Signs Of A Bad Online Instructor (And How to Handle Them)

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Last Updated on March 23, 2024 by Alexandra Markin

What makes a good online class? A good instructor is a major part of it.

But in reality, not all university instructors are fantastic. In fact, throughout the duration of getting your degree, you can bet you’ll have at least one bad online instructor.

It’s one thing to have a bad instructor for in–person courses, but dealing with a bad instructor for online courses poses an extra challenge. In online courses, you don’t ever get to meet, or (in most cases) have an actual phone conversation with your professor.

If you don’t feel you’re getting the help you need in a course you’re struggling with, read on to see if you’re experiencing any of the universal signs of a bad online instructor.

What Makes A Bad Online Instructor?

bad adjective – (of a person) not able to do something well or in an acceptable way

Oxford Dictionary

The definition of bad is clear, but the definition of a bad online instructor is subjective. So what exactly makes a teacher “bad”? Do they have a lousy teaching style, are they unable to sympathize with their students, or are they just not paying attention to detail?

Together with the fact that everyone learns differently, what makes a teacher bad to one student may not make that teacher bad to another student.

Having been an online student since 2017, I’ve found that many articles titled “signs of a bad online instructor” tend to focus on things that are often out of the instructor’s control, such as:

  • Unclear syllabus
  • Heavy text format of learning resources
  • Unclear office hours for emails or phone calls
  • No audio resources or lectures
  • Unclear grading rubric

These things can often be set at the university level, and your instructor will have had little to no input on the online class format or given syllabus.

Is your online data safe while you study? Read the post Do I Need A VPN As An Online Student?

This post focuses on things that are directly within the instructor’s control, all of which I have personally experienced during my journey as an online university student.

With the above in mind, let’s explore the universal signs of a bad online instructor and how you can handle them.

Universal Signs Of A Bad Online Instructor

Slow To Answer Emails

If you consistently wait 3 or more business days to receive a response, this is a classic sign of a bad online instructor.

This can be extremely frustrating if you’re stuck on a concept and need guidance to be able to move forward in the course.

I once had a professor where I not only had to wait days for a response, but also on a few occasions had to follow up 2 or 3 times just to confirm they had even received my email in the first place.

However, life does happen. Maybe they are really busy during exam time or temporarily covering another class, but in many cases they are just plain slow to answer emails.

Yes, missing seeing an email happens, but it’s a red flag if it’s a regular occurrence.

How To Handel It: Flag your sent email for follow up in a reasonable amount of time if you haven’t heard back. I like to use 48 business hours (2 days) as a general rule of thumb, depending on previous correspondence time you’ve had with your instructor.

Bonus Tip: Email your instructor as soon as you start an online course. Introduce yourself and ask a question regarding the course, material or course outline. This is your opportunity to gauge how quickly your instructor may reply to your questions. By making an early effort to stand out from your classmates in a positive way, you have a much better chance to receive faster replies.

Slow To Mark And Return Assignments

Universities usually have a set response time in which you can expect to receive your assignment grade, but sometimes, those guidelines aren’t always followed.

If your find yourself routinely waiting long periods of time to receive your assignment grades, this is typically a sign of a bad online instructor.

While it’s a good idea to wait until you receive feedback from your last assignment before handing in the next one, waiting a long time to receive your grade can be maddening. This can become an issue if you’re moving through the course material quickly or have your own deadlines.

I once waited almost 3 weeks to receive my grade for my first human resources assignment. Meanwhile, I had the second one ready to hand in and was working on the third, only to find out I was way off base with what the instructor was looking for. I had to completely re-do the second assignment I had already done. Time in university is already scarce, and having to re-doing an assignment is something all students don’t take lightly!

Related content: How To Deal With A Bad Online Professor

How To Handle It: Don’t get too far into your next assignment until you’ve received feedback from your first one. It will save you from doing extra work, even if you think you’re getting ahead. If you haven’t heard anything after 5 business days, politely follow up to ask if they’ve had a chance to review your assignment.

Brief or Missing Answers To Your Questions

There is nothing more frustrating than a short sentence to answer a question requiring a detailed answer.

Or, after you’ve written an email with numbered bullet points, you receive a response that doesn’t answer all your questions.

It feels like they didn’t even read your email in full!

How To Handle It: When sending an email, try to keep your questions pertinent to your subject line. It’s much easier for someone to address one or two similar questions at a time rather than multiple, unrelated questions.

If you don’t get an answer to one of your questions, follow up immediately.

It’s best practice to send several separate emails rather than one long email that contains multiple unrelated questions. Instructors are only human. Give them the best chance to help you!

Unreasonable Advice To Answer A Question In Respect To Course Content

Asking for help on how to improve your grades is one thing, but receiving unreasonable feedback is another.

In a first year English class that required essay writing, I realized I was a little rusty. Despite my best efforts, my assignment marks weren’t as high as I wanted so I asked my instructor what I could do to improve.

This was the email response I received:

“…speaking very generally, there are several routes to improving marks. One is creativity: for example, you might bring to the essay brilliant and original analysis or a fresh viewpoint or sophisticated use of language. Another is through research; you might want to review critical articles/books or read deeply in a particular author. Needless to say, the suggestions above are not mutually exclusive.”

While reading deeply on a particular author is actually great advice to improve writing skills over the long term, it does nothing to help improve marks over a short, semester long course.

How could I reasonably expect myself to read several books/critical articles over the course of a few months while taking several other classes?

Sometimes getting a specific high mark will be impossible, especially in courses like English where the answer is not black and white.

How To Handle It: Try your best to execute the most reasonably actionable advice given. In this example, the use of sophisticated language is fairly easy to apply on the next assignment.

Bonus Tip: Draw out and put into practice any good advice given in any kind of situation. I now try to read deeply on any author. In the case of my first year English course, I found I fell in love with Jane Austin!

Little Attention To Detail

Out of all the signs of a bad online instructor, this one is the worst.

From not calculating your assignment mark correctly, taking off marks by mistake and forgetting to leave feedback, little attention to detail can directly contribute to your grade.

In one of my financial accounting courses, I lost marks on an assignment because my instructor had added up my total mark incorrectly.

Later on in that same course, I lost 2 marks on a question but there was no feedback as to why. When I emailed to inquire where I had gone wrong, they said they had accidently taken off marks when my answer was in fact 100% correct.

How To Handle It:

  • Always, ALWAYS add up the marks per question to confirm you come up with the same total as your instructor.
  • Carefully check to make sure there is feedback on all questions that don’t have a perfect mark. If there isn’t, ask where you went wrong with that question.

Poor Email Etiquette

While poor email etiquette may not explicitly indicate a bad online instructor, good writing is imperative in online courses since most communication occurs via email.

Things like impersonal tone, bad grammar, no proofreading and lack of salutations and can make you feel as if you don’t matter as a student.

I had one instructor who never used salutations, didn’t capitalize their email sign-off and wrote in the most impersonal tone. I always got the feeling I was conversing with a robot.

Yes, online instructors have a lot of student emails to reply to, but this should not be an excuse for poorly written emails.

In my experience, I’ve found poor email etiquette is not a stand alone indication and is almost always in addition to the above signs of a bad online instructor.

Online Student Success Tip: Always write to your instructor with proper email etiquette, even if they don’t reciprocate. Maintaining your professionalism through writing is a huge contributor to your reputation since you aren’t in a face-to-face learning environment.

You never know how your instructor describes you to fellow colleagues, your advisors or the department dean, so build yourself the best reputation possible!

What are some signs of a bad online instructor you’ve experienced as an online student? Share with us below!

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