One piece of advice that is given to students over and over again is “Get to know your professors” or “Talk to your professors.” It is wonderful and important advice. College provides a wonderful opportunity for students to get to know and work with experts and leaders in their chosen field. Some students develop lifelong mentoring relationships and friendships with their faculty members.
However, for many students, making that first move to get to know a professor can be intimidating. If the student needs to talk to the professor because he is having difficulty in a class, has missed a class (or several classes), or needs to discuss a grade, that initial meeting may be downright terrifying. Because today’s students are part of the “electronic generation,” meeting face-to-face with a professor may also be an unfamiliar situation. Your student might prefer to have a discussion via Facebook, e-mail, text, or Twitter. Help your student understand that there are some circumstances in which a face-to-face conversation may be preferable.
As a college parent, you understand that your student needs to advocate for herself and to talk to her professors if she needs something and/or wants to make a connection. However, you may need to help her find her courage and give her some pointers about how to begin. Getting started is often the most difficult part. Here are a few suggestions that you might pass on to your student. Using a few of these techniques may help her to feel more in control of the situation.
- Begin by being very clear in your own mind what the purpose of your meeting is. A visit to a professor’s office to get to know him is very different from asking for help or disputing a grade.
- Prepare ahead of time by gathering any necessary materials (tests, papers, class notes) and writing down things you want to remember to ask or share with the professor.
- Make an appointment if possible. Dropping in to the professor’s office during office hours may be fine, but there is no guarantee that the professor will have time to talk. If you are nervous about the meeting and gets there to find out that the professor is busy, it can add to the stress. Having an appointment ahead of time assures that the professor will be free – and also gives you the chance to break the ice first via either e-mail, phone, or conversation after class.
- Introduce yourself when you arrive and identify your class. The professor may know you, but just in case he has forgotten, he’ll appreciate not having to ask you. You will actually help to put the professor at ease. (Remember, some professors are nervous about meetings, too!)
- Err on the side of formality in addressing the professor. Dr. ___________ (if the professor has a doctorate) or Professor ________________ is usually appropriate. Never use first names unless specifically asked.
- Be prepared for some initial small talk. Think about something you might share about the weather, an upcoming event, something interesting happening in the world or on campus. Don’t be taken by surprise if the professor wants to chat at first. A few moments of chatting may help to put everyone at ease.
- Think about how to begin your conversation. Practice some openings out loud to see how they sound. “Professor ____________, I need your help.” “Thank you for taking time to see me.” “I have something I’d like to discuss with you.” “I think we may have different perceptions about what happened in class today. May we talk about it?” If you are armed with a beginning, you will know that you will start off on the right foot.
- Be as clear and objective as you can be in stating your questions, problems, needs. Help the professor understand exactly why you are there. Then be prepared to listen – and possibly jot down some notes.
- Build on what the professor has to say. Ask for clarification of anything that isn’t clear. Ask follow up questions. Restate something to be sure that you understand it. Share your ideas or perspective. Think of this as a true conversation with a back-and-forth exchange.
- Depending on the purpose of the visit, try to leave with an action plan. What are the next steps? Do you, or does the professor, need to follow up with anything?
- Plan ahead about how you might end your meeting. The professor may make it clear when it is time to go, but if now, think about how you might end the conversation. Having a plan will help you avoid awkward moments.
- Be sure to thank the professor once again for her time and/or help.
Many of the suggestions above may sound obvious or completely common sense to parents. Some students may also find nothing new here. But for many students, who know clearly that they need to talk to a professor, how to do it may not be as obvious. Arming your student with some suggestions and a plan of action may encourage him to make the move to have an important conversation with his professor. Helping him understand how to prepare and even practice his exchange may be just the coaching that he needs.