidly then there's a real problem, if only you have difficulty you should accept that you bit off more than you can chew, and take an easier class.

Where I went some classes you could ask and some you had best not ask, better to wait for the next section and ask the next instructor or take some books out at the library.

Understand that at some point there will be an assessment and you will have to be at a particular point of completion, if you're behind and your marks are low you really will get some office time, and a warning.

Being polite and upfront is likely to pay off better than hiding in the back in silence. They might think that it's a required course that you must take simply to get prerequisites for another, as long as you barely make it you could care less; teachers don't have a lot of time or appreciation for that.

I've been back to school a few times. It changes over the years, subject, person, even by the makeup of the class, or faculty problems with the middle layers of bureaucracy, it depends - just ask your friends first and ask for extra homework.

Remember that they don't want a lot of extra work if you're not really interested or plan on withdrawing. You should also appreciate that depending on the country the professor might need to hold down a second job to makeup the equivalent to what they earned outside of academia.

With such a tiny class there ought to be some extra time available.

Sometimes you simply have to go to a better school. If this course is not popular (only 4 students) and only one instructor teachers it I'd be concerned about the demand for this skill once you leave, is the paper going to be worth anything to potential employers, or is it something you're especially keen to understand. Effort in will hopefully provide the desired results.

  • This is probably dependent on the rules and ethos of the school in question. Many smaller schools in the US expect all professors to have office hours as part of their duties. I can't speak for other countries. May 14, 2018 at 11:50

Approaching your professor should only be done after the following has been gone through.

University is about learning how to get information and teach yourself through research. The lecturer is touching on subjects, which you should read around and learn before attending the lecture.

  1. Source the subject being dealt with.
  2. Find papers, research, studies that go through the basics.
  3. Talk to others who know the subject.

After you have done the above, and are armed with questions which show you have understood the subject and wish to progress it, it is the right time to approach the professor and you will know what to ask.

On the question of office hours, a lecture with only 5 students is equivalent to a tutorial. Making best use of this time, with a little 15 minute focus on problems afterwards would probably be acceptable. A professor who is stretched and gets paid to deliver only what they deliver, is not going to be able to give much more. This professor is already overworked, so getting more than this is probably a pipe dream.

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    This answer doesn't focus on the part "how to tell OP's professor". Please try to answer according to the question. If you want to offer an alternative, you'd at least have to provide some guidance on why the wanted approach isn't the best (or worse than what you're suggesting). Also, it is heavily encouraged to back up your answers with references (either external sources or personal experience on this site).
    – A J
    May 11, 2018 at 9:56
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    I just realised you might have been answering the 'what should I do' from the original question, but since that's gone now because it's off-topic, please edit your answer to answer the question of 'how to ask for office hours'... This is not answering the question asked. Do you have anything to back up your claims?
    – Tinkeringbell
    May 14, 2018 at 9:57

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