You’re in a bind or you’re totally confused. What should you say to your professor?
Everything you read about speaking to professors warns that you shouldn’t tick them off, ruin their impression of you or say something to sink you further.
But should you keep your mouth shut? No!
I’ve witnessed 14-plus years of student interactions and I teach interpersonal communication. Not talking to your instructors isn’t the answer and texting is out of the question. The right words give you a shot at solving your problem and possibly getting better grades.
I’ve got two pocket themes you can use with your professor that work for many class-related situations: “Here is what I’ve done…” and “Here is what I propose…” A little background behind my recommendations:
When students have issues — late work, absences, needing help — they often come across as, “Solve it for me. Now!” Professors’ reactions? Mildly irritated to snarky to downright grizzly. Would you throw your lateness, your missed work or your confusion in your boss’ lap and say, “Fix it!”? That could cost you a job, right? You want to appear ultra-professional with your professor, even if you’ve blown something up. So use these phrases to sound proactive, rather than reactive.
• Instead of saying, “I’m so lost!” say, “I am confused about our upcoming paper. Here is what I’ve done: I read over the assignment sheet. I reviewed your examples. I am stuck on the transitions and two of my sources. Can you help with that?”
Here’s why: Instead of conveying blanket lost-ness, be specific. Don’t make your professor tease out where you’re stuck, which wastes time. Show that you’ve attempted to help yourself and you’ll get more focused assistance.
• Instead of saying, “I really needed a 4.0 in this class!” say, “I am striving for a 4.0 and I’m prepared to work for it. I’ve reviewed the syllabus. I would like to make an appointment so I can ask questions and discuss my plan for achieving my goal.”
Here’s why: Professors learn about desperately needed grades at the end of a term. Too late! All grade goals require a collaborative conversation initiated by you on day one or week one.
• Instead of saying, “I worked so hard! I deserved an A!” say, “I am working toward an A on our assignment, so I finished my project early. Would you be willing to take a look and give me some feedback?”
Here’s why: Your professors grade on tangible work that meets set standards. Work early and some professors may offer feedback ahead of the due date. Some may not, but try saying this: “I have two very specific questions.” They’ll likely answer.
• Instead of saying, “Will this be on the test?” say, “I used my notes and textbook and downloaded your lectures and PowerPoints to create a study guide for our upcoming exam. Would you look and see if I’ve missed any major areas?”
Here’s why: No need to mine for test gold and lose credibility. Show your professor you think all content is worthwhile. You won’t have questions handed to you, but you may get an assist if you’ve skipped a critical study area.
• Instead of saying, “I’ve missed four classes, but can I still pass?” say, “I missed the last four classes, which was unavoidable. I do not plan to be absent again. I’ve reviewed the attendance and late-work policy on the syllabus. I calculated my lost points. Here is what I propose to catch myself up (submit your proposal), based on your policies. Have I missed anything in my calculations? I believe I can still pass if we agree on the dates I will submit this work, according to your policy and penalties.”
Here’s why: Your professor may have zero tolerance for absences. Still, a well-thought-out proposal has a chance. Asking your professor to save you likely doesn’t.
• Instead of saying, “Can I leave early? Will we be doing anything important?” say, “I need to leave class early today. I noticed on the schedule that you are going over chapter six. I read chapter six and started on the assignment. I will have it done on time and do not need to leave early again.”
Here’s why: First, don’t ask for exit permission — your professor can’t fairly give it. Just go, be responsible for the consequences and don’t make early departure a habit. Second, your professor has a plan for class days, regardless how the schedule appears. You may be going over a test, building community through class discussion or having an unexpected guest speaker. Every class day is a day committed by you and your professor, and is important to your professor. It should be important to you, as well. Conveying otherwise? Not professional.
You deserve to know the correct way to communicate with your professors. Too often, students sound clueless and don’t realize it. Trying these phrases may feel a little weird at first, but believe me, even if you fumble, you’ll sound more like the professional you’re trying to become than students who use the alternatives. And if your professor remains snarky or grizzly, don’t be thrown. You’ll know that you handled yourself properly.
Armed with correct communication, you’ll have an incredible opportunity in college to not only improve your classwork, but also build a relationship with someone who could become a long-lasting mentor. As a bonus, you’ll practice one of the top employability skills with someone who is as close to a boss as you can get. Again, you deserve to have the right words for that.
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