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Most professors appreciate being told when they’ve messed up.

It’s a common scene in the University of Zoom to see a professor talking to blank screens for several minutes before a sheepish voice cautiously interrupts to inform the professor they’ve forgotten to screen share, and for that reason, no one in the class has a clue about what’s going on.

Unsurprisingly, professors want to know when this happens. Students have a fear of telling their professors when they make a mistake, but it often needs to be done. 

Students shouldn’t protect a professor’s pride at the expense of understanding assignments and course content. In reality, professors typically want to know when they make a mistake right away so that they can correct it and move on. While there’s nuance to the issue of correcting a professor, the best course of action is generally to let them know when they’ve done something wrong.

Professors have a million opportunities for error. They could state a wrong due date, misgrade an assignment or refer to a student by the wrong name. With the transition to online learning came even more errors associated with the technological learning curve. 

Professor Michael Grundmann is no stranger to the struggles of online teaching. Some of the technology-related errors he said he’s made include forgetting to put a new due date on a Canvas assignment from the previous semester, forgetting to share his screen on Webex and sending the wrong link for class. In all of these situations, Grundmann said that he recognizes the value of student feedback.

“It’s got to be done for them to get their education like they deserve,” Grundmann said.

A student shouldn’t sacrifice their education out of fear that their professor won’t respond well to criticism. Professors, like the rest of us, make mistakes. What’s important is how they respond to student feedback and recover from their mistakes. 

When confronted about a mistake, Grundmann said he often responds with “My bad” or “Thank you for your patience.” It’s important for professors to respond in this way because it communicates to students that they’re receptive to mistakes and willing to make changes in their students’ best interest. 

If a professor responds negatively to a student’s concern, it’d set the precedent for other students to feel that it wouldn’t be worth it to address any issues with that professor. This would contribute to a counterproductive classroom environment.

Of course, professors don’t love to hear about all of the mistakes they’ve made. But like Grundmann, they should be able to recognize that they need to hear when they mess up so they can right their wrong and move on. 

Grundmann described how he feels when a student calls him out on a mistake: “Well, if it’s a minor mistake, I don't feel any kind of drop in the pit of my stomach. If it’s a major one, I might [feel] like, ‘Uh oh, that's rather important — got to get that obstacle out of the way rather quickly.’”

Even though it can be upsetting to learn about an error he’s made, Grundmann said that he owns his mistakes and has learned over his years as a professor that there are plenty of opportunities to be humbled. This is an important mindset to have as a professor. 

“If I made a mistake, I made a mistake,” Grundmann said. “Like I said, I might have been a little more prideful in earlier years of my teaching career, but I think I’m less prideful now … Grundmann’s not infallible; not by a long shot.”

Referring to his colleagues, Grundmann identified some key traits of a professor who responds well to student feedback in contrast to stories he’s heard about less receptive professors. 

“[My colleagues] are a good-humored bunch, and that's a quality that certainly helps in being able to admit mistakes,” Grundmann said. “I have heard over the years various accounts of professors being prideful and being embarrassed and being caught at something and perhaps pretending they didn't make an error.”

It’s easy to understand why professors might be unhappy about students calling out their mistakes in certain cases.

Sometimes, it’s clearly necessary to let a professor know about a mistake they made. Other times, it can be a more nuanced issue. It’s probably unnecessary to email a professor to tell them that they misplaced a comma in their essay prompt. But if they forgot to update an assignment deadline on Canvas, this is something they’ll need to be made aware of. 

The way a student approaches a professor to address an error is also important. Some mistakes, such as an incorrect deadline posted on Canvas or unclear assignment instructions, could be asked in front of the whole class, as everyone would benefit from hearing the professor’s response. If a professor has errors in their syllabus or another long-standing important document, it might be best to address these concerns in a private email unless the area of concern is imminently relevant to the entire class.

Students should respectfully call their professors out on mistakes, and professors should be receptive to their feedback. Reacting to students in a positive way is imperative to building students’ confidence when contributing in and outside of class. Students shouldn’t keep silent when they notice a mistake their professor made — it’ll serve them and their class well to address the mistake right away. 

Alex Davis is a freshman business management and media arts & design double major. Contact Alex at davis8aj@dukes.jmu.edu.