(last modified January 7, 2023)

Thoughts on Teaching

by Harry Delugach

In the Classroom • Instructor ResponsibilityStudent Responsibility
GradingDisagreementsFailureStudent comments about me

Education is what survives when what has learned has been forgotten. -- B.F. Skinner

In the Classroom

I believe that face-to-face classroom time is important. For a variety of reasons, I believe much of my course material can be understood best in a live presentation or discussion. I call some class sessions "lectures" but I assume always that students will have questions, comments, or reactions that I try to encourage. I welcome questions and opinions during class. Most concepts and ideas in a course are not dry items to memorize; they have to engage students. I welcome the chance to better organize my own thoughts and to adapt and modify my ideas based on involvement with students.

Class attendance is not generally a graded requirement of my courses; that is, I do not take attendance or base grades on whether you attended or not. It is probably possible for a student to attend no classes at all and still get a decent grade; however, such cases are very rare. I try to make class periods valuable, informative and generally useful. Students who miss many classes usually do poorly because they are not prepared, are not really involved, and have not engaged themselves with the materials and ideas of the course.

I tend to lean toward informality in class, both in my lecture style and in class discussions. Some students may have difficulty adjusting or understanding this. If you have any suggestions, criticisms, or other comments about my teaching style, please let me know privately -- I promise that any criticism will not be held against you.

About classroom distractions: Cell phones ringing/buzzing/vibrating, students eating in class, students texting/messaging in class, audible alarms, personal conversations, students entering/leaving the room, etc. are ALL distracting, regardless of how "anonymous" or quiet you think you are. You are expected to keep these interruptions to a minimum. If you know in advance that a crucial phone call or event may occur, it is best to sit in the back of the room or near the door where you can remove yourself discreetly.

A special rule of course applies during in-class examinations, whether closed or open book: Unless specifically permitted, you are not allowed to have accessible a cell phone, camera, recorder, personal digital assistant, calculator, music player, headphones, personal computer or any other device that could be used to record/playback/display course content or communicate with any person or network. I reserve the right to enforce this rule as necessary. Protect yourself by placing all these things completely out of reach.

Instructor Responsibility

Good teaching is the ability to show something new in things that are familiar,
and the ability to show something familiar in things that are new.

As a university professor, I have a responsibility to start/end classes on time, use class sessions effectively, be available to answer your questions, evaluate you fairly and assign you grades, based on your performance in the class's activities. Furthermore, I have an obligation to answer questions in a timely way, and return graded work as soon as practical. In general, you may expect that I will have your work back to you in time to discuss the work during the next class after the deadline. I always take time to go over graded assignments during class after the assignment has been completely graded.

As a teacher in general, I have a responsibility to create and foster an environment where students are challenged, encouraged, and supported in order to learn. I take these responsibilities seriously.

Student Responsibility

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.     -- Plutarch

Be qualified for the course. As a student, you are responsible for being prepared for the course, by having taken the prerequisites or otherwise ensuring that you have appropriate background for the course material. Being unqualified or unprepared are primary causes of a student's failure to perform well. If you have any doubt about your qualifications for a course, talk to the instructor.

Devote enough time to the course. Students sometimes overextend themselves, underestimating the amount of time they'll need to complete the coursework, or overestimating how much time they will have available. Most students think they are the exception and can catch up when they get behind, or try to learn background material they should already know. Few students succeed at this. If you have a job full-time (or even part-time), you should carefully evaluate how much time you can devote to the course. Real learning takes time, reflection and commitment -- it can't be rushed just because you have waited until the last minute.

Be prepared. Once you have ensured you are qualified for the course, you are also responsible for reading all the materials made available to you. You should attend every class if possible, and take written notes on the material covered in class. Studies suggest that you will retain more information if you write it by hand, rather than on a keyboard. If there is a reading assigned prior to a class period, you should go over the reading and be familiar with its basic concepts.

Participate!.This doesn't just mean attending class (and staying awake!). It means paying attention, asking questions, and listening to others' questions and answers. If there are things you do not understand, don't wait and hope to figure them out before the exams -- ask questions in class and pay attention to the answers. Students who are engaged in their own learning will do better in the course.

Have a desire to learn. Find additional sources of information about the course subject. There are things you need to know that I may not mention in class, or may not write in my notes. Do not assume that if something is not in my notes, that you may ignore it! After all, college is about learning -- if you're not in school to learn, you need to seriously question why you are doing it.

Note: Occasionally students encounter personal (i.e., non-academic) situations that interfere with their ability to perform in the class. Please know that I am sympathetic to these situations; however, I am not really the best judge if you feel you need special consideration or special treatment, I am really only qualified to make academic judgements about your academic performance. Fortunately for me, there are offices on campus that can help you in such situations and they can guide me in how to handle your case. Tell the Dean of Students Office, (256) 824-6700 that I referred you. They are good folks to know.


I do not give grades. Students earn grades. I assign them.

The best way I know to grade fairly is to clearly specify the activities on which you'll be graded, give you the criteria being used to establish a grade, and return assignments to you as soon as possible, preferably in time for the next class so we can all discuss it.

I understand every student's desire for a higher grade. Using my grading procedure, which I have developed over the years, I publish a breakdown so that each assignment is allocated a certain percentage, based on my judgment about its importance with respect to the overall course goals. Each assignment is graded separately, with me being as consistent as possible so that all students are treated fairly and uniformly. I am not influenced by previous grades or your grades in other courses. I assign each grade separately and independently. On rare occasions, I will add a fixed number of points to everyone's exam or assignment (sometimes erroneously called "curving" the grades) to allow for questions that may have been ambiguous. I am therefore confident that your final percentage is an accurate reflection of what grade I think you deserve in the course. I never add points to final (overall) grades. I never give individual extra credit after grades are returned to you, although I am always willing to look over your revised assignment and give you feedback to help in future assignments.

Your final grade ultimately reflects my judgment of your performance which I have developed in conjunction with every other student's performance and my own goals for the course. You are welcome to review your grades with me for clarification. Occasionally I make a simple arithmetic error, or have overlooked something significant which could change your grade. In general, however, I am usually satisfied that the grades I have assigned you reflect an accurate evaluation of your performance.

I realize that grades are an arbitrary evaluation scheme, adopted by the university in an attempt to report and compare student achievement fairly and uniformly. Obviously grades matter. In my courses, final grades are the result of a straightforward calculation based on individual grades. In nearly all cases, I believe the grade you receive is never lower than the grade you deserve.

I am sometimes asked whether I give "partial credit." I find this question odd, since it implies that answers are either completely right or completely wrong. Rarely is that the case. I subtract points/marks if you leave out information or if you include information that is clearly wrong or irrelevant. If you leave out something important, or your answer seems to miss the point of the question, then I subtract more points/marks. Note that including irrelevant information is considered an error, since you must have thought it was relevant. In other words, knowing what's relevant is an important part of answering questions. Bottom line: only include relevent information in your answers!

If you think I've made a mistake, let me know and if I agree, I'll gladly fix it. If you do not understand how your work was graded, send me your request in writing. Your only obligation is that any such mistake or clarification must be called to my attention within one week after you've gotten the work back.

Contrary to any rumors you may hear, I am not required to give out specific numbers of A's, B's etc., nor am I evaluated by the grades I assign.

Extra credit. I do not give individual extra credit assignments or have a student re-do work for additional points. I believe that would be unfair to other students who have already done well in the assignments. I sometimes recommend that a student re-work their assignment for their own benefit, and I may be willing to offer them comments and suggestions that may improve future grades.

I do not give credit for work that has not been done.

If a student has special circumstances, unrelated to their academic performance or background, I am usually sympathetic and try to work with them. In general, such problems should be taken to the Dean of Students Office, where they are qualified to evaluate your situation and give me some direction. With their help, it is possible to delay or re-schedule some deadlines.


Education is the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing  your temper or your self-confidence.
    ---- Robert Frost

I do not take it personally if my ideas or concepts are challenged by students. I believe in the spirit of academic and intellectual discourse, where claims are supported by rational arguments based on evidence. Disagreement is not really a conflict or personal challenge -- it is a mechanism for getting at whatever truth or agreement can be reached. As long as we are supporting or refuting the ideas themselves (NOT the people who hold those ideas), then we are arguing rationally.

An example of an irrational argument is when a student is challenging me personally -- such attacks are generally unethical, unprofessional, impolite, contrary to the goals of a university education, and may be a violation of the UAH Code of Student Conduct. Another example of an irrational argument is if an instructor challenges a student personally, rather than on the content of their ideas.

If a student has a serious issue with me, the best approach is to discuss it personally with me, preferably outside of the classroom. Telephone or email is probably NOT the most effective way to do this. If there are personal issues, for whatever reason, then these need to be dealt with as soon as possible. If there is a grievance that you do not want to discuss with me directly, there is a published procedure (part of the CS department's procedures) telling where to go with your complaint, starting with the Chair of the Computer Science Department. I have never penalized a student for going through channels.


I believe that all students should have an equal chance to succeed in their assignments, their courses, their academic programs and their lives. I strive to provide this opportunity in all aspects of my teaching. Unfortunately, not all students will succeed in their efforts. Regardless of how you might define "failure" for yourself, my grades reflect my judgment about the quality of your performance within the guidelines of my courses. Your grade is not affected by whether I "like" you or not. See above for what to do if you disagree with that judgment.

In my experience, a student's failure is often a choice, whether made consicously or through omission. If my expectations are clear, then a student should already know whether they're meeting expectations or not. Sometimes, however, a student gives their best effort and is just not able to understand the material. This can happen even when both the student and instructor are trying their best.

It may seem a cliché, but failure is an excellent teacher. Some have argued it is one of the best. If I succeed I may not know why (perhaps I was just lucky), but if I fail, I can usually identify a cause and work to correct it.

Comments students have made about me

Get to the point. We are in the Computer Science Department, not philosophy. If more class time was spent explaining topics straightforwardly, more would get accomplished.

I admit I am sometimes guilty of embellishing answers with a story or a tangential point so students will remember it. More often, however, I try to point out larger implications and issues for a particular topic. Too many practitioners in the workplace aren't aware of the overall impact of a particular activity, or the larger significance of a particular choice. Some decisions are more important than others. Some have unintended side effects, or their known effects are more problematic than at first glance. Naive practitioners may ignore the greater impacts and simply trust their intuition, but professionals need to know their work in depth.

Needs to buy a watch or use the one he has. He let us out late half the time.

I regret that this has happened occasionally. I consider it rude for any professor (including myself) to start class early or end late. (I also consider it rude for a student to arrive late or leave class early.) I always try to start on time. I do my best to end no later than the official ending time of the class.

Grading was a bit unfair as he expected you to follow guidelines on his website that I could never find.

... and never once during the entire semester did you ask me where to find them! If a link doesn't work, it's unintentional. Do you think I just put out arbitrary obstacles for fun? If you sit all semester grumbling about something like this without bringing it to my attention, I can only conclude that it doesn't really matter to you, or maybe you're looking for an excuse to blame me for your failure. I certainly don't expect you to be able to read my mind -- why should I be able to read yours? Ask!

He deducts points/marks for trivial things.

If minor mistakes are made, then I deduct a small number of points/marks. Of course, for major mistakes I deduct more points. If you do not understand why points were taken off, then please pay attention to my explanations in class, which can answer many student questions. If that isn't sufficient, then come ask during office hours. In most cases, however, something that you considered "trivial" is in fact more important than you realized; if you didn't understand that, then that is why more points were deducted. If you're not sure of why, ask.

He thinks of himself more as an English teacher than a Computer Science teacher.

I assume that students who say this are thinking about comments I have made in responding to written answer such as "vague," "unclear," "ambiguous," "confusing," etc. This is because I place value on your ability to clearly communicate your ideas, as well as the appropriateness and correctness of those ideas. Minor defects in your writing don't usually cost points, but they can interfere with my understanding your ideas. Major defects in your writing cost you points because they can imply things that are, in fact, not correct or complete. If you think your future employers, managers, or supervisors don't care about whether you can communicate your ideas, ask a few of them. Many of them will say this ability is rewarded with better raises and promotions.

This class is different than the other Computer Science classes I've had. There's more discussion and writing in this class. In fact, it's more like a liberal arts class than a science class.

There are several ways I can interpret this comment. Since I hold a liberal arts degree (among others), I take this as a compliment. If you are referring to the liberal arts skills of analysis, evaluation and communication, then you are correct. That means that you must be able to:

  1. observe and distinguish between different kinds of phenomena (not just measure them),
  2. determine their fundamental underlying principles,
  3. evaluate their effectiveness in whatever technical tasks confront you, and
  4. defend your reasons for pursuing whatever course of action you choose.

In Programming Languages: I feel the teacher was trying to be more wordy and abstract than actually teaching the material. It would have been better to teach some concepts then give an assignment, then back to more concepts; instead the concepts and programming felt too disjointed. I had a hard time understanding the concepts in the class so I'm afraid I'll lose much of it after the final. So what was the point of the class?

That particular course has much in the way of abstract concepts and fine distinctions; perhaps more so than other classes. Many students find it more challenging and rather different in character than a typical programming or problem-solving class. I'm glad the student cared enough about its long-term value to make this comment. I've used comments like these to change the structure of some of my courses to reflect a more step-wise approach.

As far as the student is concerned, they should have started asking questions as soon as they began to feel overwhelmed or confused. In some cases, the material only seems disjointed; in other cases, perhaps it can be presented in a more reasonable way. Unless I see obvious or widespread problems, I am not likely to change the way I present material. The best way to let me know about these problems is to tell me about them, earlier rather than later.

This is the worst instructor I have ever had.

Of course I hope that's not really true, but if you have problems with the way I conduct my classes, or how you have been treated, please let me know. I strive to improve my effectiveness with every student. If you are really unhappy with the way I conduct the course, but you have never told me, then nothing may change -- I'll keep doing what I've always done, you'll be unhappy and not learn as much -- and we both lose. On the other hand, if you alert me to something that could be improved, I can probably do something about it.

This is the best instructor I have ever had.

Clearly this student knows what they are talking about :-)