The professor is in to help you

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One of the advantages of being on an academic calendar is that you have two occasions for new resolutions: the beginning of fall semester and the beginning of spring semester. This year, I’d like to challenge all students — and especially entering freshmen — to make a resolution that may change their academic careers: Pledge to meet one professor in office hours this semester.

In teaching at UK for the past three years, I’ve learned that there is a huge difference between the students who know their instructors and those who don’t. The students who know their teachers pay more attention in class, are more likely to complete assignments well and on time, are more confident in asking questions and participating in discussion, and yes —they get better grades.

As for the other students, they may come to class so infrequently that the instructor never learns their names. It is easy for this kind of student to slip through the cracks, to be in danger of failing by midterm and to end up scrambling in November. It is only in the last few weeks of class that I’ll learn that this student had a family/medical/work issue … and by then it is too late to be of much help.

Professors can do a lot to change this relationship. In my small classes, I ask each and every student to come to office hours. In my bigger courses, I make this optional. If a student comes to my office hours, I’ll know where they’re from, why they are majoring in history, and what they want to do when they grow up.  I’ll ask how the class is going and ask for feedback on what I can do to help them master the material.

Because I know the student, I’ll keep an eye out for him or her and notice when he or she is absent or starting to slip up. This kind of student doesn’t have to be a rock star, but if he is earnest and engaged I will be interested in his improvement.  And if I see him more than once during the semester, I’ll know him well enough to write a meaningful letter of recommendation when the time comes.

So what can you do to cultivate this kind of relationship? Go to office hours. Make an appointment in the second week of classes and just go.  You don’t have to have an idea for your term paper, or a brilliant question that you’d like to discuss. Block out 15 minutes and plan to introduce yourself and explain why you’re taking the class. You will probably find that the professor is surprised and pleased that you’ve taken the trouble to go to office hours, and you shouldn’t feel at all uncomfortable — it is the professor’s job to have office hours.

From here on out, you’ll see that asking questions in class or seeking feedback will be that much easier.  Don’t be surprised if the professor calls on you in class; this is because he knows your name and wants you to help with the running of the class.  By going to office hours you’ve expressed your commitment to succeed in the class, and the next step is for the professor to show that he’s invested in you.