Getting the most out of your professor

Professors dish on how students can learn more from them outside of the classroom

There is one person in your lecture theatre who is a little different from everyone else. No, I’m not talking about that guy who never bathes, who whispers to himself as he takes notes, and who seems completely unaware that his nose whistles every time he exhales.

I’m talking about the one standing up at the front of the room, talking; the one who everyone who isn’t playing with their computer or phone is watching: your prof.

I’m sure that your prof seems like a lofty intellectual who is much too clever, important and busy to want to talk to the likes of you, but I’ve got news for you: your prof is a human being, and it gets lonely up there at the front of the room when you’ve spent an hour talking and nobody has asked a single question or given any other indication they’ve understood a word you’ve said.

Educating you and making sure that you understand the course material is part of your prof’s job, and talking directly to your prof can make a world of difference to what you get out of a class. What you may find surprising is that your prof (probably) wants to talk to you. Don’t take our word for it; we surveyed an assortment of professors from across the country and two of the most common things we heard from them were that they enjoy talking to students, and that too few students take the time to talk to their professors outside of class.

Talking to students lets profs know that they’re actually getting through. “I love it when students come to me and ask questions,” wrote professor Carolyn Eyles of McMaster University. “It shows they are interested in the material and I’ll always spend time with them.”

The questions students ask provide professors with valuable feedback about their communication style, letting them know what is and what is not being understood by their classes. “I do learn a lot from student questions. I learn to communicate a lot better,” said Patangi Rangachari, also of McMaster.

But what can talking to your professors do for you? Lots. There are reasons why you go to campus every day, instead of just staying home and learning from a textbook.

The most obvious thing your professor can do is help you understand something from the lecture or the readings that you just can’t get.  There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to approach whatever concept you’re having trouble with. “Explain to us where we came short in the lecture, and we will offer you another perspective on the issue so you can understand it better,” says Mercedes Rowinsky-Geurts of Wilfred Laurier University.

If you talk to them in person, many professors will give you a more detailed preview of what is going to be on an upcoming exam, to help you focus your studying. Some will even provide sample exam questions to practice on. Profs will discuss essay topics with students, and may be willing to go over an outline or even a complete draft of your essay with you.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to improve your grade on a paper than to get the person who will be marking it to give you feedback on a draft, but students seldom take advantage of this. “I specifically offer, and have only been asked to do it five times in thirty years,” Kate Frego of University of New Brunswick wrote.

Profs are connected people, and they can help with matters outside the confines of the course they teach. Carolyn Eyles is happy to help her students who are looking for jobs or volunteer opportunities. “I often end up hiring them as assistants, as they have shown interest and initiative in contacting me,” she says.

Professor references are vital for anyone who plans to continue their education beyond the bachelor level, and are great to have even if you’re not. It can be hard to get one without establishing a real relationship with your prof, though, as most people are reluctant to write a reference letter on the basis of nothing but the coursework they’ve seen.

But how do you tap into this resource and start a relationship with a prof?

It starts, of course, with talking to them. Asking questions in class is great, but that doesn’t help your prof put a name to your face. The best way to accomplish that is to make an appointment to talk to your prof during his office hours.

Nick Bontis of the DeGroote school of business at McMaster suggests that students set up an appointment with each of their professors at the beginning of each semester to introduce yourself and ask the question: “what would you say is the most important advice you can give me to maximize my grade in this course?” While this approach might be a little more assertive than many students are comfortable being, there are many other ways to break the ice.

Make an appointment to ask any questions you might have, but show them that you take your use of their time seriously by coming prepared; before you go, be sure you’re not asking a question that could easily have been answered if you’d checked the course website or if you’d bothered to do the required reading. And don’t wait until a week before the final exam to tell your prof that you haven’t understood a single thing since September; go ask for help right away, while there’s still time to fix the problem.

If you can’t come up with a specific question, think of a more general topic you’d like to discuss with them, or (early in the semester, before things get too busy) simply make a social call during their office hours.

Developing a relationship involves more than simple introductions, however. Kate Frego suggests that students need to re-frame their conception of what a professor is. It isn’t useful, she says, to think of your prof as a “slave-driver,” or a “gate-keeper,” or a “repository of all knowledge”; it’s more productive to think of them as a fellow learner, who just happens to have been working at this topic for longer than you have.

The mindset we should have is, “we’re all in this together,” says Dr. Frego — which is a much better basis for a relationship than simply sucking up to your prof in the hopes of getting better marks.