24 Working with Instructors

Sonji Nicholas

What you’ll learn to do: explain effective strategies for working with instructors

A female student gets help from a male teacher. They're seated at a table in a large classroom, she's smiling, and he's pointing to something in a textbook.

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

By the end of this section, you will be able to discuss the benefits of communicating with instructors by utilizing instructor office hours. You’ll also learn how to identify effective email communication strategies with instructors and strategies for resolving conflicts with an instructor.

Why You Should Talk to Your Instructors

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the benefits of communicating with instructors

Of all the teachers you’ve had in your life, which one do you remember most fondly? If you’re lucky, you’ve got someone in mind—a teacher who encouraged and inspired you and perhaps played a role in shaping the person you are today. That same teacher could well be thinking similar thoughts about you! Because for every favorite teacher, there is also a favorite student. The satisfactions often go both ways.

In this section, we look at ways in which you can cultivate rich and rewarding relationships with your instructors, and also resolve conflicts, should any arise. Solid student-faculty relationships can be foundational to a successful college experience.

The following video, from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, looks at the value teachers and students place on connecting with one another.

You can view the transcript for “Student/Faculty Relationships at Dickinson College” here (opens in new window).

Methods of Communicating with Instructors

College students are sometimes surprised to discover that instructors enjoy getting to know students. The human dimension of college really matters, and as a student you are an important part of your instructor’s world. Most instructors are happy to work with you during their office hours, or talk a few minutes after class, respond to digital messages, talk on the phone, or engage in online discussion forums or perhaps course wikis or personal journals. These are some of the many methods of communication you and your instructors can use.  Instuctors at FSW reserve a minimum of 10 hours per week for office hours and students are encouraged to attend.

The following video, from the University of British Columbia, shares faculty perspectives on some of the many reasons why students might want to talk to their faculty or to teaching assistants (TAs).

You can view the transcript for “Profs and TAs” here (opens in new window).

Working with Instructors: Key Points

  • Go the extra mile: Talk to your instructor when you
    • need an extension,
    • need clarification on course material,
    • are experiencing challenges in your personal life that impact your academic performance, or
    • are considering pursuing a major or graduate degree in their subject area.
  • Visit early: Building rapport with your instructors early in the semester will pay off if you need an extension or extra help later on. Instructors like it when you visit during office hours, but they don’t appreciate it when panicked students ask for an extension an hour before an assignment is due. Most instructors will be very accommodating if you ask for help well in advance.
  • Show your interest: Instructors want you to be as interested in their subject as they are. Nothing excites them more than knowing you are passionate about what they teach. You can show your interest by participating in class, attending office hours, and emailing your instructors if you have questions.
  • Meet your instructor: Instructors have many responsibilities to juggle including research, teaching, traveling to conferences, and administrative tasks. However, they DO want to talk with you. Go to office hours and meet your instructors!
  • Build relationships: Believe it or not, your instructors are really interesting people. You might just enjoy their company. They can also open doors to academic research, serve as mentors, and may write you a reference letter down the road. Build strong relationships with your instructors while you have the chance.

The following video from NC State University is a good summary of the ideas and guidelines shared in this section on working with instructors:

Benefits of Communicating with Instructors

One of the many benefits of communicating with instructors is that it can help you feel more comfortable in college and more connected to the college culture. Students who communicate with their instructors are less likely to become dispirited and drop out.

Communicating with instructors is also a valuable way to learn about an academic field or a career. Maybe you don’t know for sure what you want to major in, or what people with a degree in your chosen major actually do after college. Most instructors will share information and insights with you.

You may also need a reference or a letter of recommendation for a job or internship application. Getting to know some of your instructors puts you in an ideal position to ask for a letter of recommendation or a reference later on.

Because instructors are often well connected within their field, they may know of a job, internship, or research opportunity that you wouldn’t otherwise know about. An instructor who knows you is a valuable part of your network. Networking is important for future job searches and other opportunities. In fact, most jobs are found through networking, not through classified ads or online job postings.

Think about what being educated truly means: how one thinks, understands society and the world, and responds to problems and new situations. Much of this learning occurs outside of the formal class. Communicating with your instructors can be among your most meaningful experiences in college.

Guidelines for Communicating with Instructors

Learning Outcomes

  • Evaluate effective communication strategies with instructors
  • Identify effective email communication strategies with instructors

Getting along with instructors and communicating well begins with attitude. As experts in their field, instructors deserve respect. Remember that a college education is a collaborative process that works best when students and instructors communicate freely in an exchange of ideas, information, and perspectives. So while it pays to respect your instructors, there is no need to fear them. As you get to know them better, you’ll learn their personalities and find appropriate ways to talk to them. Below are some guidelines for getting along with and communicating with your instructors:

  • Prepare before meeting with the instructor. Go over your notes on readings and lectures and write down your specific questions. You’ll feel more comfortable, and the instructor will appreciate your being organized.
  • Be sure to introduce yourself. Especially near the beginning of the term, don’t assume that your instructor has learned everyone’s name yet, and don’t make him or her have to ask you. Unless the instructor has already asked you to address him or her as “Dr.,” “Ms.,” or Mr.,” or something similar, it’s appropriate to say “Professor.”
  • Respect the instructor’s time. In addition to teaching, college instructors participate in committees, conduct research and other professional work, and have personal lives. It’s not appropriate to arrive several minutes before the end of an office hour and expect the instructor to stay late to talk with you.
  • Understand that the instructor will recognize you from class. If you spent a lecture hour not paying attention, it will reflect badly on you to come to an office hour to find out what you missed.
  • Don’t try to fool an instructor. Insincere praise or making excuses for not doing an assignment will rarely play in your favor (they’ve heard it all before!). Nor is it a good idea to act like you’re too cool to take your classwork seriously—another attitude that’s sure to put off an instructor. To earn your instructor’s respect, come to class prepared, do the work, genuinely participate in class, and show respect—and the instructor will be happy to see you when you come to office hours or need some extra help.
  • Try to see things from the instructor’s point of view. Imagine that you spent hours preparing for class on a topic that you find very interesting and exciting. You are gratified when people understand what you’re saying—they really get it! And then a student after class asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” How would you feel?
  • Be professional when talking to an instructor. You can be cordial and friendly, but it’s ideal to keep it professional and on an adult level. Come to office hours prepared with your questions—not just to chat or joke around. (Don’t wear sunglasses or earphones in the office or check your cell phone for messages.) Be prepared to accept constructive criticism in a professional way without taking it personally or complaining.

The following infographic gives you a visual way to remember key concepts about communicating with your instructors.

Talking to Your Profs and TAs: 1. Use office hours. Many students never attend office hours. Profs wait alone or assume everyone understands the class. 2. Don't be afraid. You have valuable thoughts and you'r in college to learn. Ask questions early and often. 3. Have something to say. Your prof wants you to challenge ideas and be engaged. 4. Come prepared. You will gain more if you have specific questions ready. 5. Clarification can be easy. Often your question doesn't take long to sort out. Just go talk to your prof early.

Effective Email Communication with Instructors

Just as digital messaging has become a primary form of communication in business and society, it has a growing role in education and has become an important and valuable means of communicating with instructors. Most college students are familiar with digital messaging, such as email, texting, and messages via the online-course learning-management system. Using digital messaging respects other people’s time, allowing them to answer at a time of their choosing.

However, digital communication with instructors is a written form of communication that differs from communicating with friends. Students who text with friends often adopt shortcuts, such as not spelling out full words, ignoring capitalization and punctuation, and not focusing on grammar or using full sentences. Such texts are usually very informal and are not an appropriate style for communicating with instructors. Your instructors expect you to use a professional, respectful tone and fairly formal style. Here are some guidelines to adopt when communicating with your professor digitally.

  • Use a professional email name. If you have a nickname you use with friends, create a different account with a professional name for use with instructors, work supervisors, and others. “BoatyMcBoatface” is not an appropriate, professional email name.  At FSW, using your Bucs email account is best for communicating with your instructors.
  • Include something in the subject line that readily communicates the purpose/topic of your email: “May I make an appointment?” says something; “Help!” doesn’t.
  • Address digital messages as you do a letter, beginning “Dear Professor.” Include your full name in the closing.
  • Get to your point quickly and concisely.
  • Write as you would in a paper for class, avoiding sarcasm, criticism, or negative language.
  • Avoid abbreviations, nonstandard spelling, slang, and emoticons like smiley faces.
  • Be courteous, accommodating, and respectful. Avoid stating expectations like, “I’ll expect to hear from you soon” or “If I haven’t heard by 4 p.m., I’ll assume you’ll accept my late paper.”
  • When you reply to a message, leave the original message within yours.
  • End the message with a “Thank you” or something similar.
  • Proofread your message before sending it.
  • Wait to send if you are upset. With any important message, it’s a good idea to wait and review the message later before sending it. You may have expressed an emotion or thought that you will think better about later. Many problems have resulted when people send messages too quickly without thinking.

Try It


Conflict-Resolution Strategies

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify strategies for resolving conflicts with an instructor

Wall sign with snarky instructions

The most common conflict that students experience with instructors is feeling that they’ve received a lower grade than they deserve. This conflict may be especially common for new students not yet used to the higher standards of college. It can be disappointing to get a low grade, but try not to be too hard on yourself or on the instructor. Take a good look at what happened on the test or paper and make sure you know what to do better next time.

If you genuinely believe you should have a higher grade, you can talk with your instructor. How you communicate in that conversation, however, is very important. Instructors are used to hearing students complain about grades, and they will likely patiently explain their standards for grading. In general, instructors seldom change grades. Still, it can still be worthwhile to talk with the instructor. You will learn from the experience even if your grade doesn’t change.

Here are guidelines for talking about a grade or resolving any other problem or disagreement with an instructor:

  • Go over the requirements for the paper or test and the instructor’s comments. Be sure you actually have a reason to evaluate the grade—not just that you didn’t do well. Be prepared with specific points you want to discuss.
  • Make an appointment with your instructor. For face-to-face classes, don’t try to talk about your concern before or after class.
  • Be polite. Begin by politely explaining that you thought you did better on the assignment or test (not simply that you think you deserve a better grade) and that you’d like to go over it to better understand the result.
  • Allow the instructor to explain his or her comments on the assignment or grading of the test. Don’t complain or whine; instead, show your appreciation for the explanation. Raise any specific questions, or make comments at this time. For example, you might say, “I really thought I was being clear here when I wrote . . . .”
  • Use good listening skills. When you’re talking to your professor, make sure to listen to what they have to say in response to you. Don’t interrupt or raise your voice with them, and try your best to be patient even if you find that your professor disagrees with you.
  • Ask what you can do to improve the grade, if possible. Can you rewrite the paper or do any extra-credit work to help make up for the score? While you are showing that you would like to earn a higher grade in the course, also make it clear that you’re willing to put in the effort and that you want to learn more, not just get the higher grade.
  • If there is no opportunity to improve on this specific project, ask the instructor for advice on what you might do on the next assignment or when preparing for the next test. You may be offered some individual help or receive good study advice, and your instructor will respect your willingness to make the effort—as long as it’s clear that you’re more interested in learning than getting a good grade.

Try It


Communicating with Instructors

The following activity goes over some of the tips we covered for communicating with your instructors, and presents some examples for you to look at.

Communicating with Instructors


educated: a status where one effectively thinks, understands society and the world, and responds to problems and new situations



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Working with Instructors Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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