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9 Things You Should Never Say to a Professor

Whether it’s the first class you’ve ever taken or you’re one semester away from graduating, talking one-on-one to your professor or even asking a question in the middle of class can be intimidating. Especially in large lecture classes, where it’s difficult to get to know your professor on a personal level, it can be tricky to predict how he or she will respond to what you say.

Whether you’re saying them in front of your class or during office hours, there are some things that will flat-out annoy your professor to hear. Take a look at some of these questions professors would prefer not to hear.

1. “I did badly on this exam. Can I retake it?”

Don’t expect to be treated differently from other students, advises Erica Flapan, a mathematics professor at Pomona College. While professors do want their students to succeed, they’re required to treat all students the same. “So if the professor gave you a retest, he/she would have to give the entire class a retest,” Flapan says.

If you’re seriously concerned about your grade, try seeing if there are extra-credit opportunities, or ask your professor in his or her office hours how you can improve your study tactics for next time.

2.  “Is this going to be on the test?”

Professors put in a lot of time and effort into preparing lectures and determining what students should be gaining from their classes. “Such a question implies that you are only interested in material that will be tested,” Flapan says.

Instead, she suggests you ask, “How does this material fit together with X,” where “X” is something that you had previously learned.  “This shows that you have been following and are interested in getting the big picture,” she explains.

3. “When will I ever need to know this information?”

While you probably won’t need to whip out the quadratic formula during lunch, each course you take is designed to teach you specific information for a particular reason. Your professor wouldn’t be teaching you how to factor equations or the history of the rise and fall of Rome if you didn’t need to know it to fully understand the course subject matter.

“The faculty is the faculty because they are experts in their field,” says Scott Sandage, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. “As a whole, they know what it is that one needs to learn to be educated in the specific [subject] that is at hand.”

4. “Why is this course required?”

While some of those gen-ed courses might seem unnecessary to your particular major, there’s a reason why they are included in your schedule. But, assuming the course is required for your major, Sandage says the bottom line is that professors think, “In my expert opinion, it will improve your education to take this course or to have this distribution requirement.” Also, it can be plain offensive to question why a teacher’s course is relevant!

5. “Last semester when I took a course in your department with Professor X, he/she taught it this other way.”

No two professors will teach the same material the same way. “Each professor has [his or her] own style and philosophy of teaching, and does not want to be told to be like someone else,” Flapan says.

Just because one professor let you hand in homework late or allowed you to redo assignments does not mean that every professor will be that way. If you truly do not like a professor’s style, Flapan recommends that “you can drop the class or plan to take it with someone else.” 

6. “I can’t do the homework. Please tell me how to do it.”

According to Flapan, professors assign homework with the expectation that it will be challenging.  If you have actually worked on an assignment and still can’t figure it out, Flapan suggests you “go to the professor’s office hours and explain the approach you took to solve a particular problem and where you got stuck. This shows the professor that you have made an effort, and also allows the professor to see what you do and do not understand.  The professor can then help you with the problem as well as with your overall understanding of the material.”

7. “You gave my friend more points for doing the same thing.”

Your professor teaches tons of students and grades just as many papers. Chances are he or she doesn’t remember how your friend’s paper was graded or whether or not it was actually the same. If you want to bring this to your professor’s attention, Flapan suggests, “You should bring your friend’s paper with you so that the professor can see that the papers really are the same. Of course, doing so could result in the professor taking points away from you friend, though in general, this will not happen.”

8. “I missed class because I was sick. Can I turn in the assignment late?”

Unless you are gravely ill, most professors will not accept an excuse after the fact, Flapan says. If you are unable to complete an assignment or take an exam, she says, “You should contact the professor before the exam or assignment and ask if it’s possible to make it up or have an extension.  Some professors may ask for a doctor’s note or a note from the dean of students to verify that you were actually too sick to complete the assignment or take the exam.” Your best bet is to do this before an assignment is due—don’t wait until you’re all better to contact your professor.

9. “I forgot my pencil. Do you have any extras?”

Coming to an exam and announcing your lack of pencil, calculator or any other materials that are clearly needed for an exam can be irritating to professors, Flapan says. Along with forgetting your homework, a professor presumes their students will come to class prepared. “The professor expects you to be an adult and take responsibility for whatever you need to bring to class,” Flapan says.

Remember that your professors are people, just like you, and they want to be treated as though you appreciate the work they put into teaching. Make sure you’re being considerate when you talk to them!

Rebecca Rubin is a freshman at the University of Florida, where she is majoring in Journalism.
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