Working with Instructors

Solid student-faculty relationships can provide a foundation for a successful college experience. How do you relate to your instructors? Learn ways in which you can most successfully communicate with your instructors, resolve conflicts, and potentially cultivate rich and rewarding relationships.

Why You Should Talk to Your Instructors

Which teacher do you remember most fondly? You are lucky if you have someone in mind – a teacher who encouraged and inspired you and played a role in shaping the person you are today. This teacher may be thinking similar thoughts about you – because, for every favorite teacher, there is a favorite student. This satisfaction goes both ways.

In this section, we explore ways you can cultivate rich and rewarding relationships with your instructors, and resolve any conflicts that arise. Solid student-faculty relationships can be foundational to a successful college experience.

The following video, from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, examines the value teachers and students place on connecting with each other.


Methods of Communicating with Instructors

Many college students are surprised to discover that instructors enjoy getting to know their students. The human dimension of college matters. As a student, you are an important part of your instructor's world and most are happy to work with you during their office hours, talk for a few minutes after class, respond to digital messages, talk on the phone, or engage in online discussion forums or perhaps course wikis or personal journals. These are some of the many methods of communication you and your instructors can use.

The following video, from the University of British Columbia, shares faculty perspectives on some of the many reasons students should talk to their faculty or to teaching assistants (TAs).



Benefits of Communicating with Instructors

Communicating with your instructors can help you feel more comfortable in college and more connected to the college culture. Students who communicate with their instructors are less likely to become dispirited and drop out.

Communicating with instructors is also a valuable way to learn about an academic field or a career. Maybe you have not yet decided on the discipline you want to major in, or what those who have earned a degree in your field do after college. Your instructors can share information and their insights with you.

You may also need a reference or a letter of recommendation for a job or internship application. An instructor who understands your interests and field of study will be able to provide a more complete letter of recommendation or a reference for you later on.

Since many instructors are well connected with the professionals in their field, they may be aware of job openings, internships, or research opportunities, that you would not have known about otherwise. An instructor who knows you becomes a valuable member of your network. Networking will help you conduct future job searches and discover other career and learning opportunities. Most people learn about job openings through the people who are in their network, rather than via online job postings.

Think about what being "educated" means, such as how you think, understand society and the world, and how you confront and respond to challenges and new situations. A lot of learning occurs outside of the formal classroom. Communicating with your instructors may be one of your most meaningful experiences in college


Guidelines for Communicating with Instructors

Getting along with your instructor and communicating well with them begins with your attitude. As experts in their field, instructors deserve respect. Remember that a college education is a collaborative process that works best when students and instructors communicate freely in an open exchange of ideas, information, and perspectives. While it pays to respect your instructors, there is no need to fear them. As you get to know them better, you will discover their personality and find appropriate ways to talk to them. Review the following guidelines for getting along with and communicating with your instructors:

  • Do some preparation work before you meet with your instructor. Review your notes on readings and lectures, and write down your questions. You will feel more comfortable, and the instructor will appreciate your being organized.

  • Be sure to introduce yourself. Do not assume your instructor has learned every student's name, and do not make them feel uncomfortable by having to ask you. Unless the instructor has asked you to address them as "Dr. _______", "Ms. _______", or Mr. _______", you should address them as "Professor _______".

  • Respect your instructor's time. In addition to teaching, most college instructors participate in committees, conduct research, do other professional work, and have personal lives. It is impolite and inappropriate to arrive several minutes before office hours conclude and expect your instructor to stay late to talk with you.

  • Understand that your instructor will recognize you from class. If did not pay attention during their lecture, most instructors will not appreciate your coming to office hours to learn what you missed.

  • Do not try to fool your instructor. Insincere praise or making excuses for not doing an assignment will rarely play in your favor. Nor is it a good idea to act as if you are "too cool" to take your classwork seriously – this attitude will likely anger and frustrate your instructor. To earn your instructor's respect, come to class prepared, do the work, genuinely participate in class, and show respect. Your instructor will be happy to see you when you come their office hours or need some extra help.

  • Try to see things from your instructor's point of view. Imagine you spent hours preparing for class, on a topic you find interesting and exciting. You will be energized when students understand what you are saying, and appreciate those who can help them become better teachers and communicators. How would you feel if your students are not engaged in the subject matter, but only interested in learning whether they need to know to pass the exam?

  • Be professional when talking to an instructor. You can be cordial and friendly, but you should keep your discussion professional and on an adult level. Respect their time by coming to office hours prepared with your questions – not just to chat or joke around. (Do not wear sunglasses or earphones in the office or check your cell phone for messages.) Be prepared to accept constructive criticism in a professional way, without taking it personally or complaining.


The following infographic gives you a visual way to remember key concepts about communicating with your instructors.

Talking to Your Profs and TAs: 1. Use office hours. Many students never attend office hours. Profs wait alone or assume everyone understands the class. 2. Don't be afraid. You have valuable thoughts and you'r in college to learn. Ask questions early and often. 3. Have something to say. Your prof wants you to challenge ideas and be engaged. 4. Come prepared. You will gain more if you have specific questions ready. 5. Clarification can be easy. Often your question doesn't take long to sort out. Just go talk to your prof early


Effective Email Communication with Instructors

Email and texts have become a convenient, valuable, primary form of communication in education, just as in the rest of society. You are probably comfortable sending emails, texts, and messages via the online course learning management system. However, be aware that using digital tools to communicate with instructors is different from communicating with friends, where we often use shortcuts, abbreviate words and sentences, and ignore grammatical rules, capitalization and punctuation. These emails and texts are informal and inappropriate for communicating with an instructor. Your instructors expect you to use a professional, respectful tone and fairly formal style (just as you will be expected to do when you address your boss or supervisor in your job).

  • Use a professional email name. If you have an email that incorporates a nickname you use with friends, create a different email account with a professional name to use with your instructors, work supervisors, and others. "BoatyMcBoatface" is not an appropriate, professional email name!

  • Include something in the subject line that succinctly communicates the purpose and topic of your email to make it easier for your instructor to review and categorize: "May I make an appointment?" says something; "Help!" does not.

  • Address digital messages as if you are writing a letter, such as with "Dear Professor _______". Include your full name in the closing.

  • Get to your point quickly and concisely.

  • Write as if you are writing a paper for class, by avoiding sarcasm, criticism, and negative language.

  • Avoid abbreviations, nonstandard spelling, slang, and emoticons, such as smiley faces or frowns.

  • Be courteous, accommodating, and respectful. Avoid stating your expectations, such as, "I expect to hear from you soon" or "If I haven't heard by 4 p.m., I will assume you will accept my late paper".

  • When you reply to a message, make sure the original message is included, to make it easier for your instructor to see the complete threaded discussion, without having to flip back to previous emails.

  • End the message with a "Thank you" or similar note of appreciation.

  • Proofread your message before you send it.

  • Wait to send your message if you are upset. With any important message, you should wait to review it later, before you send it, to avoid expressing an inappropriate emotion or thought, that may seem disrespectful or condescending. Miscommunication often results when people send email messages without thinking about how the recipient may misinterpret their words.


Conflict-Resolution Strategies

The most common "conflict" students experience with instructors is a belief that you received a lower grade than you deserve. This belief is particularly common among new students who are not yet used to the higher standards and rigor of college. It is disappointing to receive a low grade, but try not to be too hard on yourself or the instructor. Review what happened on the test or paper and make sure to take the proper steps to know what you can do differently, to improve your score next time.

Talk with your instructor If you genuinely believe you should have received a higher grade. How you approach your instructor is important. Instructors are used to hearing students complain about grades. They will likely patiently explain their grading standards, but they seldom change grades. Nevertheless, it is useful for you to understand their expectations and guidelines if you are unclear about what went wrong. Instructors appreciate students who approach them by asking how they can improve their study habits and how they can learn more efficiently to succeed in future assessments. This information will help you tremendously and help you establish a productive rapport, even if your instructor does not change your grade for the test you came to discuss.

Here are some guidelines for talking about a grade, or resolving another problem or disagreement, with an instructor:

  • Review the requirements for the paper or test and the instructor's comments. Be sure you have good reasons why you feel they should re-evaluate your grade – not simply because you received a bad grade. Be prepared with specific points you want to discuss.

  • Make an appointment with your instructor. For face-to-face classes, do not try to talk about your concern before or after class when your instructor is busy doing other things.

  • Be polite. Begin by politely explaining that you thought you did better on the assignment or test (not simply that you think you deserve a better grade) and that you would like to review the exam with them so you can better understand the result.

  • Listen to your instructor's explanation and rationale for grading the assignment or test as they did. Do not complain or whine. Show your appreciation for the explanation. Raise your specific questions and comments at this time. For example, you might say, "I really thought I was being clear here when I wrote . . ". Be sure to ask what you should have done differently.

  • Use good listening skills. Wait and listen to their explanation carefully. Try not to seem argumentative!

  • Ask if there is an opportunity for you to improve the grade. Can you rewrite the paper or do any extra-credit work to help make up for a bad test score? While you are showing you would like to earn a higher grade in the course, make it clear that you are willing to put in extra effort to improve, and that you want to learn more, not just get a higher grade.

  • If there is no opportunity to improve on this specific project, ask the instructor for advice on what you might do on the next assignment and how you should prepare for the next test. They may offer some individual help or share some good study advice. Your instructor will respect your willingness to make the effort – as long as it is clear you are more interested in learning than simply getting a good grade.


Working with Instructors: Key Points


  • Go the extra mile: Talk to your professor when you:
    • need an extension;
    • need clarification on course material;
    • are experiencing challenges in your personal life that impact your academic performance;
    • are considering pursuing a major or graduate degree in their subject area.

  • Visit early: Build a rapport with your instructors early in the semester, in case you need an extension or extra help later on. Instructors value students who visit them during office hours but do not appreciate it when panicked students ask for an extension an hour before an assignment is due. Most professors will be accommodating if you ask for help well in advance.

  • Show your interest: Instructors want you to be as interested in their subject as they are. Nothing excites them more than knowing you are passionate about what they teach. You can show your interest by participating in class, attending office hours, and emailing your instructors if you have questions.

  • Meet your professor: Instructors have many responsibilities to juggle, such as conducting research, teaching other classes, traveling to conferences, and helping with administrative tasks. However, they entered the teaching profession because they appreciate students and they DO want to talk with you. Go to office hours and meet them!

  • Build relationships: Your instructors are really interesting people and you will probably enjoy their company. They can also open doors to academic research opportunities, serve as mentors, and may write a reference letter for you down the road. Build strong relationships with your instructors while you have the chance.

The following video from the University of Toronto Scarborough summarizes the ideas and guidelines shared in this section about communicating with instructors:


Check Your Understanding

Answer these questions to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. (For video licensing information, refer to each video's YouTube page.)

Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2022, 1:39 PM