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Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

We’ve had good ones; we’ve had ones who were not so good. We’ve had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we’ve had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We’ve all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it’s important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I’ve worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we’ve found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren’t the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It’s a professor’s dream! When I’ve had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I’ve actually walked with them to the professor’s office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn’t nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It’s the other side of the “professors are people too” coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it’s not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don’t take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who’ve had that professor before. If it’s the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It’s also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it’s just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

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.

 

Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

I recently wrote about the changing relationships between students and their parents when a young man or woman enters college. The conversation made me realize that this particular relationship is only one of four “P”s. The full roster? Parents, peers, professors, and professionals. As students go from “moving out” to “moving in” in these next few weeks (don’t forget the t-shirt sheets!), I’d like to discuss the second of the four: that between students and their peers.

The relationships students form with their peers, both on campus and online, can hugely impact their college experiences personally, socially, and academically. Many would argue that these relationships are actually of more import than all the rest combined during this stage of life; physically removed from family (often for the first time), one begins to build a surrogate family of friends. It’s the blind leading the blind as they all try to figure out this brave new world together! This level of intimacy and shared experience, I believe, is why friendships that begin in college often last decades if not a lifetime, but it is also why it is so crucial to find friends who have your best interest at heart.

I have worked with more than a few students whose relationships within a disadvantageous peer group became huge boulders to their success. Especially for students who may be already lacking in the motivation department, hanging out in a friend group made-up of similarly unmotivated students, those who have a lax attitude toward academics, or those who simply do not understand what they want in life and therefore have no clear path to achieving it, can make it that much harder to stay on track. I had one student who was having such a hard time bucking the trend of “all play and no work” that I told him he could always use me as an excuse. “Tell your friends I am making you come study with me and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I’d say. Sure, there are days when the lesson should be how to tell your friends you can’t hang out because you are making you study, but you know…baby steps. And it worked! Jared began studying with me, and not only did his grades improve but his increased level of academic focus led another one of his friends to ask if he could come study with me too! Just as surrounding yourself with people who always have a second piece of pie is not going to help you lose weight, finding a jogging buddy can make dropping that stubborn 20 even easier!

Peer relationships are just as important inside the classroom, as they help students learn skills that will become incredibly valuable in the working world. Group projects can help you hone leadership skills, practice group decision making, and improve your ability to work with people who might have very different perspectives or ways of working. How do I navigate personality clashes? How do I deal with the man or woman in my group who is just difficult to work with?! College is a training ground for developing these kinds of peer-to-peer skills, and I remind my students that the relationships they develop in and out of the classroom will help them for years to come.

Again and again, I find my advice train arriving at the same station: identify what you need and then seek it out. In terms of peer relationships, that means finding good friends and good mentors. Whether that fellow student is next to you in class or 2,000 miles away logging in from her laptop- find mentors. Nurture those relationships. Ask for help. Pay it back and forward when you can.

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.

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Be Bad At Something…Until You’re Not

Recently, I’ve been reading the book Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Social Psychologist and Associate Director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation and Science Center Heidi Grant Halvorson. The book is full of interesting thoughts and sage advice, but I’ve been focusing on one chapter in particular as it relates to my current crop of second semester students.

The chapter is titled, “Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good,” and it speaks to the thoroughly debunked yet pervasive notion that our aptitudes, personalities, and personal strengths and weakness are fixed. How many times have you heard someone say (and perhaps this someone is you): “I’m just bad at math.” Or, “I’m a slow reader.” I do this all the time even as an adult. “I’m good with faces,” I say to the person whose name I’ve forgotten again, “but so bad with names.”

While of course people’s brains think in different ways, and while we are usually “naturally” better at some things than others, this is no way means that we cannot get better at the things at which we struggle. A large and growing body of research has shown that abilities are, in fact, profoundly malleable. In the words of Halvorson: “embracing the fact that you can change can lead you to make better choices and reach your full potential.” While I agree with almost all of this statement, I’d like to take a moment to disagree with the idea of “full potential.” The phrase “full potential” insinuates an end point, a point at which we could not get better or go further if we tried for a million years. It seems to indicate a finite universe in which limits of time, space, and energy exist. For better or worse, I do not believe in such limits. It’s the blessing and the curse of being human. We cannot possibly achieve it all (a reality that can frustrate us and at times make it seem as if all of our striving is for naught), and we cannot possibly achieve it all (the absolute best thing there is, for it leaves another adventure always beyond the next horizon!). However, Halvorson’s main point is that we can change even the things about ourselves we believe to be fixed, and that the first step to enacting change is understanding that it is possible.

With my students, I first try to take them back in time. “When you were two years old,” I ask some of my athletes, “were you good at basketball?” They laugh. The question is absurd. “Of course not!” Then I ask, “when you were in 7th grade, were you better at basketball than you were when you were two years old?” Now it’s starting to make sense. “But when you were in 7th grade, did you think that you were the best you would ever be at basketball just because you were better than you were when you were two?” The answer to this question is a universal no.

I also remind them of something they already know because they are experiencing it: when you are inexperienced or new at something, the odds of making mistakes are naturally higher. Learning something new- whether it’s a killer jumpshot or string theory or the art of time management- can be hard. It doesn’t feel good to be bad at something. It feels bad! It can be frustrating and intimidating and at times overwhelming. But you have a choice. You can take those feelings for what they feel like– a sign that a certain skill or concept is unlearnable or simply not for you- or you can take them for what they are- the natural but temporary discomfort that comes with being a rookie.

I’ve had students who find themselves in a course that is much more difficult than anything they ever experienced in high school. They don’t understand the lectures. They don’t understand the reading. They’re scared and intimidated and they feel like giving up. So we talk about “getting better rather than being good.” Perhaps next class they get a handle on one of the concepts being discussed. Better! Perhaps they schedule a meeting with the professor or a tutor to go over the material. Better! The pressure to get it right the first time often results in many more mistakes and a far inferior performance than allowing yourself to be bad at something until, well, you’re not so bad at it anymore.

And you know what? The message is being received. Since 2007, the success coach program at my university has seen over 700 students walk through our doors. And every year, more and more former students and upperclassmen spread the word to freshman as well as older students who find themselves struggling. All of my students this semester knew about the program before our first meeting. They knew friends, classmates, or teammates who had worked with a success coach in the past, and this kind of word-of-mouth support for the program has basically erased any and all stigma that could be attached to needing academic help. Students entering the program now see it for the tool that it is: a headlamp, a compass, a rope thrown down to the bottom of the well.

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.