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Don’t fear the teacher, and other tips for talking to your professors

First-year student primer
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5 ways to break the ice with your prof—and 4 things you should never do

You may not want to hear it, but the top piece of advice for first-year students from the Class of 2016 is simple.

“Talk to your professors,” says Erik Jansen, Psychology Honours graduate. “People say that all the time and it sounds cliché, but your professors are there to help you and they want to help you because they’re passionate about the material.”

Students are responsible for breaking the ice, but we’ve compiled a list of best practices for reaching out to your professors.

1. Don’t fear the teacher

storyimage-primer-profs-RBaril“The faculty here are real people,” says Assistant Professor Raymond Baril, Department of Music. “University has this ‘ivory tower’ feel—there’s this idea that you can’t talk to these people, but they’re just people.”

Raymond wants you to know that your profs were once where you are now, and they knocked on someone’s door to ask for help or have a conversation. “The best advice I can give to students is to talk. A lot of the problems people run into during their first year are because there's a bit of fear, and they're disconnected.”

2. Be mindful of boundaries and expectations

Your professor usually lays out their preferred methods of communication on the first day of class, which is why you should try not to miss it. Not every prof will be okay with answering homework questions after hours at the grocery store.

But your profs do understand that you may still be shopping around to find the right courses, so if you miss the first day or two, make sure to reach out to your prof (during office hours—see below) or break the ice with your new classmates by asking for a rundown of the first day.

“Different instructors have different expectations,” says Assistant Professor Ross Shaw, Biological Sciences. “I would say that students should not feel we're unapproachable by any means.”

3. Take advantage of office hours

storyimage-primer-profs-LHoney“Go to office hours—I'm just going to keep saying that over and over again,” says Associate Professor and Chair Lynne Honey, Department of Psychology. “Go to office hours.”

Faculty members carve out time to be available to students during office hours (a time when profs are pretty much guaranteed to be in their offices). You’re not bothering them by dropping in! This is your chance to ask questions and get one-on-one help.

“I think that some students believe what they're saying—‘I didn't want to bother you,’” says Lynne. “Coming to office hours regularly and grilling me with questions is not ‘bothering’ me. That's my job.”

Can’t make your prof’s office hours? Give them a head’s up. They might be able to make an appointment with you to see them at a different time.

But the worst thing you can do is wait until it’s too late—when you’re drowning in assignments and have an exam in an hour. Coming to office hours in a panic won’t be productive for you or your prof if they need to spend time calming you down.

4. Talk to your peers

Still not convinced it’s that easy to talk to your professors? Try talking to your peers. If you missed the first few classes, seek out a classmate who can fill you in on what you need to know. And students in later years of your program can give you a different perspective altogether.

“One of the best resources is for the students to ask other students,” says Raymond. “You want to find out about what's going on? Go talk to somebody in second or third year. They'll tell you exactly what you need to look out for.”

Remember office hours? Some professors find it productive if a small group of students come together. The group dynamic may not work for all courses or profs, so check first before swarming their office.

“It's really useful to come in a team,” says Lynne. “I don't know why it's a better dynamic, and maybe it's not universal, but I find it really helpful. It's a better energy.”

5. Admit you need help—the sooner the better

storyimage-primer-profs-RShawRoss says that not enough of his students come to see him, and that’s likely true for a lot of professors. Typically students wait until they’re deep into the term before they start to realize they need help outside the classroom.

He explains, “I don't see enough of them because they leave it to the last minute, or they're scared and feel ashamed. They think, ‘I've gotten this poor mark, but I'm not able to learn from it because I'm not able to go and talk to him, because I feel badly.’” It’s a catch-22. But he adds that students shouldn’t be stressed about making mistakes. “We learn from our failures, and that's really difficult for a lot of students.”

But don’t feel ashamed or scared—your faculty member wants to help, and they don’t want you to wait until everyone is in the thick of midterms. If you feel yourself floundering in a sea of information, talk to your prof. They will answer your questions and recommend resources available to you.

“If you feel you're running into a struggle with something, there's a good chance the teachers you're dealing with have dealt with that struggle, either with other students or themselves,” says Raymond. “So go talk to them.”

4 things you should never do

1. Address your prof casually

Now that you’re out of high school, you might notice that not all university teachers want to be called Mr./Ms./Mrs. In university, formal titles like “Dr.” or “Professor” are the norm—though most faculty members are fine with using their first name. But err on the side of formality until they welcome you to address them more casually.

2. Bombard your prof with questions before class starts

Consider this: teaching is exactly like giving a presentation. So if your prof has entered the room and is setting up, this may not be the best time to ask about that complex lesson from last class. You might be disrupting their train of thought.

3. Hop on social media during a lesson

If you’re smiling at your phone as you sneak in a text message or catch up on Facebook, imagine what your prof sees. “No one smiles at their crotch that much, no matter how much they like their crotch,” says Lynne. Don’t let social media distract you from your prof’s lesson, because you’re not only wasting their time—you’re wasting your own.

4. Assume your profs are all the same

Don’t assume that Professor A’s preferences extend to Professor B’s class. As Lynne says, “We are different people. We have different specialties, we have different training, we have different expectations.”

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