Why Lecturers Irritate Students (Part 1)

by Dr Kerri O’Donnell

I was recently packing up my office at the university, preparing to move on to a different adventure, when I received an email newsletter from University World News that included an article titled “What do students find irritating about their lecturers?” [1].  

Of course I opened it.   The list of student grievances was remarkably similar to a couple of other lists I’d seen of this type. The comments were funny for the same reason comedy is funny in general – dramatic expression with some glimmer of truth, or at least shared experience, that we can connect with.  And this version of the list did not disappoint.  I read it with the comfortably privileged perspective of a lecturer who has always received very positive student feedback (though there’s always that one student…), and allowed myself to smile at some wildly inaccurate assumptions.  Then came the pathos, because the irritating things in the list DO happen; and because a student’s perspective of an experience IS that student’s experience, even when the perspective is informed by flawed assumptions.  And because sometimes a lecturer really does mess up.

So, on my way out the university door, I thought it might be useful to leave students with an explanation about the things that irritate them.  During 18 years experience (8 as an instructing arts practitioner, and 10 as a Business School academic), I have had a lot of conversations with students, education experts and other academics about everything listed in the results, and the more communication happens, the better the outcomes are likely to be for everyone.

The quotations shown in this series of posts are the results assembled by Dr Nita Temmerman from an informal survey of university students.  I respond to each one in turn, covering all fifteen items in a series of separate posts.

As today happens to be the first day of a new semester in my hometown, I will begin with just the first:

Lecturers who take delight in telling the class on the very first day that “about 25% of you will fail this course on your first try”, as if this is something to be proud of, when it might just signal that he or she is a lousy teacher!

I have heard this said many times.  A couple of times when I was a student, and a couple of times by colleagues.  It turns out that the part in quotation marks is actually true.  Especially in first year classes.  In my experience, the rate drops as low as about 10% by third year, but there are likely to be differences between disciplines and institutions.  At our School, we did not use averaging at all, but it’s still very, very rare for every person to pass.

The rest of the comment (all the perception parts) is not true.  Well, not factual, anyway:  That person might well be a lousy teacher, but we’ll talk about university ‘teachers’ another day.  In the meantime, here are the misconceptions in the survey response:

  • It’s impossible to know a person’s motivation unless they explicitly state it, and even then we have to take their word for it.  So there’s no point guessing, or in attributing malice just because a statement comes over badly.  A lecturer who states such a high fail rate won’t take delight in saying it unless s/he’s a total sociopath, which is statistically improbable to happen in every class.  If there’s a smile, it’s almost certainly because s/he is extremely uncomfortable about having to address the awkward problem of failure.  So uncomfortable that the smile is probably more of a grimace.  It’s too late to warn students at the end of semester, and it’s confronting to do it up front.  But some of us are instructed to say it, and some of us really do want to avoid the tears and pleas after exams.  And it’s awkward.


  • No lecturer can afford to be proud of a failure rate as high as 25%.  Lecturing is a tough gig (which is not obvious to students, so I’ll explain that another day), but engagement with students is a huge motivator for most of us, even if we are too weary to show it.  We take pride in seeing you move through the years, nailing the topics in our shared field, and then watching you walk the carpet to collect your own degree.  Even if there were an occasional lecturer who doesn’t care at all about students, s/he has reasons to at least care about good pass rates for their own sake:  A fail rate that high would bring terrible consequences to academic annual reviews, pay rises and promotion prospects.  Performance metrics are everywhere!  The stakes are higher in accredited programs, where there is an abundance of quality controls.  At a minimum, results are analysed at the end of every semester, and if there’s an unusually high fail rate, or even a significant discrepancy between subjects, lecturers in charge of the subjects have to have a good explanation.

One semester, I beat around the bush trying to save the statistically inevitable 10%ish of my own 170 students who would fail.  Instead of blurting a context-less and therefore meaningless statement such as that in the quote, I tried using words they might listen to, and understand, and act upon.  I used stats and graphs, and I handed out a step-by-step weekly ‘to-do’ list with a weekly planner on the other side, and I explained how the role of a university lecturer is very different to a school teacher, and why/how control over their results was in their hands; not mine.  I told them we did not ‘bell curve’, and therefore every student could get high distinctions if they did 7 hours of organised independent study per week, followed instructions, and met the requirements.  Most students looked at me as if I were a raving lunatic.  Those who did not (who instead filled in their forms), had probably taken control years ago, and would have been the top students anyway.  I’d put a whole lot of work into preparing for that lecture, but my pass rate stayed stable at approximately 90%.

 Sometimes, a lecturer is just stating a fact (however clumsily) so that you will learn from the mistaken approaches of your predecessors.  So that you will accept advice, and follow instructions.  And so you will pass.

According to the original article, “Dr Nita Temmerman is a former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean (faculty of education) at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to universities in the Pacific and Middle East, as well as  invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, registered expert with the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and a published author.”

Further Reading

  1. Nita Temmerman, ‘What do students find irritating about their lecturers?’, University World News, Issue No:434, 28 October 2016,  http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20161025151153271, accessed 6 January 2017.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: