How to Talk to Your Professors
I see my professors every time I go to class. Why should I go to the effort to actually talk to them?
Your professors are one of your most important assets in gaining an education. You could learn a lot from reading a textbook, but wouldn’t you rather learn by interacting with a living, breathing expert in the subject? You paid a lot of money to get an education (or someone else paid for you) — a good chunk of that money went to pay your professors’ salaries. Make sure you get the most for your money.
In fact, connecting with your professors can be one of the most important skills you’ll learn in college. It may seem intimidating at first, and you might be afraid of looking like you’re sucking up, but it will be worth it. Resist the temptation to be anonymous in your classes. Take the responsibility to get to know your professors, let them get to know you, and establish positive relationships with them.
There are lots of reasons why it is useful for you to have professors who know who you are (and like you).
• They will be much more willing to provide accommodations if you end up with a problem beyond your control (your backpack was stolen, your child is sick, etc).
• They are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if your grade is on the borderline or there is a situation where they have to take your word (the professor can’t find your assignment, and you know you handed it in, for example).
• They can nominate you for scholarships or academic awards, and when the time comes to get a job or apply to graduate school, they can write letters of recommendation for you.
• They can be great sources of academic and personal advice as well as career guidance.
So, where do you start? First, make a good impression in class. There are lots of things you can do to show the professor that you are interested in learning and willing to do your part. See the list at the end of the page for ideas.
Take the opportunity to stop by your professors’ offices to ask questions about the course content or assignments or get some advice about succeeding in the class. If the class is in your major, you could also ask the professor about that profession. Before you know it, your professors will be friendly learning partners, rather than scary task masters.
Understanding your professors
The trick to having a successful relationship with your professors is to learn to think about things from their points of view.
Professors have to exert authority over their class but are not trying to be your enemy. Presenting lectures, writing exams, grading papers, establishing class policies, and so on are just part of their jobs. They aren’t trying to be mean; they don’t want you to fail. In fact, your success as a student is their success as a teacher. Your success is more than a grade to them — they succeed when you are able to demonstrate learning. That’s their goal — for you to learn and be able to demonstrate what you have learned.
Professors often have two competing goals:
1. Help you succeed in their class
2. Help you become responsible for yourself.
Professors vary in which of these goals is most important. Being aware of this difference can help you understand why professors may make different choices in their interactions with students — both are meant to help you, but in different ways.
Professors are people too. They get discouraged, stressed, disappointed, and tired, just like you. However, they have a professional responsibility to try not to carry these issues into the classroom. If they do a good job, you might not even realize the kinds of problems they are having. Don’t assume you are the only one with difficulties.
Even though professors are different in many ways, they have a few things in common:
• They think their area of expertise is extremely interesting and important.
• They have chosen an academic career and believe they are good teachers.
• They have lots of knowledge and enjoy conveying that knowledge to others.
Anything you do that sends a message that their subjects are not interesting or important, that they are not good teachers, or that you don’t want to learn is likely to rub them the wrong way.
What should I do when I go to a professor’s office?
Talking to a professor in his or her office is often quite different from interacting with him or her in the classroom. In class, the professor is on stage, under pressure to accomplish what needs to be done during the limited class time and aware that many students will overhear anything they say to an individual student. You should approach professors before or after class only for a short question or to make an appointment. If you attempt to address a complex question, they may ask you to come to their office or send an e-mail instead. There they can be more personable and more able to give attention to you individually. They are also more likely to give you accommodations when other students aren’t around to hear and demand similar ones for different circumstances.
When you visit a professor in his or her office, here some things to remember.
• Find out when the professor’s office hours are by looking in your syllabus. You can try stopping by their office during that time, but it may be more effective to make an appointment by phone, e-mail, or after class. If those hours don’t work for you, ask for an appointment at another time.
• If you have an appointment, be on time. When you approach the door, knock and say hi. Introduce yourself and say what class you are in. Professors talk to so many students that they may have trouble remembering you (and it’s so painful to guess wrong).
• Tell them why you’re there. Professors are generally very busy and appreciate it when you get right to the point. Plan to spend about 5 minutes on a request, and up to 15 minutes for a question about course material.
• Turn off your cell phone before you get there. Don’t get it out, look at texts, etc., while you are there.
• Write down your questions and bring them with you. Also bring something to take notes with.
• If you have missed an assignment, be prepared to do the work. Don’t harbor a secret hope that the professor will say, “Oh, don’t worry about it; I’ll just give you those points.” It’s not going to happen.
• If you are asking for a favor (a late exam, etc.), be prepared to be turned down. Sometimes it would not be fair to other students. Depending on the circumstances, a professor may or may not feel that he or she can bend the rules for you. If you must take no for an answer, do so gracefully. If you have missed a lot of work, be prepared to consider that it may be best for you to drop the class.
• Do not, under any circumstances, flirt. Professors can get in big trouble for any kind of romantic relationships with students. Don’t even think about it.
• When the professor indicates that the conversation is done or you have your answer and are ready to go, thank him or her for meeting with you. “See you in class” is a good way to end on a positive note.
What about contacting a professor by e-mail?
Most professors do not text students. In the professional world, e-mail is the most widely accepted way to communicate in writing. E-mail is often a good way to contact your professors with quick questions, let them know you have a problem (illness, etc.), or make an appointment. When writing an e-mail to a professor, remember the following:
• Use your Dmail account — other types of e-mail addresses frequently end up in spam and your professor may not even receive your message. The Canvas message system is also good if the class uses Canvas.
• Give your name and tell them what class you’re in.
• Explain your situation or request clearly using complete sentences.
• Don’t write if you’re upset — don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in person.
• Don’t ask questions you can figure out yourself (check the syllabus first).
• Don’t use abbreviations or jargon you would use with friends; use a formal but friendly tone.
• Proofread what you’ve written before you send it. Make sure that what you’re saying makes sense, and isn’t riddled with typos.
What if I have a professor I don’t like?
Not all professors will be the greatest you’ve ever had. Not all employers will be either. It’s important to learn how to deal with people you don’t easily get along with. Here are some things you can do to make the best of the situation:
• Try to get to know the professor by asking a question about the course content after class or in his or her office. Your initial impression may have been mistaken.
• If you can, drop the class and take the class from a different professor or chose a different course to fill the requirement.
• If this professor is the only one who teaches the course, and you need it to graduate, resolve to do the best you can in the class even though the circumstances are not ideal. Don’t slack off and then blame your lack of learning on the professor’s poor teaching.
• Get to know other students and seek help from them.
• Get help from a tutor.
What can I do if there is a serious problem?
Most classes at DSU are taught by competent professionals, but you might have a class that is an exception. If you feel that there is a serious problem, consider the following:
• Talk to other class members to make sure it isn’t just a personality conflict. If several students agree that there is a serious problem, consider taking action.
• Make an appointment to talk to the chair of the department in which the class is taught. Bring a list, in writing, of specific complaints, comparing the syllabus to what is actually happening in class. You may want to request specific intervention, ask the chair to visit the class, etc.
• Be very professional in your demeanor, not whiny or demanding. Recognize that the professor is often the ultimate authority, and supervisors are reluctant to step in unless grossly inappropriate behavior is occurring. However, if you feel you have a legitimate complaint and the chair refuses to take action, go to the dean.
• If sexual, racial, or any other kind of harassment is involved, go directly to the department chair or the dean of students for help.
25 Things You Can Do to Make a Good Impression on Your Professors
You might think that professors only like smart students. The fact is, professors are even more delighted to find responsible, mature students who are doing their best, and that is under your control. If you are interested in learning and are making a sincere effort, your professor will notice, even if you aren’t the top student in the class. Professors also notice students who demonstrate by their actions that they are not responsible, not mature, and not willing to do what it takes to learn. Here are some suggestions to help you end up in the first group, not the second:
1. Show up for class every day. Don’t miss class unless it is an emergency. Spotty attendance is the fastest road to becoming one of the problem students in a professor’s mind.
2. Show up on time. Get there a few minutes early if you can.
3. Come to class prepared. If there is assigned reading, do it. If there isn’t, look at the syllabus and see what will be covered and skim that section of the book. Review your notes from the previous class to make sure you remember what was covered previously.
4. When the professor is ready to start, stop talking.
5. Be ready to take notes as soon as class starts.
6. Pay attention in class. Don’t sleep, text message, do homework, talk to other students, or stare out the window during class.
7. Speak up in class. Ask appropriate questions. Participate in discussions.
8. Look interested. Show by the look on your face that you’re getting it and are not utterly lost. Speaking in public is hard, even if you do it for a living, and professors really appreciate seeing someone out there who is listening and getting it. Bonus points if you look like you are actually enjoying it.
9. Don’t pack up until the professor is finished.
10. Start assignments early. This way you can give them your best effort, not a last-minute attempt.
11. Read and follow instructions carefully.
12. Ask for help well before the deadline. If you are struggling with an assignment or some course material, get help early, rather than just before it is due. The professor may be busy getting ready for lecture, etc.
13. Turn in assignments on time. Use the syllabus to keep track of when assignments are due, rather than relying on reminders from the professor.
14. Take exams when they are scheduled.
15. Get to know your classmates. Work with them to learn the material. Ask them for notes if you miss class.
16. Set up an appointment to meet with your professors to ask questions. Show up on time!
17. Make an effort before going for help. Look at your notes and in the textbook before asking the professor for help with a question. Then you can be specific about what you don’t understand and talk intelligently about what you do know.
18. Tell the truth. If you aren’t able to turn something in or take a test on time, don’t lie about why. Be up front about the real reason and take the consequences. Professors have heard all kinds of excuses, and start to take them all with a grain of salt after a while. If they feel they are being played, they won’t respond well at all.
19. Let the professor know if you have serious personal difficulties. If you have a life crisis which will affect your classwork, let the professor know right away. Ask for help if necessary. And for goodness sake, if a professor accepts your excuses and arranges for you to take an exam late in their office, do not stand them up!
20. Remember the professor’s name.
21. Be friendly (but not needy). Treat your professors like learning partners or coaches rather than task masters.
22. Provide thoughtful feedback in a diplomatic way. If you have suggestions that would help your learning in the course, find a constructive way to communicate them.
23. Keep track of your grades. Take responsibility to know when you’re missing assignments or something has been recorded incorrectly.
24. Worry more about learning the material than about your grade. When you lose points on an exam question or assignment, pay more attention to correcting your error than arguing for points.
25. Have a good attitude about the class. And about learning in general.