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Coach Your Student to Communicate with ProfessorsAmy Baldwin, Ed.D.
Your student’s college professor is more than just an educator. The professor can be a valuable asset both during college and after graduation. The relationship between your student and their professors is also an important mentoring opportunity. It’s important for your student to establish relationships with their professors early in their college career.
Professors long for students who aren’t simply there to occupy a seat, get a grade, and move on to the next class. Following these simple steps should help your student create a relationship during class and beyond the classroom.
Your student should study each course syllabus carefully, noting assignments and due dates and using it to plan research papers and group projects. They shouldn’t wait until the middle of the semester to begin a major project and, if they’re unsure about a requirement for the class, they should ask early for clarification. The syllabus is a guidebook to the class and the professor expects every student to follow it.
It’s easy to impress a professor: be on time for class, sit near the front, be prepared and engaged, contribute to class discussions. It also helps to ask thoughtful questions and complete assignments on time.
Your student should always pay attention to what the professor writes on the board, in course blogs, and in emails. This information may be critical for exam preparation.
Students shouldn’t be afraid to develop a relationship beyond the classroom. Office hours are your student’s best friend. During office hours, students can get to know the professor and receive one-on-one guidance and advice. Professors remember who shows an interest in their class and who merely occupies a seat.
This doesn’t mean your student should be overly informal, but if your student shows a sincere interest in the course material and a mature attitude, it will not go unnoticed.
If your student says, "I don't know what to say at office hours!" check out these great tips from College Parent Central about how to help students start talking to professors. And share this hilarious video about overcoming "FMOOWMP" (Fear of Meeting One-on-One With My Professor).
Professors often go beyond their job responsibilities: answering an email late at night, staying an hour after class or extending office hours to help students, or offering help with scholarships and internships. When this happens, your student should be sure to say thank you in person, or send a note or email.
Students who build relationships with their professors are more likely to succeed during college and after college as they enter the job market.
Your student will need recommendation letters and references when applying for jobs or graduate programs. When they have a relationship with the professor writing the letter, the professor will take the time to write a personalized and detailed recommendation. Employers value a professor’s input when interviewing prospective graduate employees.
Professors in a student’s major can help them build a network better than anyone else. They have numerous professional contacts because they have spent years building their own network. When your student graduates and is looking for a full-time job or internship, professors can be an invaluable resource for career advice and industry connections.
Developing a relationship with a college professor also opens doors to becoming a teaching assistant (TA) or participating in an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Professors look for students who both excel in and exhibit a serious interest in their area of study. Hanging out after a lecture and asking questions and/or visiting during office hours shows the professor they would be a good candidate for either of these opportunities.
TAs earn money by working with professors, grading papers, helping run labs, administrating exams and handling other tasks. Your student may be invited to apply for a TA position, but they can also ask a professor about possible opportunities. With UROP, projects occur during the academic year and/or in the summer session — lasting for an entire semester or continuing for a year or more. UROP students often receive course credit for their research. Each college has its own criteria for UROP projects — your student should consult the UROP section of the college website for more information.
In courses where grading is somewhat subjective, like essay exams or written papers, a professor’s opinion of a student may make a difference in the grade they receive. An engaged, conscientious student may see a bump from a B to a B+, which will make a difference in their overall GPA.
If your student gets to know their professors, there’s a better chance for leniency if the need arises. We had a death in our family when my daughter was in college, and she missed a mid-term exam in order to attend the funeral. Because she had developed a good relationship with her professor, he allowed her to take the exam at a later date. Illnesses and schedule conflicts sometimes mean missing a class or being late with an assignment — professors are more likely to accommodate a student who is communicative and proactive.
Many college students avoid contact with their professors — they don’t make eye contact in class, or stop to chat after class or during office hours. What a lost opportunity! Successful students ask questions and solicit conversations where they can dig deeper into the subject matter of the course. They also seek advice about careers and networking. Professors will help if asked — the burden is on your student.
College students should always handle problems on their own. Parents should not call or intervene. (For more about the appropriate way to support your student in this kind of situation, read "Your freshman and the one tough class.")
Encourage your student to make an appointment with the professor during office hours. You can help them plan the discussion and how to explain the problem as they see it. It's important for your student to listen to the professor’s perspective as well. Most problems can be worked out at this level. But if your student is not satisfied, they can go up the chain of command by first talking to their academic advisor, the department chair and possibly a student advocate designated to mediate these kinds of problems. If none of this works, your student can make an appointment with the Dean or the Provost of the college.
In most instances, it’s wise to remind your student that the term is short. If the problem is not serious, they may just need to tackle the class and move on. In the meantime, your student will learn lessons about interpersonal relationships, conflict resolution and self-advocacy that they will carry into their future classes, internships and the workforce.