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How to Communicate with Your Professor

You’ve enrolled in class, logged into the learning management system, listened to your first lecture and started your first assignment, only to find yourself confused by the topic.

It would make sense at this point to get in touch with your professor, as he or she would be able to help clear things up. And yet, like a number of other students, you hesitate.  

Students may be reluctant to reach out to faculty members outside of course lectures or discussion board posts for a number of reasons. According to IDEA Education, a nonprofit focused on improving higher education, some students may be intimidated by faculty, or may not know how to interact outside of the course.

Faculty members want you to do well, and are happy to help you if you are unclear about the concepts, or have other struggles interfering with your coursework. “The professors are willing to go out of their way to connect with students both in and out of the classroom,” said Kevin Martin, Business Administration professor at New England College.

What may help is knowing the ideal way to initiate contact. If you’re going to reach out to your professor, keep the following in mind.

Find Out How Your Professors Want to be Reached

When you first log into your online classroom, check for any notes from your professor. Some faculty members may specify how they want to be reached – email, phone, text message and so on.

One NEC professor sets up an “Ask the Professor” thread on discussion boards for students to ask general questions, and prefers being reached by email if it’s a personal issue. Another faculty member sets up virtual office hours in the Live Lectures section of the learning management system for any questions.

If there are no notes, the course outline or syllabus usually has a faculty member’s email address and other contact information. The discussion board also may be another place to pose questions.

Timing Is Everything

If you have a question about an assignment, or are struggling with the material, you’re better off if you reach out sooner than later, as some professors may not respond immediately.

Some NEC faculty will let their students know to expect a response to emails within 24 hours, but their workload may determine how quickly they will get back to you. One professor specified what days and times she was unable to take phone calls, as she was teaching class.

Know What You’re Going to Say

Remember, your instructor might be teaching several different courses simultaneously, so it’s always helpful to identify which course you’re in and the subject matter you’re referring to. Be respectful with your emails, use proper grammar and avoid using emojis or text-speak that appears too casual, as it can be easy to misinterpret the tone or misunderstand the subject of a written message. Below are some examples:

  • Ineffecive Email: “Hey, I can’t figure out the essay. Where do I start? Thx.”
    This is a very vague request, and the instructor might feel that you haven’t even made an attempt at the assignment yet.
  • What to Say Instead: “Dear Professor Smith. I am in your Contemporary Law Enforcement class, and I’m attempting to write the essay about interrogation techniques. I have identified three techniques, but I’m having a hard time making the connection between them and the Fifth Amendment. Where should I look to find this information? I appreciate your help, and thank you in advance.”
    This is specific, and lets the instructor know what you need and how he or she can help you. It is also respectful.
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