You may have sailed through high school with minimal extra time and effort, but college is different. Here’s why you should ask your professor for help when you need it, and sometimes even when you don’t. 

High school can be smooth sailing for students who show up, pay attention, and do their homework. If you’re a high-achieving student, you may have earned your top grades without ever speaking with a teacher outside the classroom. 

College, though, can be a whole different story.

In college, course material is more complex. Classes can be large and professors, who may be lecturing to hundreds of students, expect students to take proactive control of their own educational experience. 

In this blog, we’ll explore how you can  take advantage of an opportunity that many new college freshmen miss out on: visiting a professor during office hours. Seeking out one-on-one attention from a college instructor can be an invaluable way to enrich your college experience, resulting in potentially better grades in the short run and an enhanced educational experience in the long run. 

Do Teachers and Professors Really Want to Hear From Their Students?

Many new college students regard asking for help from a teacher almost as a failure. They see it as a scary experience in which an instructor may discover that they really aren’t that smart after all. 

The truth is almost exactly the opposite: professors deeply appreciate students who use office hours to clarify a concept, ask for additional resources, or to get a better grasp of the material to avoid falling behind. 

In fact, some professors even require students to schedule time for an office visit, counting it as a percentage of a student’s final grade.

Research has shown a correlation between how often professors meet with students and how well students do in school. When students meet frequently with professors in positive encounters, they feel more confident and are challenged to grow intellectually. The payoff can even be a higher grade.  

“We rarely have time to engage individually with each student every single day, especially in large classes,” writes Cassandra O’Sullivan Sacher, in an Inside Higher Ed blog. “That’s where office hours pick up the slack; even if it’s only for five minutes, I can give students my full attention and offer advice on conquering the roadblocks impeding their understanding. Students generally walk out of my office with more direction and satisfaction than when they arrived.”

A professor will use your queries as a basis for assessing how effective a lecture or classroom experience has been. Your instructor may even decide to tweak the next lecture to better answer a question that other students may have had too. 

Why Should I Try to Speak to My Teacher/Professor?

Visiting a professor during office hours includes the following  advantages: 

  • It’s a chance to ask questions you may have been too embarrassed or shy to ask in class. Raising your hand and saying you don’t understand something in class can be intimidating, so a 1:1 conversation with your professor can be an easier way to clarify a concept and ensure you understand before moving on.
  • Your teacher can recommend more reading or can review material which can strengthen your grasp of course concepts. If a professor thinks you need it, they may even suggest you get tutoring. 
  • It can prevent you from getting frustrated and giving up. If you don’t understand the material, you are likely to become less motivated. If your instructor can clarify, it can get you back on track.
  • You may get to know your professor on a personal level. Knowing something about your professor’s point of view and background may also help you feel more engaged in coursework.
  • It may encourage you to stay in school. A 2015 College Teaching study revealed that students who met with professors increased their confidence in the subject matter and felt that their professors respected and cared about them. 
  • It can help you learn more about an academic field or a career. While many students visit a professor when they have questions about the course, that’s not the only reason to drop in. You can use a professor’s office hours as a chance to answer broader questions about entering their field or pursuing alternative career options.
  • It can open the door to getting a reference letter for an internship or job. By building a relationship with a professor early on, it will be easier to ask for favors such as a reference letter later on. 
  • It is a networking opportunity that may help you get a job one day. Not only can you ask about an academic field or career options, but your professor may know of internships, research and job opportunities for you to explore outside of your courseload.

How is Talking to a College Professor Different from Talking to a High School Teacher?

Not all instructors go about teaching in the same way, and there is a big difference between the way that high school instructors and college instructors teach. 

The biggest difference: college students are expected to take ownership of their education. Your high school teacher may have checked in with you each week to make sure you were on top of assignments. Your college instructor probably won’t. 

College professors assume students will stay on top of coursework by themselves and reach out when they have problems. That means it’s up to you to have the confidence and maturity to know when you need help and to seek it. Keep in mind: a professor is an ally who wants to see you succeed! 

What Information is Important to Share with a Teacher/Professor When You Meet?

College is a collaboration between students and instructors. There should be a free exchange of ideas, information, and perspectives.

If you’re planning on visiting your college instructor for an office visit, here are a few tips to keep in mind: 

  • Prepare. Don’t walk in blindly. Instead, review your notes, readings and lectures and write down specific questions. Your organization will make you feel less nervous and will show your professor you’ve tried.  
  • Introduce yourself.  Don’t assume your instructor has learned everyone’s names, especially if it is a very large class or your visit is at the beginning of the semester. 
  • Respect the instructor’s time. Don’t show up at the last five minutes of the office hour. Arrive early enough so the instructor does not need to stay late.  
  • Have a positive attitude. Show your enthusiasm for the course and believe in your ability to learn what you’re struggling with. A positive mindset does help.
  • Be professional. Act like an adult. Don’t wear sunglasses or headphones or check your cell phone for messages. Accept any criticism in a professional way, without taking it personally or complaining.
  • Communicate clearly. Be assertive but not confrontational. Explain any particular concepts you are having a hard time with and ask what you might do to improve your understanding.

Professor-Student Interactions Can Enrich Your College Experience

If you pass up a professor’s office hours, you’ll be passing up a tool that could potentially be an academic game-changer. Step into your professor’s office and you will take control of your college experience, stimulate intellectual growth, network, and be introduced to future possibilities you never thought about before.