My College:
Academics

Coach Your Student to Communicate with Professors

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D.


A freshman parent once called my office early in the school year. Because I’m a department chair, I sometimes field general questions from parents, but this parent wanted very specific information. “Is there a way to log in to see my son’s grades?” she asked.

This question is becoming more common. Many parents, used to online K–12 grade portals, expect the same access in college.

“No,” I told her. Some of the faculty at my university use an online learning management system, but others (like me) teach students how to track their grades the old-fashioned way — by collecting all graded work and using the formula in my syllabus. “But your son should be able to calculate his grade if he’s keeping up with his graded assignments.”

This did not satisfy her. She suspected he was floundering and wanted to know for certain. I reassured her that he was being coached through his First-Year Success course on how to stay on track — and more importantly, how to talk to his professors if he was concerned about his progress.

The student-professor relationship in college is one of the most important to cultivate. Professors want to develop strong relationships with their students, and students should want the same.

Here are a few tips to guide your student through the process of creating an open line of communication with a professor. Pandemic or not, these are solid strategies for starting off the semester right!

Establish a Relationship Early

Professors will be happy to get to know your student before a problem arises. Any time during the semester (with the exception of the day before the final!) is a good time to reach out, but the sooner the better.

Your student should take cues from the syllabus about the best way to communicate with a professor. Is the professor available to meet in person or is email or an online meeting better? It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If the professor prefers email, then use email and check it often.

When your student meets with the professor for the first time, it’s a good idea to have a list of questions ready. Here are a few that can help your student learn more about the professor’s expectations:

  • “I want to learn as much as I can in your class. What can I do to succeed?”
  • “I usually (fill in usual study practices). What will work best for this class?”
  • “I want to be sure I start off with solid work in your class. Can I come see you before an assignment is due to make sure I’m on the right track?”

A solid relationship early in the semester can be helpful if your student’s circumstances change. In the spring of 2020 when students moved home because of the pandemic, one of my students had to pick up extra shifts at his job and so he could no longer join our class online at the designated time. Another student was dealing with limited internet access. Faculty will want to know about any situation that makes it hard for a student to access their courses online or show up for an in-person class.

Create a Plan to Stay Organized

College students need a planner, preferably a large one that can be hung on a wall or anything that can be accessed easily. Classes meet on different days of the week and at different times, and your student will also have study sessions and extracurricular activities to map out.

Last year during the pandemic, students at my institution had hybrid classes that were held both online and in person, and those designations changed from week to week. Students were asking themselves questions like, “Am I meeting my psychology class in person for small group work this week or are we online?” A consistent organizational strategy will keep the chaos under control.

Seek Immediate Feedback after Graded Work

If your student gets a low grade, or lower than anticipated — even if they think they know why — it’s good to check in with the professor as soon as possible.

Here are a few ways your student can open a conversation after a low or failing grade:

  • “I reviewed my work. Can we go over what I did wrong so I understand what I should do differently next time?”
  • “I’m bummed I messed up that assignment. Would you help me see where I made mistakes?”
  • “Can we talk about how this low grade will affect my progress in the course? I want to be sure to make the improvements I need to raise my grade.”

Because students share this fear with me, it’s worth telling you: Yes, professors really want to talk with students who’ve failed an assignment. No, they don’t think their students aren’t smart enough to pass their class.

Professors want their students to learn and to earn good grades. Your student shouldn’t be ashamed to speak to a professor about a class they’re failing. Reaching out demonstrates a willingness to improve.

Practice Patience, Kindness and Self-Care

We've learned during the pandemic that we are resilient, but the last year and a half has still been stressful for families and communities. Despite lots of work on our end, faculty and administrators can not 100% guarantee that our institutions’ plans for this academic year won't need to shift if Covid-19 cases increase.

Remind your student to practice patience and kindness to themselves and to others as they begin their fall term. And know that, more than anything, their school wants them to be successful and healthy.

Check Email!

Encourage your student to check their official school email account daily.

Just as most colleges and universities changed from on-campus to online in a matter of days in the spring of 2020, your student’s college may institute quick changes at any time. Professors often communicate with their class by email, and so do offices including Financial Aid. The more your student reads and responds to email, the more prepared they’ll be.

If you as a parent are able to sign up for institutional announcements, often provided through the parent and family program, do so immediately.

We all benefit from staying connected and informed!

Amy Baldwin, Ed.D., the former Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas, currently teaches student success and literacy to first-year students. She is co-author of a number of books, including A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials and The College Experience. Amy and her husband are parents of a college student and a recent college graduate. She also blogs at www.higheredparent.com.
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