It is often said that professors are the greatest strength of a college or university. Classroom lectures and interactions form the base for much of what you learn in college. Most students, however, are unaware of what they can gain from interacting with professors outside of class. Learning isn’t limited to the classroom. Interact with professors and you can get much needed out-of-class help, learn something new, get research experience and make an important professional contact. Here’s how to do it.
Use Office Hours
What are office hours? Just about every college or university requires that full time faculty maintain a given number of regular office hours each week. These are times when professors are available in their office expressly for the purpose of meeting with students. Office hours are usually listed in the class syllabus. Be aware of these times and stop in to ask questions and get feedback.
Pay Social VisitsOffice hours are not just for getting help. Most professors welcome social visits by students. Stop by, say hello, and chat for a few minutes. You can chat about anything. It doesn't have to be directly related to class. This is an opportunity for you to get to know your professor and for him or her to get to know you. You may even develop a mentoring relationship.
Schedule Meetings for Extra HelpProfessors vary as to how they use their office hours. Some schedule student appointments during these times. While stopping in without an appointment is usually fine, if you're having serious problems with class or need special help that will take more than a few minutes, you’re better off scheduling an appointment. You won’t have to wait in line and you will get the time that you need. Scheduling a chunk of time ahead, and explaining the purpose of your meetings, permits your professor to think about your problem ahead of time and perhaps provide more helpful assistance.
Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute
See help early and, if needed, often. Don’t wait until the last minute to tell your teacher that you are having trouble and need help. You should know that you don’t understand the material well before the final exam. While one-on-one assistance and work on your part can improve a poor grade, it will not happen overnight. Start early. You’ll get the help you need and show your professor that you are proactive in improving your understanding and your grade.
Be Aware of Office EtiquetteWhen you arrive at a professor’s office, always knock on the door or door frame, even if it is open. Don’t simply walk in without greeting the professor and asking if it is a good time to talk. This is especially true if another student is already in the office. If you have an appointment it is permissible to stick your head in and let the prof know that you are here. But if a student is already in the office it is never permissible to walk in and stand by him or her and announce that you have an appointment. Remember that the other student is in your position – seeking help. Be considerate. Also, this behavior is just plan rude.
Use the Appropriate TitleHow to address your professor varies as most have specific preferences. Most will express their preference on the first day or class or in the syllabus. Some will ask to be called by their first name, others by Doctor, and others by Professor. If you are unsure, refer to him or her as Professor. You will be corrected if needed. Only call a professor by his or her first name if instructed to do so. Generally it’s better to err on the side of formality. Finally, most faculty prefer not to be called by Mr., Ms., and especially Mrs. Although these are the conventions common to most high schools, college professors most often prefer titles that correspond to their education and experiences.
Don’t Grade GrubDon’t be afraid to seek feedback. Asking how you can improve an assignment or exam is entirely appropriate and expected. A professor should be willing to explain where you went wrong and how you can improve. Grade grubbing, however, is another story. What is perceived as grade grubbing? Asking, “Why didn’t I get an A? I always get As,” or “Will this affect my grade?” or “I am an A student,” or “Can I still get X grade?” Note that most professors list how grades are computed on the syllabus, so usually you can do the math and avoid the question. There are exceptions, of course. Basically, show that you are concerned with learning and not simply your grade. Grades are important to every student but most professors hope that their students will show a genuine interest in learning. Usually that interest and hard work is accompanied by good grades.
Don't Burn Bridges
Suppose through your interactions (or through class) you decide that you truly hate your professor. Don’t tell him or her. Try to be mature about it and be professional. That means be polite and thank them for whatever assistance they provide. This is especially important in a small university or small department because you may need to consult with the professor in the future or may have another class with him or her. It's hard to anticipate how your paths will cross in the future, but it's a good bet that an antagonistic relationship will not help your academic career. Students need recommendation letters. Professors talk to each other. It may not be right, but they do.