How to Interact With College Professors

Your college career is about to take off, bringing about changes in scenery, new friends and exciting experiences. In the midst of all of the excitement, you also need to consider the changes you’re going to come across in the classroom, especially how you’ll interact with your professors.

A collegiette’s relationship with her professor is a lot different than a high school student’s relationship with her teacher. Professors “treat students as young adults because [that’s what] they are,” says Desiree Hanford, a journalism lecturer and the Journalism Residency Coordinator at Northwestern University. You’re expected to keep up with all the coursework and be diligent about asking for help if you’re falling behind, since professors will rarely keep tabs on you and your assignments. But while being proactive about asking for help is crucial in college, the thought of doing it—or even forming a relationship with your professor at all—can be intimidating. But have no fear, incoming collegiettes! We rounded up a few tips you can put to use so you can form a solid relationship with your professors, who can be fantastic resources when you’re looking for jobs, internships and other opportunities.

1. Know how to address them

Mr., Mrs. or Ms. so-and-so is typically not the best way to address your professor. Nate Kreuter, an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University, says that your safest bet is to address your professor as “Professor” followed by his or her last name. If you’re communicating with her by email, the signature on her response will give you an indication of how she prefers to be addressed, so use what she specifies in all future correspondences, whether it’s “Professor,” “Dr.,” or a first name. The way your professor lists her name on the course syllabus may also help you figure out what to call her. If she prefers to be called by her first name, however, that probably won’t be indicated on the syllabus, so pay attention on the first day of class to see if she makes any specifications. You should follow these instructions with lecturers as well.

When addressing a teaching assistant, you can most likely use a first name, as these individuals are likely not much older than you. However, address them as “Mr.” or Ms.” so-and-so if you contact them before class in case they prefer a more formal interaction. In your first class session, your TA will indicate her preferred name when introducing herself, so you can feel safe sticking to that.

2. Introduce yourself at the start of the semester 

Putting a name to a face will help your professor remember who you are, laying a foundation for a meaningful professional relationship.  It will also help you get past any fears you may have about chatting with her later in the semester. You can introduce yourself after one of the first lectures. Don’t do this before a lecture, however, because your professor will likely be focused on preparing for the class, says Julia Mossbridge, a research associate in the department of psychology at Northwestern University who has also taught courses.

When you introduce yourself, don’t just leave it at your name. “It’s always awkward when a student approaches me and just tells me their name and that they are looking forward to the class,” Mossbridge says. “I am generally flattered, but I know that I’ll forget her name because there was no real content to our conversation. If, however, the student approaches me after a lecture… to ask a question or make a comment, we usually get into a real conversation and I remember her much better.” Listening closely to class lectures and discussions is a fantastic way to come up with some ideas for conversations to have with your professor after class. Plus, it shows you’re interested in the course—something professors always love to see!

3. Sit in a seat in class where you’ll pay attention

In order to build a sound relationship with your professor, it’s important to be respectful and attentive to her in the classroom. By not paying attention in class, you’re essentially telling your professor that you don’t care about the work she put into planning a lecture or discussion for you and your classmates. Plus, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you fall asleep for an hour or spend the entirety of the class whispering with the friend next to you. If you can’t give respect to your professors in the classroom, they’ll be less inclined to form a relationship with you in other settings.

So how do you make paying attention easier in class? Sit somewhere where you likely won’t be distracted. Some students can pay attention just fine in the back, but up front, you’ll be less likely to become mesmerized with whatever is on the computer screens of your classmates in front of you. Also, if you find yourself tempted to chat with friends sitting nearby, it may be wise to put a bit of distance between yourselves until class ends.

There’s also another bonus to picking your seat wisely.  For some professors, where you sit can influence how well they remember you. Joan Linsenmeier, a faculty member in Northwestern University’s department of psychology, recommends that students sit in seats where professors can make eye contact with them in class. “In a small classroom, all seats may be just fine,” Linsenmeier says. “In a lecture hall, I think that the outer seats in the first few rows are not good choices. … [The students in these seats] are the ones for whom I’d have to turn my head most—thus, turning away from much of the class.”

In addition to helping some professors remember you, eye contact is also a good indicator that you’re paying attention. You really can’t go wrong with making yourself more visible! 

Related: 7 Things Professors Expect You to Know on the First Day Of Class

4. Nix the phone and Internet in class

Spending the majority of class on your phone or on the Internet is a fantastic way to make sure your professor will remember you—but not in a good way. Many college professors will give you the privilege of using your laptops to take notes during class, and you should be using them for that purpose only!

Checking your email and Facebook notifications not only hinders your ability to absorb the information you need to know for your exams and assignments, but it’s also disrespectful to the professor, who put in a lot of time to prep for the lecture or discussion. She WILL be able to tell when you’re smiling at a cat gif and will remember that you weren’t listening in class, something that will hinder any sort of professional relationship you want to form later on outside of the classroom.

All of this goes for phone use, too. If you need to use your phone during class because of an emergency, then step outside. There’s really no better way to tell a professor you’re not interested in the class than by scanning your phone and the Internet throughout your entire time in the room. If you’re not respectful to her, then she won’t be likely to want to get to know you. Do your professional relationship a favor: shut off your phone and turn off the Wi-Fi connection on your laptop until class is over.  

5. Ask questions in class, but don’t waste time  

When you’re listening to a lecture or discussion and something comes up that you don’t quite understand, you should feel free to ask the professor for clarification. “If you don’t understand a concept that the professor is trying to convey, chances are other classmates are also lost, and asking a question would reflect your initiative, help your professor explain their point and help your classmates learn,” says Jeanette Ortiz, a lecturer in the Northwestern University School of Communication.

But be careful not to ask questions that are explicitly answered in your syllabi or other course materials. This is “tiresome” and “shows a lack of maturity,” says Tom Klinkowstein, a professor of New Media Design at Hofstra University. If you have questions about an individual situation rather than the class material, such as making up missed coursework, then ask about that after class or during office hours. “The more questions, the better, as long as they’re questions that show curiosity and show respect for other people’s time,” Klinkowstein says.

That being said, don’t just ask a question for the sake of standing out, Ortiz says; ask a question when you’re genuinely interested or confused. Professors can tell when your question is rooted in a desire to impress them instead of in real curiosity. “Have you ever tried to ‘appear’ engaged when you’re telling a story? It’s obvious, right?” Mossbridge says. “Professors have the same skill as you do when determining when a student is [not engaged], but it is honed about 1,000 times better, because we get lots of practice. Be authentic, or don’t go to class.”

6. Go to office hours

If you have questions that can’t be answered succinctly during class, are not directly related to course material or that pertain specifically to you, heading to office hours is a great option. Most professors list their pre-scheduled office hours on their syllabi, but if those times don’t work for you, email your professor to make an appointment.

There is no optimal number of times to go to office hours, Mossbridge says. Instead, she says, go as often as you need help. Just make sure to be prepared with specific questions anytime you go. “If a student stops in during office hours to discuss a specific topic, the student should do their research in advance so the professor and student can make the best use of their time together,” Hanford says.

It may seem intimidating to meet one on one with a professor during office hours, but don’t be afraid to take the leap! Even if professors may be more inclined than your high school teacher to treat you like an adult, that doesn’t mean they expect you to be perfect. “Before you get intimidated, it’s good to remember that most professors recognize that adults, like kids, make mistakes and can misunderstand ideas. The very professor you may be intimidated by probably just asked a colleague this morning to explain something to her,” Mossbridge says. So if you bombed an exam, missed a couple classes or just don’t understand what the heck your professor is talking about, head to office hours and speak up!

But that being said, do have a good reason to go to office hours. “Office hours should be used mostly for discussing academic questions, or for continuing a prior conversation,” Ortiz says. “It is unusual for a student to attend office hours to simply ‘hang out,’ which may annoy professors, or give them the impression that the student is excessively needy or trying to gain some advantage.” So, collegiettes, only meet with your professor if you have a specific plan of action. If not, then don’t waste her time!

7. Say hello outside of class

Believe it or not, professors are people, too, so you’re bound to see them outside of class in hallways or around campus. When this happens, don’t be afraid to say hello. If you’re passing them in the hallway, a quick “Hi, how are you?” should do the trick. If you have a longer encounter with one of your professors, such as standing in line at a campus coffee shop, you can make small talk. Chat about the weather, ask if she enjoyed her weekend or comment about your busy week. The exchange doesn’t need to be long—a couple minutes is fine—but when you get your coffee and head out, say a quick goodbye if your professor is nearby and not chatting with someone else.

If you initially encounter your professor in a conversation with someone else, however, use your judgment to determine if you should interrupt. If your professor makes eye contact with you, feel free to give a wave and quick hello, but continue on unless she takes initiative to lengthen the exchange. If she’s immersed in her conversation, however, don’t go out of your way to interrupt. You’ll likely see her outside of class sometime again.

8. Look for ways to interact with professors outside the classroom

A great way to interact with your professors in different settings is to get involved in a lab or project they’re leading. “If all of your academic questions have been answered and you would like to continue working with a professor, then you may want to consider getting involved in their research or setting up an independent study,” Ortiz says. She recommends inquiring about opportunities right away via email, before or after class, or during office hours. If you decide to shoot your professor an email, introduce yourself and identify what class of hers you’re taking. Then, let her know that you’ve been looking at her research, it sounded interesting to you and you’d be interested in learning about any opportunities to work with her. But before doing this, make sure to actually read up a bit on the professor’s work to ensure that it interests you, or else you both may be in for a less-than-ideal experience working together! And at the end of your email, always remember to thank your professor for her time.

Keep in mind that when looking for research assistant positions, it’s possible that there may not be any openings for at least another semester. “[Students] need to understand that it may be weeks, months, another semester before such a thing becomes available that’s [relevant] to their interest,” Klinkowstein says. Because of this, he recommends expressing your interests early so you can be kept in mind for any openings that come up later on.

But while you’re waiting, Ortiz says you can still learn about the professor’s research. “If the professor does not have space available on any projects, students can ask to attend lab meetings… in order to build a base of knowledge in the professor’s research area, and ask to be considered for a project during the next academic term,” she says.

If you don’t find a lab or project that fits your interest, an equally great way to get to know your professors is to get involved in an organization where you have the opportunity to mingle with them. “One of my clubs has a faculty and student dinner once a month where we invite a lot of faculty in different departments to join club members for a dinner,” says Franklin & Marshall College junior and HC Campus Co-Correspondent Shira Kipnees. Shira says these dinners have helped her develop solid relationships with her professors in a setting other than class. “We can talk about a variety of topics not related to topics within the classroom, and they often get to know me better and help me pick better classes or help me figure out how to better prepare for my future,” she says. “One professor who I interact with a lot at dinners actually became one of my advisers and helped me plan out my whole major.”

If faculty/student dinners don’t sound like your cup of tea, you can also get to know your professor better through attending lectures, discussions or readings they may be holding. Klinkowstein encourages his students to go to those that interest them. “There’s a lot of opportunities for outside lectures, some of which I organize,” Klinkowstein says. “Most students do not understand the importance of finding a way to go to that. … I encourage them to see the university more holistically than ‘I go to this class, I go to this class.’” To find out about interesting academic events, sign up for department email listservs, look online at department calendars, peruse bulletin boards in academic buildings or ask your professors.

Life on a college campus can be quite stressful, especially when adjusting to a whole new class structure. But if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll be able to ease the transition and focus on expanding your knowledge. Have a great first semester, incoming collegiettes!