Tips for Talking to Your College Instructor
July 27th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Whether you are a student attending a traditional college or online school, it is important to utilize your instructor as a resource, mentor, and coach. They will evaluate your assignments so they are your best contact when you feel uncertain about what is expected from you. Over time they gain insight about your academic strengths and areas in need of development – and they know what resources may help you improve your performance.
But many students don’t reach out until their back is to a wall or feel intimidated by approaching an instructor.
I recently spoke with colleagues who teach classes in a traditional college setting, as well as those who teach strictly for online schools. There were very different perspectives shared. For students with full time instructors, they are often intimidated by going to “the office” to ask for assistance. For those with adjunct instructors (with on-ground schools), students found it challenging at times to track down their instructors and often they did not receive an immediate response. For online students, there is typically a procedure established for contacting the instructors. The online instructors I talked to indicated that students either will not ask for help or they feel free to say whatever they want to because they hide behind their anonymity.
The following five step plan will help you prepare to communicate effectively with your instructors in a productive manner, so that you continue to do your best while building strong working relationships with them.
1. Conduct an internal check-in with yourself first
Before you develop a plan to talk to your instructors, consider how you feel first. In the USA Today College post, 5 questions that will take the fear out of talking to your professor, it shared a view that many students first have: “to some students, entering a professor’s office means contracting a life-threatening virus. To others, it feels like home. The professor-to-student relationship usually — and unfortunately — lies at one of these two polar extremes. It’s not like colleges provide Professor Relationship 101, either.” The reason why it’s important to start with your feelings first is that you cannot communicate effectively if you are reacting emotionally.
2. Determine your expectations before you begin
In addition to evaluating and managing your emotions, it is also important to evaluate your expectations. What do you expect your instructor to say or what do you expect them to do after you talk to them? Sometimes students approach their instructors and expect them to have all of the answers or tell them exactly what they need to do or write about for an assignment. That’s how a conversation can become unproductive, when expectations are unrealistic or unmet. A helpful approach is to expect to receive feedback and guidance, and more importantly, be willing to learn. Educator Michael Leddy noted in How to talk to a professor that students will have their best conversations if it is done “out of genuine curiosity, a genuine interest in learning, and a genuine desire to improve.”
3. Find out the school procedures and your instructors’ preferences
As you begin to prepare to initiate a conversation, find out what the procedures and processes are for you to follow. If your instructor has an office on-campus, what are the scheduled hours? Do you need an appointment? For adjunct instructors, what contact methods have been provided? The course syllabus is usually your best guide as instructors typically provide their availability, along with contact methods such as an email address and phone number. Regardless of the urgency of the issue, always be respectful of your instructors’ time. They will demonstrate the same respect for you. For example, don’t call your instructor at 11 pm on a Friday night even if you have missed a deadline. (I’ve had that happen and there was little I could do at that time of night – other than try to go back to sleep) Follow the procedures and your instructors will assist you.
4. Accurately assess and state what you need
One of the challenges that students have involves expressing what they need or what the issue is about. That also creates a barrier for the instructor who is trying to provide assistance. For example, I receive emails from time to time that simply state, “I don’t get this assignment” or “this is too difficult” – and I’m not sure how to begin other than ask them for further clarification. As you develop a statement about the help you need, learn to be clear, concise, and to the point so that you’ll get to the heart of the issue quicker. It is also helpful to explain what you’ve done up to that point – whether you’ve created an outline for an assignment and then weren’t sure how to develop a thesis or the steps you’ve followed to complete a task and where you were stuck. When you are specific about your request it also helps to reduce any defensiveness that may come through in the tone of your communication. If you can explain what you’ve done instead of stating that you cannot complete a task, you will end up with a productive outcome.
5. Develop a plan of action and communication
The purpose of communicating with your instructor is to resolve an issue or receive help. That does not relieve you of your responsibility for the tasks. It does mean that you will likely receive a tip, tool, strategy, suggestion, or additional feedback. You will be much more effective if you not only outline the steps you’ve taken but you also include additional actions you would like to take as a means of being responsible for your work. If you are uncertain, ask your instructors for additional clarification and resources.
As you engage in a conversation with your instructors, they will likely build from your strengths and help you find ways to improve areas of needed development. If the issue involves a grade, once again don’t be demanding but ask for (and be willing to receive) honest feedback. Your goal should be the same as the goal they have in mind – reaching your maximum or peak performance. And as you communicate with your instructors, monitor your tone, maintain professionalism, and be willing to listen to what they have to say and not always concerned with what you will say next. The most effective method of concluding your discussions is to ask for the next step. You can suggest something you will try to do, or you could request a follow-up discussion if you would like that additional assurance.
I realize that you may feel a sense of intimidation by contacting your instructor, especially if you believe that you should have everything figured out on your own. But there are times when every student (and I was one of them too) simply cannot wrap their mind around a task, come up with a new idea, try a new online program, or determine how to do better. Your instructors are a great resource because they understand what you need to do, they are aware of the progress you are making, and their expertise and guidance could be just the boost you need to get going again or continue working. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute to ask for help. And when you do need help, approach the conversation with a plan and you will find it goes much smoother and less stressful.
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