College is prime time for meeting people and making connections. You are surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds and interests. You have instructors from all over the world, instructors with experience and research in fascinating and sometimes obscure fields. The student body and faculty are diverse, but everybody has one thing in common. Your fellow students and you have chosen to attend this college and your instructors have chosen to teach at this college. You share a campus, a town, and at least some values— you all believe in the importance of education, for example. This kernel of shared interest is what makes college an experience instead of simply a series of classes one takes.
Your relationships with instructors and other students will in many ways define your college experience. This chapter covers the following topics:
- developing relationships with your instructors
- getting to know your instructor outside the classroom
- emailing and meeting with your instructors
- difficulties with instructors
- developing relationships with your classmates
Developing Relationships with Your Instructors
College instructors include professors, associate or assistant professors, lecturers, adjuncts, and teaching assistants. Some may have extensive experience in their field and also in teaching, others may have little teacher training. Some may be quite casual and welcoming to students, others may be more formal. Inevitably you will have instructors who don't teach according to your learning style. Also, you will find yourself in a variety of classroom environments. You might be in a class of 8 students or in a lecture hall with 500 students.
Keep an open mind—you might think you need hands-on experiential learning, but find that a passionate lecturer is your favorite professor. You might feel lost in a cavernous lecture hall until you make a connection with the teaching assistant assigned to your section and realize that she or he's a great teacher. Developing a relationship with your instructor depends on him or her, the situation (the number of other students, the setting, the class time and place, etc.), and you. Here's what you can do to make positive connections with your instructors in class:
Attend class regularly and on time. Research has shown that attendance is the most important factor in student success in a course. In fact, one study calculated the cost of each missed class session to be .06 points off a student's G.P.A. If you know you will miss a class, contact your instructor and inform him or her of the situation, then make sure you get notes from a classmate.
Sit in the "teacher's T"—the front row or middle section of seats—where your instructor will notice you and where you'll be more likely to stay engaged in the lecture or discussion.
Come prepared for class. Complete the reading, homework, and the suggested but optional readings.
Participate in class discussions. An interesting class depends on interested students. Do your part to add to class discussion.
Ask questions. Pursue your curiosity and interest. Also, ask questions of other students to facilitate a dynamic class discussion.
Avoid asking certain questions, such as "Is this going to be on the exam?" and "Did I miss anything?" In general, instructors want to engage students in learning, not simply to inform students how to perform for a grade. Assume you did miss something if you missed class.
Demonstrate open-mindedness and respect for your instructor. This includes addressing him or her by the proper title and pronouncing his or her name correctly.
Avoid disruptions and negative attention. Turn off or silence your phone before entering class. Make sure your actions and body language convey interest in class. Slumping, texting, and madly scribbling in one's daily planner all communicate "I'd rather be somewhere else, anywhere else, with someone else!" even if what you're actually texting is "this class is amazing!" Also, if you know you'll have to leave class early, let your instructor know at the beginning of class. Finally, eat or drink in class only if you know it is acceptable with your instructor.
Getting to Know Your Instructor Outside of the Classroom
Outside of the classroom, you can create other opportunities to develop a relationship with your instructor. Take time to visit with your instructors—take advantage of their offers to assist students, and ask for help and advice when you need it. Also, try to attend any out-of-class gatherings or field trips where you'll be able to learn more about the subject you're studying and connect with instructors and classmates.
Here are some reasons you might meet with your instructor outside of class:
- To request guidance on a paper topic, research project, or other issue
- To ask him or her to point you to resources to help you succeed in class
- To learn more about your instructor's area of expertise or her or his department
- To obtain advice about how to do better on future assignments and exams
- To make contacts within an industry in order to get an internship or job
- To seek guidance on future education and career plans
If you do end up developing a strong relationship with your instructor, you may end up asking him or her to act as your mentor or your academic advisor. She or he may invite you to work as a teaching, lab, or research assistant, which will broaden and deepen your experience in the field. Also, scholarships, jobs, internships, and graduate schools almost always require letters of recommenda- tion from applicants. You will want to know at least a couple of instructors who know you well and who will be willing to write you a letter of recommendation.
Emailing Your Instructors
Always, always, treat an email to an instructor with the same care you would an old-fashioned letter. That is, include an appropriate salutation (Dear Dr. So-and-So,), proper spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, and a closing statement. While there may be some exceptions, most of the instructors we know and work with grimace at sloppy, informal emails. Also, make sure the content of your email is something you'd feel comfortable talking about in person. If you have a question about why you received a certain grade on a test, for example, use the email only to request an appointment to discuss your concern.
To request an appointment. Include the purpose for the appointment and propose a time or two that might work: "Would you be able to meet with me on Wednesday afternoon to discuss possible paper topics?"
To request clarification on an assignment if there is no opportunity to do so face-to-face. Before you use email for this purpose, make sure you have thoroughly read the directions provided.
To inform your instructor about something. For example, you might email to say you won't be in class for a couple of days because you are ill. No need to go into detail—just give information that is relevant to him or her.
As suggested by the instructor. Some instructors prefer email communication and invite their students to discuss topics with them via email.
Never use email...
If you need an immediate response. Assume you won't get a response to an email for 24 hours.
To ask about why you got a certain grade. Email is too cumbersome for this purpose and you'll miss a good opportunity to improve as a student. Request an appointment, then bring in the paper or test so you can discuss it in person. She or he can elaborate on written comments and you can ask for ways you might improve in the future.
To complain or confront. If you feel strongly about a grade or issue, you should request an appointment and talk privately with your instructor. Face- to-face communication is much more effective for these situations: you will be more likely to come to a mutual understanding if you approach your instructor personally and with an open mind.
To include your instructor in your circle of friends. Refrain from forwarding mass emails or sending very personal messages to your instructors.
Meeting With Your Instructors
With a few exceptions, your instructors will be very busy people who try to make themselves available to students as much as possible. Here are some tips for planning to meet with your instructors:
Schedule an appointment. Even if your instructor holds regular office hours, try to schedule an appointment to ensure you get to meet with him or her during that time.
Earlier is better. Like you, your instructor will have more competing issues to deal with as her or his day progresses. To get your instructor's full attention, schedule your meetings as early in her or his daily schedule as possible.
Be on time. Locate your instructor's office prior to your scheduled appointment and make sure you get there when you're expected. This will show that you value his or her time and it will ensure that you have a full meeting. If you will be late, contact him or her right away to apologize and let the instructor know. Offer to reschedule if it is more convenient for your instructor.
Avoid transition times. The times right before and right after class are usually not a good time to ask your instructor for assistance or guidance. Those transi- tions are not conducive to focused one-on-one conversations, as there will be a throng of other students competing for your attention and the instructor will be focused on getting materials together for class.
Come prepared. Carefully review the materials that have been presented in class. If you're going to ask for clarification or help, make sure you've done as much as possible to help yourself prior to the meeting. Bring your textbook and notes if necessary.
Difficulties with Instructors
You may encounter communication issues or other difficulties with instructors. These can be particularly frustrating your first year when you are establishing your independence and learning how to deal with conflict on your own. Here are the most common frustrations students have with instructors and ways of dealing with them:
I don't understand the material!
Make an appointment to talk with your instructor. In the meeting, ask specific questions rather than asking for general help. (What made Piaget's use of psycho- metrics revolutionary? rather than Why is Piaget important? and never Now, what's a Piaget?) Bring materials like homework assignments or notes to show that you have attempted to learn the material on your own. Listen and take notes.
I understand the material but my grade doesn't show it!
Make an appointment to talk with your instructor. First, make sure that you do in fact understand the material by showing some of your work and explaining your understanding of key concepts. This will give your instructor a chance to confirm you know your stuff or to tell you that you aren't actually mastering it the way you thought you were. If your grades don't reflect your knowledge, ask for ideas for how to perform better on exams and papers. Usually instructors are happy to work with interested students.
My instructor and I can't communicate!
Sometimes you run into someone who seems to speak another language—we mean this metaphorically, though of course it could be a literal statement. If you and your instructor have poor communication or a negative relationship, try contacting other students who have taken courses from him or her and ask for their recommendations on how to work with him or her. If one of you has offended the other, make an appointment and do your part to clear up any confusion.
I don't have difficulties with my instructor—I have a difficult instructor!
If you believe you've done everything you can to have a neutral to positive relationship with your instructor and nothing has worked, contact your academic advisor or college counselor for assistance and advice.
Developing Relationships with Your Classmates
Later in life you may have to wrack your brain to think of topics of conversation when you're in a roomful of strangers.
But now you're on easy street. You can look around at the other seven or fifty-two or four hundred students and know you have countless things in common and therefore an abundance of conversation topics. The latest reading. The most recent assignment. The last lecture. The upcoming exam. A related play or performance. Other classes. Coffee—where to get it, how much you need it, and how much you'd pay to have a cup of it materialize in your hands at this very instant. You get the picture.
It's relatively easy to meet the people around you and to strike up a simple conversation. Even in large lecture halls many people end up sitting in the same sections each class period, so it's a good chance you'll run into the same students on a regular basis.
Build connections with other students during the transition times (the minutes before and after class) by engaging in conversation, asking questions, and comparing notes or ideas. Join field trips and other excursions that your instruc- tor might offer; not only is it fun to learn outside the classroom, it's also an informal environment conducive to developing peer relationships. Finally, collaborate with other students: create a study group or join one that's already formed, work on a group project if that's an option, and share ideas.
Developing Relationships in the Online Learning Environment
Some of your classes may have an online component and some may be entirely online. Developing relationships with your online instructor or classmates will make such classes richer and more rewarding. In many cases, the instructor will facilitate community building by requiring a certain number of posts or other online interactions. If possible, go beyond the requirements: get involved in the online discussions, reach out to classmates to create teams or study groups, and share interesting ideas and information that is relevant to the class material.
Developing Relationships Exercises￼
- What qualities does a great instructor possess? List as many as possible.
- Think of teachers you've had in the past who were great but whose teaching style was very different from what usually works best for you. What made those teachers great?
- What expectations do college instructors have of their students that are different from the expectations high school teachers have of their students? Brainstorm with another student and/or interview upperclass- men and/or instructors to answer this question.
- Draw or describe in writing your vision of the ideal student-instructor- classmates relationship. Where do teaching, learning, and knowledge fit into your drawing or depiction?
- Interview a classmate and introduce him or her to the class. Create interesting interview questions so other students will really get to know your subject. Introduce him or her in a memorable way.