Beyond books: Professor relations secret to stellar classes

After wrapping up his first class period of every semester, political science Professor Lee Sigelman watches in wonder as a flock of eager young GW students – smiles wide and shirts neatly pressed – make their way to greet him. He always suspects a conspiracy.

“It’s like some secret fraternity out there is telling kids the way to impress the professor is to go up and shake his hand on the first day of class,” says Sigelman, who teaches nearly 300 students every semester in his Introduction to American Government course. “I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s just a little too slick. I don’t buy it. There are better ways to help the professor get to know you.”

It’s no secret that cultivating a strong relationship with professors and teaching assistants (TAs) can be the key to being successful in a class. Yet many professors report the majority of their students make scant use of the resources they offer both in and out of the classroom.

While students need not view bonding with professors as part of the course curriculum, few students realize how much a solid, working relationship could help them, write Professors David Kinahan and Harry Heft, authors of The Savvy Student: Getting Better Grades Without Working Harder or Being Smarter. They theorize that by gripping a few essential truths about professors and the system under which they operate, students can exercise more power over the educators who make or brake their grades, job or graduate school recommendations, and to some extent, their futures. Putting some time into professor relations is not about kissing-up, manipulating, or annoying instructors to death, the authors explain. Kinahan and Heft, who are full professors with more than 15 years of combined experience at schools such as King’s College and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, say it is a survival strategy. Professors who know you are serious about getting what you want out of your education are more likely to help you get there.

So if the widely believed handshaking myth is out, how do students get their instructors’ attention? First of all, go to class. Not only does regular attendance make learning infinitely easier, but it provides a jumping-off point for students to dazzle their instructors with classroom participation.

“I want feedback from students. It lets me know what they need, how they’re thinking about the course and how I’m doing teaching it to them,” says Professor Avery Andrews, the undergraduate advisor in the history department.

To reward students for engaging in his class with questions or comments, Andrews factors class participation into final grades. Most instructors do this in some form, he says, even if it is subconsciously. Professors are more likely to give students who demonstrate effort in class the benefit of the doubt when it comes to grading work done outside of class.

To gain this edge, students must resist the urge to become “wallpaper,” or the nameless, expressionless mass of students who spend class doing nothing and saying less, write Kinahan and Heft.

Instead, they recommend sitting toward the front of the room, amid a cluster of similarly interested students. Professors tend to focus on this cluster because they are giving the professor a direct response in their faces and questions – a vital clue as to how the lecture is progressing.

“Professors are always willing to take certain things as compliments – so when, class to class, you are there on time and waiting to hear the pearls of wisdom they’re about to lay before you, they will choose to interpret this as an indication that you enjoy hearing them and that you like them as people,” they write. In other words, if the teacher thinks you like them, they are more apt to like you.

If you can’t get to class once in a while, apologize to the instructor promptly with a believable excuse and assurance that notes have already been picked up from a classmate. This approach minimizes damage from the appearance of total carelessness on the student’s part, even if that is in fact the case, Kinahan and Heft write.

Subtlety and sincerity help students walk the fine line between attracting instructors’ genuine enthusiasm and repelling them with irritating overzealousness. Professor Sigelman notes the oddest thing about his grinning handshakers is they rarely approach him for the rest of the semester.

“It’s amazing how few students come to see their instructors on office hours during the semester,” he says. “What’s even more amazing is that those students are usually the first to complain that you weren’t accessible enough.”

If students do have anything to say to their professor or TA, there is no better time to do it than during office hours, the two or three hours a week instructors promise to be in their offices to meet one-on-one with students.

“Especially if a student is shy in class, there is no way for me to know if they are doing the work unless they take the initiative to come speak to me outside of class,” says Dr. Melissa Panger, who teaches Primatology and Introduction to Biological Anthropology.

Unless they say otherwise, most professors are happy to chat about anything under the sun with students. Of course, they feel most comfortable when a student’s comment, concern or question relates to their class material, but that’s not the only good reason to use office hours.

“Professors can be intimidating in a classroom setting, and anxiety over not knowing the professor well can affect a student’s performance on exams, papers and in-class discussion,” says Andrews. “Talking with the professor individually helps break down the psychological barrier. We’re just people too!”

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