Best Communication Techniques for Talking to Professors
Whether in class, at office hours or through email, it can be easy to get off on the wrong foot with a college professor. But by following a few best practices, students can ensure good communication with professors in different settings.
Use the right terms
It can be confusing for students to figure out what to call their professors, but here’s a good rule of thumb:
If your professor has a doctorate, use “Doctor” or “Professor”
If your professor doesn’t have a doctorate, use “Professor”
However, the rules aren’t necessarily hard and fast. In some cases, professors aren’t strict about this standard, says Benjamin Y. Clark, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management. The key is to find out the standards of a specific school or even an individual professor.
“The biggest problems I see are problems with boundaries between ‘friend’ communication and ‘professional’ communication,” says Clark. “I don’t need my students to refer to me as Sir or Dr. Clark, but to say ‘yo teach!’ as an introduction, which has happened, is not quite the best way to approach your professors.”
Try and figure out what the convention for your university is regarding how you address your professors. Some places expect you to refer to everyone as Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones. Other places you can call them Don and Judy. Follow the cues of other students and faculty.
“Also, if your professor says please call me Dr. Smith, respect that, even if they are the only one,” says Clark.
Office hour do’s & don’ts
College professors have office hours so students can more easily communicate with them. But it’s important to keep in mind a few best practices to ensure both you and your professor are getting the most out of that time.
Take advantage of them
Communicating with professors is a necessary part of college success, but sometimes students feel intimidated by it. But according to Andrew Selepak, a professor in the telecommunication department at the University of Florida and Director of the graduate program in social media, students don’t need to feel that way because professors actually want to connect with them.
Come to office hours prepared
Know exactly what information is needed and bring along the relevant textbooks for reference.
Ask about strengths and weaknesses
Every student has different areas where they excel, and other areas where they need extra help. Use office hours to get information on what you’re doing both right and wrong.
Ask for more information
Ask the professor to expand on information only briefly mentioned in class. If a professor mentions something in passing and doesn’t have time to expound on it, office hours can be used to get more details.
Ask for career advice
Professors are experts in their fields and they may have insights that can help students make decisions about career paths. Ask for advice or why they chose the course subjects they teach. This will help build a connection and provide insight into the professors’ interests and experience.
If you don’t understand something covered in class or in course materials, ask for additional help or information.
Ask for recommendations about additional resources that will increase understanding of course material. This shows a real interest in the class and subject matter.
Ask obvious questions
Read the syllabus before attending office hours and make sure the answer needed isn’t already on there.
Get defensive about a bad grade
Coming to office hours to discuss concerns about a test score is okay, but don’t come with a bad attitude.
Professors may have hundreds of students and may not always be able to remember a student’s name, or connect a name to a face.
Wait until finals week
“Too often students only come to office hours at exam time or the end of the semester. But this is also when all students come to office hours and there is suddenly a big rush,” Selepak said. “Earlier in the semester when fewer students are coming to office hours is the best time because it’s when the professor can spend more individual time with the students and also get to know them.”
Just visit office hours once
To get the most out of them and build a rapport with professors, go to office hours regularly.
How to Email a Professor
Email is a convenient way to communicate with professors, but that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t follow certain protocols when using it. The following are some best practices for communicating with professors via email.
When should you email your professor?
Students should send emails to professors to get clarification on an assignment, request a meeting and ask for a letter of recommendation. Don’t send an email to ask questions that are answered on the syllabus or can be easily found in course materials.
Which email address should you use to contact professors?
Emails should always be sent from your school account. This ensures that messages won’t end up in professors’ spam filters. Also, this allows professors to immediately identify who is contacting them.
What should you include in your email?
Students should specify what class they’re in and thoroughly explain why they’re emailing.
What style should you use?
Emails should be formal. Avoid text speak and other slang terms, and skip using all caps. Students may think that using all caps in an email may emphasize a point, but it comes off as shouting, which is not going to endear them to their professors. Emoticons should also be avoided.
Also make sure to use paragraphs in an email. No one wants to read one long block of text.
Should you address problems with your professor or the class in an email?
No. Email is not the place for venting frustrations. When students have concerns about a class, they should only use email to make an appointment to discuss them. Email is not the place to try to hash out these problems. It’s best to do it in person.
Should you follow up if your professor doesn’t respond?
Give professors enough time to respond to emails. Remember they receive many emails a day, so give them at least 24 hours to respond before following up. Students who email their professors over the weekend or on holidays should wait until school is back in session.
Sample email to a college professor
Psychology 101 questions
Dear Professor Smith,
I’m in your Psychology 101 class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00. I have a few questions about classical conditioning as I’m struggling to understand how it works. Are you available to make an appointment sometime next week? Unfortunately, I have another class during your office hours.
Can you please let me know if you’re available to meet with me and if so, what days and times might work for you?
Before you hit send on any email to a professor, go through the following checklist to avoid any embarrassing mistakes:
Review the subject line
Make sure it’s relevant to the content of the email and sets the right tone. Avoid using demands like “immediate response needed.”
Use the correct address
Make sure you address your professor in email the same way you would in class, using “Doctor” or “Professor,” if appropriate.
Check your salutation and signature
Treat emails to professors the same way as other formal communications. Check that an opening salutation, such as “Dear Dr. Smith,” was used. Make sure you signed off with your full name so it’s clear who the email is from.
Review spelling, grammar and punctuation
Use spell and grammar check. Make sure there are no embarrassing errors.
Thanking professors for their time and help can go a long way toward building a relationship with them.
Do one last proofread
Professors will form opinions about students based on the emails they send, so it’s best to always put your best foot forward.
How to Build Rapport with Professors
Professors are people like everyone else. In order to make friends, students put effort into the relationship. When trying to build a rapport with professors, they should also make a concerted effort. The following are some ways to do it.
Go to class
Obviously professors can’t build a relationship with students who don’t show up to class. Also, regular absences communicate disrespect.
Always be prepared
Students show that they care about their coursework when they’re prepared for every class. Do the assigned reading, bring the textbooks that will be discussed and have any needed materials on hand.
Participating in class is a way to show engagement and an understanding of the course material. In some cases, it may help students improve their grade in a class.
In addition to addressing professors properly, students can show their respect by saying hello when they enter a class and goodbye when they leave. This also helps to show interest.
Professors notice when students look interested in what’s going on in class and it makes them stand out in a good way. Similarly, professors also notice when their students look bored and annoyed.
Participate in extracurricular activities
If a professor is in charge of an extracurricular activity, getting involved gives students the opportunity to interact with them outside of the classroom, which adds another layer to the relationship.
Pick up final papers or exams
Many students don’t take the time to do this, so it’s another opportunity to stand out from the crowd and show interest and commitment to a course. It’s also a good way to review material and continue learning.
Keep in touch
A relationship with a professor doesn’t have to end when the semester is over. Students can keep the connection going by continuing to come to office hours to discuss other coursework that the professor may be knowledgeable about.
How Connecting with Professors Will Benefit You
Connecting with professors takes effort, but students can reap the benefits of a cordial relationship long after the semester is over. Here are some of the benefits you might experience:
One important benefit of maintaining a good relationship is getting a recommendation letter, which can bolster students’ graduate school or job applications.
“Many students will eventually need recommendation letters for grad school or law school. I get asked multiple times a semester to write a rec letter. But I don’t always agree to write one because if I don’t know the student or what they can do, I don’t have anything I can write other than to say they attended my class,” said Selepak.
“Students will also eventually need recommendations for jobs, and having a good relationship with a professor is a great way to secure a recommendation.”
In addition to providing recommendations that can help students launch their careers, nurturing a good relationship with professors can help students network. “We can be great professional resources for your career,” said Clark. “I make a real effort to get to know professionals in my field that are outside of academia so that I can do better research, and connect my students with people looking for new talent.”
Professors are experts in their chosen field, so they can be a great resource for information. Students can get a realistic look at what working in a specific profession is like by talking to their professors. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice in office hours. If your professor knows your interests and strengths, he or she can recommend different career avenues you might not have considered.
When professors are familiar with a student—and know that the student is dedicated to classwork—they are more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a result, professors tend to be more understanding when students they know need an extension on an assignment or extra credit to make up for a bad grade.