Have you ever had a comprehension question about material you’ve been reading for class, a concern about the way a test was scored, or uncertainty about which topic to choose for a writing assignment?
Most of the time, the professor or course instructor/teaching assistant (TA) is the most knowledgeable and most direct resource available to you to help unpack and solve these problems. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be confusing to figure out how to approach a professor and when the best time to reach out is.
Luckily, there are some general guidelines that teachers and professors expect when communicating with students.
Many teachers explicitly write office hour times and locations on the course syllabus. This may also be found on their course website if they have one. Office hours are generally the best time to schedule a talk with your professor. If you know that office hours become very busy, you can reach out via email or stop by after class to see if there is a better meeting time for you both.
Tip: Try saying or writing something like; “I know that many students stop by during office hours and it can be difficult to talk privately. Do you have any time after class or on another day where we could arrange to meet one on one to talk about X?”
2. Know What You Want to Talk About and Come Prepared
This seems straight-forward, but often a student may be upset about a test grade or unhappy with the score they received on a problem set and won’t have a direct question to ask the professor. Professors do not want students coming to their offices to complain about a grade. The best thing you can do is review the test or material and come up with a specific type of problem that you are unclear about or a specific question number that you believe might have an error on an exam.
If you cannot pin point a certain area of difficulty, it might be better to email a TA or meet with the TA to help them go over the assignment with you. Often the TA will have more time to spend looking over the overall test or assignment with you than the professor. If you have work to show how you got to a certain answer or evidence behind something you wrote, bring it with you!
Tip: Some examples of what to say are: “I am unclear why choice B. was not the correct answer for problem number 7.” Or “What sort of evidence did you want me to include to flesh out my second paragraph?”
3. Do Not Be Afraid to Email the Professor (but Be Cautious of Over Emailing as Well)
Be conscious of the fact that professors receive MANY emails on any given day, and they might not be able to respond to all of them every night. If you have reached out via email and have not heard a response, wait a few days before checking in. In the meantime, you can always write the same question to the TA if you have not heard back from the professor. If it has been a week or more, you can safely write a follow up email to see if they forgot to respond.
Tip: You can email something like “Dear Professor X, I am writing to check in since I have not heard back regarding my question about using X as a resource for our upcoming assignment. Is this something that I can chat about with you via office hours?” This subtle reminder may be enough to have them send back a response, or they may prefer to meet in person.
4. Be Mindful of Your Timing
Is the test in two days? Then expecting a professor to get back to you very quickly to help guide your studying may not be realistic. In this scenario, it’s better to contact a classmate or tutor with anything that you’re still unclear about. If the material warrants more review or you need to do more work, you may be perceived as unprepared if you ask the professor a question so late. Also, look at what time it is at night. If you send an email at 1:00 a.m., a busy professor might not have enough time to read your email and respond before the next class. In general, it looks more professional to send emails before 9:00 at night.
5. Observe Your Professor’s Style
This can be the hardest part about communicating with professors. Some enjoy helping students brainstorm ideas, whereas some just want to read the finished products. Listen for clues in class about their communication style. Do they complain about getting petty questions from students, or do they continuously encourage students to stop by their office to chat? Do they hang around after class answering questions in person, or do they leave quickly right after? These clues can be hard to decipher but can make the difference between coming off as an eager learner, or someone who is too reliant on help. Professors typically welcome giving advice but they also want to see creative independent-thinking as well. Think of ways to show you have been thinking about something yourself before asking a question.
Tip: Try something like “I have been very interested in writing our assignment on [this theory] because it really exemplifies what we have been discussing in class, but I am unsure if it meets all of the criteria you laid out on the rubric.” This type of question shows that you have read the rubric, know the assignment well, and have been thinking about areas you are interested in BEFORE coming for help.
Lastly, remember to always be respectful and professional when corresponding with a professor or course instructor. Using “Dear” to begin emails, using the professor’s last name (i.e. Professor Brown), and signing off with a “Thank you,” or “Sincerely” goes a long way!
Do you prefer meeting with professors during office hours or meeting with them after class? Have you ever had a successful email exchange with a professor where you had all your questions answered? Let me know in the comments below!