Study Skills Academic Resources

Any tips on how I should approach a professor for help?

Yes, be polite and respectful. Make an appointment or go during office hours if they are clearly listed as available for drop-ins (I actually thought office hours always were meant for drop-ins, but I discovered last semester that some professors dislike any kind of drop-in, so just to be on the safe side, make an appointment). (Do not, I repeat, do not try to just catch the professor before or after class, except to make an appointment to come and talk later on. If your professor has time then and would rather talk to you on the spot, fine, but don't expect it. Right before class is hectic, because the professor is focused on getting the class started. Right after class may not work, either, because the professor may have other appointments elsewhere).

When you speak to a professor, use I statements. An I statement is when you state a problem or a question using the word I, not the word you. Here are some samples:

I statement (good )You statement (not so good )
I am having trouble keeping up during lectureYou go too fast when you lecture.
I am not sure I am studying the right material.You aren't making it clear what is important.
I want to do better on the next test, so I would like to understand why I missed points on some of the questions on this test. I seem to be confused.Why did you take off points on these questions?

Can you see how the I statements are far more diplomatic? They also will be less likely to place the professor on the defensive. I'll be honest with you; some professors have had bad experiences with students coming in to whine to them about their grades and to try to get them to change the grade for no real reason. As you can imagine, that can be very irritating. Don't come across that way. You are coming for help to do better on the next test, but make it clear that you take responsibility for the mistakes you made in preparing for the first test.

And please keep in mind that you are responsible. Even in the worst case scenario of the most confusing professor and most painfully obscure test, it is your responsibility to learn the material (or to recognize in time that you need to drop the class). The professor does the best he or she can to teach you the material. The professor gets to set the standards and rules for the class. It is your job and your responsibility to meet those standards.

But, you say, every professor is different, and the rules and standards seem so different from each class. It's confusing and frustrating.

Ah, I say, now you see one way college prepares you for life after college. I have had many different supervisors and employers, and they all had different expectations and standards in terms of what they wanted me to do. My job, if I wanted to keep the job, was to meet those standards, not complain about them or try to get out of them. Of course, sometimes I did decide it was time to seek a new job, but that was still my responsibility. In fact, and now I'm really rambling, I have felt bad for my friends and colleagues who sometimes stay in impossible jobs because they feel they have no choice but to stay, and I'm not sure that's the case. The same can be true for a class you are taking-it may be a no win situation, in which case you need to drop the class or fail/retake the class later.

Having said all of that, now let me say one more thing: Going to see your professor is often the best thing you can do. Who else is the expert on that particular class? And many professors are very happy to help you outside of class, or at least encourage you. Sometimes they will help you understand the material in a new way. You may also feel more comfortable in the class and speaking to the professor. Many professors feel like the lonely Maytag repairman, because students never even try to talk to them. While I can't guarantee that every contact you make with a professor will be positive, most of the time, it will be. Please give it a try!