Maintaining a good relationship with a professor can have a huge impact on a student’s level of comprehension, performance, and eventual grade in a particular course. This can be especially true in large classes, where a professor may not have the ability to notice when one student out of a hundred is struggling, but in general, maintaining good communication with a professor is one of the best and easiest ways for students to guarantee positive results. Unfortunately, not all students are naturally assertive or confident enough to seek out and build these relationships. Many of the students who walk through my door are intimidated by these gate-keepers, these makers and breakers of their collegiate success. Others simply do not realize that a student/professor relationship can be a two-way street in the first place; they don’t know that going to a professor for help or clarification is even an option, so they don’t go.
When helping to facilitate relationships between my students and their professors, I emphasize three simple tips:
1. Smile, pay attention, and ask questions in class.
The sooner a professor knows your name, the sooner he or she will start to pay attention to you. And the more you make your own presence felt in class, the more likely it is that he or she will remember you the next time. You’ll be “on the radar” so to speak, which will make it easier when you want to speak one-on-one or come to office hours. In addition, I remind students that professors love those who show an active interest in the subject they have spent a lifetime mastering. And who do you think a professor is more likely to grant that elusive favor- an extension on a paper after you had to go home for a family emergency or extra credit after a disappointing return on your midterm exam- someone who has been a vocal participant in the last six weeks of class, or someone who has tried to hide in the back unnoticed?
2. Find an excuse to go visit your professors at the beginning of the semester.
This is another way to get on a professor’s “radar” early on and can be especially helpful if a student is having trouble understanding either the material/concepts involved in the course or the criteria/standards on which the professor is grading work. It’s not always easy to read a professor’s mind- some are extremely clear about what they expect of students and the particulars regarding how they want work done/submitted, but others are less so. Fortunately, there is no better way to discern what a professor really wants than to meet with him or her in person. This can be so daunting that I sometimes role play with my students so that they can walk themselves through a meeting beforehand; I will also walk students all the way to their professors’ office doors for their initial meeting. Often, the long walk from my office to the professor’s is tense and silent; however, the walk back is almost always the exact opposite. Students emerge from initial meetings with professors with huge smiles on their faces. “That wasn’t scary at all!” they exclaim. “He/She was so nice, and now I really feel like now I know what to do!”
Which brings me to…
3. Understand that professors are people too.
Remember when you were in elementary school and you saw your teacher at the grocery store, and it blew your mind? “Wait,” you thought, “Ms. Hyatt gets groceries? That must mean that when I leave school, she leaves too?!” At first, the idea made no sense at all. Then, slowly, you got it. “Ohhhhhhhh, my teacher is also a person in the world who lives somewhere and goes to the grocery store and maybe even…the movies.” (No, that’s too crazy. She can’t go to the movies.) The disconnect is perhaps less extreme once students get to college, but most college students, especially in their first year, still see their professors in two dimensions. They may be mean, nice, good, bad, (or mediocre), boring, inspiring, approachable, intimidating…but they’re certainly not vast and containing multitudes. They’re certainly not fully 3-dimensional human beings with blind-spots, soft-spots, prejudices, senses of humor, and deep wisdom. They don’t get tired or hungry or come to class five minutes after being told really bad news. Of course not!
I try to help my students see that professors are people and, as such, each one different from the next. In order to understand how to excel in a certain professor’s class, it’s imperative that you try to understand the professor. Once a student figures out that his or her professors are humans too, it can become much easier to forge a relationship.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.