My College:

Connecting with Professors During COVID

Vicki Nelson

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Learning is a partnership, and one of the essential partnerships in college is that between student and professor.

As a professor, I want students to understand that we are so much more than information dispensing machines. We build relationships with our students. We share our knowledge, but we also listen to students’ aspirations and dreams. We share our own life experiences, we help students to explore their interests and to network, we help those who are struggling, and we write recommendations as they move on to whatever is next.

True learning takes place within the relationship that exists between professor and student.

As we navigate our lives through COVID times, establishing connections can be more difficult than ever. We’ve lost those casual encounters and opportunities to get to know each other through the small exchanges that take place every day. We're either trying to connect through small squares on a screen or trying to read each other’s expressions behind masks and at a distance.

Whether we're teaching and learning in the classroom or remotely, connecting is tough.

While we have lost many of our casual exchanges, our communication with each other now has the potential be more intentional. Because we have to work harder to connect, we have time to be more thoughtful in our conversations. We may find it easier to meet because we can do it from our home or office. We may be more accessible to each other as we are less overwhelmed by meetings, activities and other distractions.

We need to take advantage of these new opportunities and ways to connect.

Getting Started

Sometimes the hardest part of building a relationship is getting started. Getting to know your professor is no different. Connecting with professors may take more initiative right now and students may need to be more proactive.

Professors need to work at reaching out as well, but it can be difficult for us to know which students want or need more connection. We need help.

Getting started may not come naturally for all students, so parents can share some strategies. These work whether students are in person or online.

  • Establish contact early. Don’t wait until there is an issue or problem. Reach out early and introduce yourself.
  • If you’re not sure about the best way to contact your professor, ask. Would they prefer a phone call, an email, text? Do they want to meet in person, through Zoom, some other method?
  • Check to see whether your professor is holding office hours – either in person or online. If so (and most do), use them. Drop in. Say hello. Ask a question. Touch base.

8 Basics for Maintaining Positive Communication

Once your student has made initial connections, there are ways to maintain a positive relationship throughout the semester.

1. Do your homework first.

It’s important to reach out to your professor when you need help or advice. But before you shoot off an email with a question about an assignment, make sure you’ve actually read that assignment. Don’t let your question reveal that you haven’t taken time to read what your professor so carefully crafted and posted. be sure your communication is meaningful rather than a substitute for doing your part.

2. Be respectful.

This should go without saying, but it’s not always easy for students to define. What might respect look like to a professor?

  • Know your professor’s name. Most professors try to learn their students’ names. Do the same.
  • But don’t use their first name unless invited to do so. If you’re not sure whether they have a doctorate, “Professor Smith” will usually do.
  • Err on the side of being formal – at least at first. An email isn’t a text. Remind your professor who you are and which class you are in. Use complete sentences, capitalization and punctuation. If you have several email exchanges, take the professor’s cue. If they respond in a way that feels more informal, you can relax a bit, but remember that this is still a professional exchange.
3. Be specific about what you need.

If you're asking for an appointment, share what you’d like to talk about and when you're available. If you need help with an assignment, let them know which assignment and what the problem is. If you have an issue with a grade, say which grade and why you want to talk about it.

If you’d just like to chat and give them the opportunity to get to know you, say so.

4. Remember that email loses “tone of voice.”

Read it out loud to catch things that could be misunderstood. This is especially important if you're writing when you are upset.

Wait to send your email until you cool down, then reread it. If it contains anything that you wouldn’t say to the professor in person, reconsider.

5. Be the student with a reputation for excellence.
  • Be memorable because you participate in class or discussion boards online.
  • Always hand in assignments on time.
  • Arrive on time to class and be fully engaged.

These small, everyday actions help the professor remember you — for the right reasons.

6. Communicate with your professor when life happens.

If you or a family member are sick, there’s an emergency, or something else is going on that will impact your ability to do your work, let your professor know. Don’t just disappear or stop doing what you need to do.

Your professor may not be able to do anything about exams, assignment deadlines or attendance policies, but they'll appreciate knowing what is happening in your life.

7. Be patient.

Your professor may not be sitting at the computer waiting to answer your email the instant it arrives. A good rule of thumb is to expect a response in 24 hours.

And if you receive anything from your professor, respond within that same 24 hour timeframe.

8. Be human – and remember that your professor is human, too.

We all have unique personalities, lives to deal with, responsibilities to juggle, emotions, problems. This humanity is the essence of our connection — whether it happens in the classroom or online. Be honest, be patient, be kind.

College is different for everyone this year.

All of our relationships are different. But the connections that we make are perhaps even more crucial than ever. We need each other.

Parents, talk to your student about the importance of making connections and how to maintain them. Encourage them to reach out, to use every tool available, and to foster the relationships that will help them succeed and thrive.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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