January 07, 2016

Communicating with your professors

Every student will have questions for their professor during the school year. Wendy Doughty, Director of the U of A Student Success Centre, shares how to best communicate with your professors within different scenarios. 

As you are in the midst of assignments and studying, you are likely to have questions about the material in front of you. While chatting with a classmate may be useful, your best option is to go directly to the source — your professors. Even a short conversation with an instructor can give you the advice you need to do well on an assignment or test. But, how do you communicate well with an instructor, or make the most of an office hours visit? Here are four scenarios you might find yourself in and advice on how to communicate effectively with your professor.
Contacting your professor by email.
Being clear and concise in your email will give your professor the information they need to get back to you in a timely manner.
  • Start your email with a formal salutation such as “Dear Dr. Smith” or “Hello, Dr. Smith,” even if your professor has indicated you can address him/her by his/her first name.
  • State your question(s) clearly. If you are confused by material in the textbook, refer to the chapter and page numbers. If you are confused about lecture material, refer to the topic and date of the lecture. Avoid vague statements like “I am confused,” “I don’t know how to complete my assignment,” or “I am worried about my exam.”
  • Always include a signature line with your first and last name, student ID, course number, and section number.
Asking your question in person. 
Depending on the complexity of your questions and the available time of both you and your professor, you can often ask quick questions before, during, or after class. If either of you are busy or have another class to get to, let them know that you have questions about an assignment or test, and ask when would be the best time to discuss your questions. If your question is about your personal circumstances, it’s better to speak with your instructor during office hours so they can listen to your entire situation.

Meeting with your professor.
Most professors have regular office hours. Check your course outline to see whether these are “drop-in” sessions or if you are expected to book an appointment during these times. Take a few minutes to prepare in advance:
  • Have your questions written out beforehand to make sure they all get addressed. Explain the steps you have taken to find the answer while avoiding phrases like “I don’t know where to start,” “It’s too difficult.” This will help your professor identify where you got stuck and give you the advice you need to move forward.
  • Bring any materials you wish to discuss. For instance, if you want to ask about your midterm exam results (and the exam was returned to you), bring the exam to the meeting.
  • Listen openly to the guidance your professor provides and write down their ideas - then, put them into action.
Keeping your professor advised of missed midterms or assignment deadlines.
At some point, you may miss a midterm or be unable to complete an assignment by the deadline due to serious medical or personal reasons. Your course outline likely includes important information about such situations, but it’s crucial that you notify your professor as soon as possible, preferably via email (the University Calendar states that it is up to you to initiate this). Your professor can then outline the available options and next steps.

Remember to always ask your questions early — as soon as they come up. Professors and students alike are always busy, and being proactive with your questions will help you get the help you need and to be more successful throughout the semester!