As difficult coursework begins to mount, some college students will find it challenging to focus on much more than the content in front of them. But to get the most out of the undergraduate experience, professors say students should view going to class not just as an academic pursuit but also as a way to forge lasting relationships, both with classmates and professors.
“From the professor’s standpoint, it is a relationship, it’s not just an assignment,” says Audrey Murrell, professor of business administration, psychology and public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s a relationship where we’re investing in your personal and professional development.”
Those relationships can pay dividends long after graduation, but they start in those classroom moments. While learning the content is paramount, there are certain behaviors and habits that students can implement – or avoid – to strengthen their relationships with professors.
Here are eight ways professors say students can build positive rapport with their instructors and make the most of their college experience.
Practice Good Communication
The key to building any lasting relationship is good communication. Students should make an effort to get to know their professor and allow their professor to know about them. This doesn’t mean students have to share their whole life story, says Sarah Niebler, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, “but being authentic and letting professors know what’s going on in their lives is helpful.” That’s especially true if there’s something health or family related happening that could keep them out of class for a while.
“That happens to all of us,” she says. “That’s life. I always hate to see students disappear because they feel like they can’t tell me they’re struggling with something that’s bigger than what’s going on in the classroom.”
That also means being willing to ask for help when needed, Murrell says.
“If there’s one thing that we learned coming through the pandemic is that we’ve got to be much more comfortable with saying, ‘Look, I need some help.'” she says. “To me, it’s a sign that the student trusts me and trusts the university, that we’re going to hear them and that we’re going to support them, that there’s no shame.”
Attend Office Hours
One of the best ways for students to get to know their professors is to attend their office hours – time blocks that they set aside specifically to meet with students. If those times don’t work for students, they should contact their professor via email or in class to set up an alternate time to meet. Students can use these times to ask questions about assignments or content, or just to talk with their professor.
“I think trying to get individual time with your professor can help the professor get to know you a little bit better and understand why you’re struggling,” says Cathy Wineinger, assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University. “Then they can get you the help that you need.”
Maintain Positive Body Language
A student’s body language can communicate quite a bit about their level of engagement in class. Professors will notice students who are yawning, looking bored and not maintaining eye contact. Students should focus on being mentally present in the class they’re in, not distracted by assignments from another class or by their devices. Technology use can also distract others in the class, professors say.
“Not only do you want them to be paying attention for their own benefit to understand the material and do well, but it is nice to see that something you’ve worked hard on, like collaboration or a lecture, is being appreciated,” says Elliott Fullmer, associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. “We’re all human and I think that validation is nice to see.”
Ask Questions During Lectures
To Fullmer’s point, professors spend significant time preparing lessons, and they don’t want to just talk to the back wall when instructing. They want students to engage with the content. Students might be apprehensive about asking questions early in their college career, Murrell says, thinking it might signal they don’t understand the material. It actually signals a higher level of engagement, she says, and might spark further conversations outside of class.
Asking questions is a way for students to develop their understanding, and “it’s also feedback to me as a professor about what things I can help to clarify,” Murrell says. “It’s a way for me to understand, ‘Am I being clear?’ And if nobody asks questions, I’m assuming that everything is clear and it may not be.”
Connect Class Material to Other Experiences
While students should avoid doing their math homework in English class, professors do enjoy when students can connect material to other classes or other life experiences. That demonstrates a deeper level of understanding, Niebler says.
If students worked an internship, or their parents work in a similar field, Murrell says, it’s good to see students make connections in those areas as well. Some students feel like professors don’t want to hear personal anecdotes, she says, but that’s far from the truth.
“I want to hear that what we’re talking about is relevant to you and that you can make connections outside of the examples that I give,” she says. “That relevance means it sticks.”
Follow Course Procedures
At the start of each semester, most professors give students a syllabus – a document that lays out due dates, classroom procedures and other policies related to the class. If students have questions about assignments or due dates, Fullmer suggests they reread the syllabus before reaching out to the professor.
For example, if a student has to miss class, the policy on how to handle that along with the content they’ll miss is likely on the syllabus.
“Rather than have to write that message every time someone’s ill or has to miss class, it’s nice if people just know the process,” Fullmer says.
Part of being a good student is following basic directions, completing work on time and showing respect to professors and classmates. That means being willing to take responsibility for personal actions instead of blaming others, says Melanie Wilderman, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
If students take responsibility and communicate with professors when they’re overwhelmed, don’t understand something or get behind on an assignment, Wilderman says she’s much more likely to work with them and extend a deadline. “Blaming other people really gets to me,” she says. “I expect you to make mistakes, I expect myself to make mistakes. Owning up to that is a huge part of maturity.”
Be Willing to Try New Things
Professors are sometimes troubleshooting or testing out new ideas for instruction. That could be a simulation, class debate or a new format of a collaborative discussion. Whatever it is, students should be open-minded about new modes of delivery or new activities in the classroom.
“It’s really helpful when students buy into it a little bit and are willing to actually engage in activities that they initially might find boring or silly,” Wineinger says.