Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors


We've had good ones; we've had ones who were not so good. We've had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we've had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We've all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it's important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I've worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we've found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren't the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It's a professor's dream! When I've had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I've actually walked with them to the professor's office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn't nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It's the other side of the "professors are people too" coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it's not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don't take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who've had that professor before. If it's the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It's also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it's just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.