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Talking with Instructors

We have all been told that a key to success is getting to know your professors, going to their office hours, and visiting with them when we have questions.  It’s easily said, but how do you do it?  When do you go?  Some instructors just appear unapproachable, and others appear as the principal character in upperclassmen horror stories!  Then, what do you say when you get there?  You don’t want to be accused of “sucking up…” If you use basic common sense, these fears can easily be put aside.  Use the following suggestions as a guide, and have fun!

1.  Schedule an appointment, or go during scheduled office hours.

Most professors are more than willing to set up an appointment if scheduled office hours do not work.  You do not want to ask an instructor a question before or after class, or during other times when you are not invited to come.  It’s not that you aren’t wanted, but your professor is a busy person with other duties as well.  He or she has college responsibilities in addition to lesson planning and marking papers.  You can’t walk in to your dentist’s office and demand to see her; you shouldn’t expect to do so with your instructor either.  You will have a much better appointment if your instructor is ready to devote his or her attention entirely to you.

2. Visit your instructor when you have legitimate issues to discuss.

See your instructor if:

  • You are confused about a topic discussed in class, and need clarification.

  • You would like clarification about your current progress in the course.

  • You are considering pursuing a major, are considering graduate school, or are interested in your instructor's area of expertise and would like more information.

  • You honestly cannot understand why you performed poorly on a test, paper, or other assignment. (If you know the reason for your poor performance is lack of preparation, don't waste your time or your instructor's asking what you can do to improve--study smarter starting today! And, your instructor can probably tell if preparation was the issue, and will not appreciate time being wasted.) Don’t expect extra points as a result of your visit. Better grades should be a result of your future improved performance, not your instructor's generosity.

3. Prepare before going to see your instructor.

  • Plan your questions ahead of time.  If need be, write them down.  Make a note of what you do understand, so your professor has a starting point.

  • Go prepared.  Bring your books, coursework, and lecture notes.

  • If you wish to discuss grades, bring graded material and a list of grades you thought you received on each assignment.  Make sure your records and her records match.  If there are any discrepancies, now is the time to discuss them.

4. Be open and friendly.

This is easy to do if you're interested and excited about the course, but can be difficult if you're not performing as well as you feel you should. Keep in mind that your instructor is teaching because he loves the subject, and would like nothing more than to interest you in the material.

Try to look at the subject matter from the perspective of someone who is fascinated by it and respect your instructor for his expertise, if nothing else. Being defensive is the quickest way to turn off your instructor's desire to help, so be open to suggestions; if you have questions about what he is recommending, just ask.

Although the above suggestions won't necessarily cover every interaction you have with your instructors, they will make a real difference in many cases. Remember, instructors are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers (they're human). Many are unaware that their students feel uncomfortable in approaching them.  Relax. Be yourself--open, friendly, and academically curious. Make sure you leave the office with a clear plan for your future studies and assignments, and return for another visit if necessary. The relationships you form with your instructors can be instrumental to opening opportunities for success. Go for it!

Adapted from “How to talk to your Instructor” from University of Texas at Austin