Compared to high school, students in college are held to a higher standard in the classroom. Faculty members treat students as adults – expecting them to meet deadlines, be professional and face consequences for cheating, plagiarism or other types of academic dishonesty.
Given generational gaps and variations in professors’ levels of approachability, it can be difficult to navigate how to ask for help or bring up a grading issue. So here are seven tips from experts on appropriate student-faculty interactions inside and outside the classroom:
1. Use ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr.’ on First Reference
Whether it’s over email or in person, don’t refer to your professor as “Mrs., Ms. or Mr.” on first reference. Use gender neutral titles, like “professor” or “Dr.,” if you know they have a Ph.D., for instance.
“They’ll let you know if they want you to call them by something else,” like their first name,” says Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at University of California—Santa Cruz.
2. Understand Communication Expectations
Smaller class sizes typically allow for more personal student-professor interactions. Professors may know every student by name and even notice missing seats. So experts suggest letting the professor know ahead of time if you can’t attend class for any reason, especially if it’s a laboratory or performance class.
“You don’t have to share something personal,” says Sarah Projansky, associate vice president for faculty at the University of Utah. “Just say, ‘I’m sorry I’m missing class. Something came up that I have to take care of.'”
On the other hand, large lecture-style classes make it difficult for professors to keep track of their students. In this case, it’s usually not necessary to email them about missing a class unless there is an attendance policy in place – for instance, if a certain number of absences can result in a grade reduction.
To catch up on a missed lecture, students can reach out to a peer, refer to the course syllabus or check out updates on their school’s learning management system, like Canvas or Blackboard. If that information isn’t available, don’t be afraid to ask your professor.
But Projansky advises students to avoid the phrase, “Did I miss anything important?” Instead say, “I want to catch up, could you tell me key things you need from me?”
“The vast majority of faculty are happy to help,” she adds. “But if you don’t reach out, they don’t always know that you might need help.”
Professors usually inform students on the best method to contact them, whether that’s over email or even text. So follow their guidelines.
3. Be Professional
While communicating with your professor online, don’t use text slang. Remain professional by starting an email with “Dear Professor” rather than “Hey.” And include a salutation at the end, such as “Thank you” or “Best.”
“They want to feel like they are being respected,” says April Wynn, assistant professor of biological science and faculty director of the first-year experience at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Don’t send multiple follow-ups if you haven’t received a response within a day. “If it seems like we are hard to pin down or we can’t meet for a few days, just remember that teaching classes is not the only thing that professors do,” Greene says.
4. Gauge Comfort Levels
Faculty members are people too, so you may see them walking around campus, eating a meal in the dining hall or grocery shopping at a nearby store. But comfort levels for student interactions outside the classroom vary by professor: Some initiate conversations, while others choose to keep their distance. So “whatever the kind of rapport you have in the classroom is a good thing to match,” Projansky says.
Try not to take up too much of their time and avoid asking questions about an assignment or grade, especially if a professor is with their family or running errands.
“Usually if it’s an urgent question, a student could bring it up and if I didn’t have time, I would say, ‘I really wanna talk to you about this, but could you email me? We’ll make an appointment,'” Projansky says.
5. Connect During Office Hours
Most faculty members offer office hours during the semester for students to pop in and ask questions about the course material. Wynn recommends sending an email ahead of time to the professor so they know what you want to discuss and can prepare adequately. Don’t be afraid to say you’re lost or confused about feedback on an assignment.
- For students who are performing well, what are their strategies and how do they approach the material?
- What area should I as a student work on?
- What are the most common mistakes students make on essays or projects for this class?
“We talk a lot with students about self-advocacy because that is something that we find folks develop over time at college,” Wynn says. “That gets them ready to be out there in the world past college.”
Office hours aren’t just reserved for students who are struggling in a class, however. Students can use the one-on-one time to get to know their professor’s area of study, ask for career-related advice or request a recommendation letter.
“It’s good to have face time with professors because they find out about scholarships and sometimes have research opportunities that students could gain experience working on,” says Patricia Williams Lessane, associate vice president for academic affairs at Morgan State University in Maryland.
6. Bring Up Concerns Appropriately
There might be a circumstance when you find a grading error or disagree with a critique on an assignment. But before you rush to call out the mistake or beg for a higher grade, review the assignment prompt and materials to reflect on why that score may have been given.
From there, set up a one-on-one meeting rather than dropping by, experts say.
Bring up the issue in a professional manner. Projansky encourages students to say, “I don’t understand why I got the grade that I did. I thought I had met all the expectations.” That opens the door for the professor to explain their thought process.
“Be prepared. Have an argument for why you think you met all of the assignment requirements,” she adds. “Only challenge the grade after you’ve asked for an explanation. If a student comes in just challenging the grade, then the professor is likely to close down.”
In rare cases that a professor is not open to listening or explaining the grade, students can express their concerns to the department chair. That person may help facilitate a conversation between the faculty member and student.
7. See Yourself as a Mentee, Not a Friend
Lessane says that “it’s a mistake to think that getting to know your professor outside of class is off limits.” But there is a line. Professors are there to teach and be a resource to students, not be friends.
Friendliness is appropriate, experts say, but it’s important to look at it as a mentor and mentee relationship.
“If a student feels a connection with a faculty member and was interested in doing research with them or being mentored by them, reaching out, going to office hours, developing a professional, personal relationship outside of the classroom is a great way to do that,” Projansky says.