By Isabella Lanza, PhD
Your professors have a hold on you – whether you want to accept that or not doesn’t change this fact. This hold could be a grade, a career opportunity, or some other kind of support that you need to move forward in your academic and professional pursuits. So why are you hurting yourself by annoying them?
Yes, you heard me right. Something that I’ve noticed since I began to teach undergrads a decade ago is that students think professors are these robot-like creatures that are objective and morally superior. Sure, I used to have my own professor worship moments back in the day, but that is all but gone because I am well aware of how human-like professors are, with a list of flaws and weaknesses similar to any other person. A professor may have more knowledge and expertise in a field you are trying to grasp (which is why we listen to them), but they are not perfect in any sense. If we know anything in life, it’s that humans are fragile, emotional beings, and rationalism and self-control do not always overcome raw emotions.
If you are feeling a little defensive at the thought that you are doing anything wrong in your professor-student interactions, take my piece of advice and read through these tips. If you haven’t engaged in any of these behaviors, congratulate yourself on being a stellar student and go on with your business. However, if there is a chance that you’ve engaged in one of these behaviors, I hope you consider this friendly advice on how to improve your professor-student interactions.
1. Email etiquette 101: ‘Hey, are we getting back our exams tomorrow?’
This is the type of email that professors all too often see from students. Maybe it’s because we are living in an age where texting and social media have moved us into the extremes of brevity in written discourse, but the above real-life example is just a mess. In four easy steps, let me help you write an email that will make your professors feel very positively about you, no matter the subject of the email.
Step 1: The greeting is the most important aspect of the email. Refer to your professor by the title they prefer, most commonly Dr. or Professor. Side on formality unless they have specifically stated they prefer something else. Never skip addressing your professor by just saying ‘hi’ or worse ‘hey’.
Step 2: Acknowledge the professor’s schedule if you are asking/requesting something from them. ‘I know you are very busy with teaching, research, and other tasks…’ ‘I know this is an extremely busy time for professors…’. If you are not asking/requesting something just state ‘I hope you are having a great day…’.
Step 3: Make your request, but provide evidence for why the professor should consider meeting your request. ‘I would like to meet with you one-to-one to go over some questions I have for the exam. Unfortunately, I can’t come to your office hours because I have another class and I work during those times. I tried to change my work schedule this week but no one would cover my shift. I have read the text and my lecture notes twice and I still need clarification on 2-3 topics. My questions are probably best answered in person and not over email (I’m including them below). Would it be possible to meet with you to discuss my questions?
Step 4: Have a proper signature/send off. Always end with a proper send off like ‘Best,’ or ‘Thank you for considering my request,’. Include your full name at the end. Also, in the subject line of the email include the course name or number if you think the professor needs help identifying you.
2. Don’t write an email at 8pm and expect an answer that evening.
I’m pretty much always dumbfounded when a student asks me a question and expects the answer within hours, even when the email is being sent in the evening! Listen up – it is incredibly rude to expect that a professor will respond to your emails immediately at any time of day. Maybe you’ll be lucky and they will reply back quickly, but you should never expect it. It shows that you don’t perceive the person as having any down time from their work and that you think they should be available to you 24-7. It’s a sign of entitlement (I expect you to be there for me whenever I need you) and very inconsiderate behavior, yet I see this multiple times a semester. Sometimes it’s students asking questions about exams or papers due the NEXT day, and they are sending emails at 8, 9, or even 10pm. Sometimes it’s a student trying to make a meeting for the next day. I had this happen recently. I told a student to email me to schedule an appointment to review material for the final exam. There was a possibility we were both free on a specific day and time, but I told her she needed to email me to make the appointment. I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks and then – poof! – at 9pm the night before the intended meeting (a Sunday night no less) I receive an email asking if we’re still meeting tomorrow.
Tip: Make appointments several days ahead (preferably a week). You should not ask questions about tasks due the following day anytime after 6pm (think business hours). If you need a reply to your question before a task is due with less than 24 hours notice, ask but note that of course you understand it’s incredibly short notice and it’s unlikely you’ll receive an answer. Basically, make sure you state that you don’t expect an answer because you shouldn’t have waited until the last minute for help.
3. Show your appreciation with a thank you email.
Student: ‘I need help!’
Professor: ‘Here you go.’
Think about the last time you went to Starbucks or your favorite coffee place and ordered a drink. Did you say thank you when the barista called you up to get your drink? What about when you were in a merging lane and someone actually let you in without a fight? Ok, so the last time you emailed your professor a question about a paper, exam, or class in general, and they replied to your email, did you reply back with a thank you?
I’m going to guess about 75% of students that email me with a request never respond back with a thank you after I have taken time to reply back with an answer. If you would say thank you in person, why not over email?
Tip: If your professor replies back to your email, always respond back with a brief thanks.
4. You’re arguing for a point that won’t make any difference on your grade.
A while back I was giving an exam at a university that was known for its high-strung, competitive student body. A student who had just turned in an exam came back into the classroom to ask if she could have her exam back to answer a multiple-choice question she had forgotten to mark. I told her she could not because she had already turned in the exam and had exited the classroom (which meant she could have looked up the answer). The student burst into tears in front of an entire auditorium of students. She was wailing and stated, “If I don’t get an A in this class I will never get into my #1 choice for grad school!” I liked the student because she was hard-working and attentive, but I was irritated at her display, especially because the other students didn’t know what was going on and she was increasing their anxiety. It didn’t make sense to have a meltdown over a question that was worth no more than 2% of that exam, and maybe 0.04% of her entire course grade. She also had a solid A in the course throughout the semester. To this day I am boggled by this student’s reaction to missing one multiple-choice question.
Tip: If it’s an actual error in grading (professor scored incorrectly, added points up incorrectly, forgot to score) then by all means mention it. But if you need to ‘argue’ to earn a point or two back, avoid looking petty and neurotic and take the grade.
5. You missed out on participation points/in-class assignments because you skipped out on multiple classes, but at the end of the semester you ask for extra credit to salvage your grade.
Luckily, I have not had to deal with this situation often because students tend to attend my classes on a regular basis. If they don’t, I usually will email them asking where have they been, letting them know that the students and I miss seeing them, etc. This technique works well because sometimes students just need to know they are not invisible at a large university. I also make it a point to learn all my students’ names the first week of class, which really increases accountability. But many of my faculty colleagues and friends mention the end-of-semester extra credit emails they receive from students that barely made it to class, so I want to make it clear that this is not a wise move. Professors not only find this aggravating, but very disrespectful. The message conveyed is ‘this course isn’t important to me, but I need a certain grade so I expect you’ll help me out and give me what I want even though I don’t deserve it.’
Tip: Show up to class, even unprepared because some points are better than no points. If you are on the verge of failing a course AND you have shown yourself to be an engaged and hard-working student, speak to the professor privately and in person about the possibility of completing some type of coursework that could get you out of the failing zone.
I hope I have enlightened you a bit on what makes professors tick and how to improve your chances of making a positive impression with them. If you managed to get through this unscathed then I applaud you – keep it up!