How To Talk To Professors: Demystifying Office Hours

Talk to your professors during office hours
You can save yourself a lot of time and stress when you make the time to talk to your professors.

It’s been a week into the school quarter. Have you made the time to go talk to your professors yet?? 

Sure, you’ve been keeping up with the reading and have done all the assigned book problems. Then, you find that one paragraph your professor assigned that totally stumps you. Or WORSE, you’re failing the class! Now you’re forced to do what every college students has faced before:

Work up the courage to ask the “dumb questions” to the most intimidating person in college. The professor.

Working up the courage can be scary, but we’ve outlined below actionable steps on how to talk to professors and even how to talk to your professor about failing in your class.

Here’s how I got over my anxiety and used office hours EFFECTIVELY.

1. Preparing To Talk To Professors During Office Hours 

First, accept the fact that you need help. You got stuck on a problem and it’s taken you 30 minutes to do. None of your friends know how to do it and that one engineering major ruining your curve is telling you to “just study harder.” You need to write down that problem, find the part that you get stuck on, and have it ready for when you talk to your professors.

Before you head out to your professor’s office hours, you need to have a game plan! First, hype yourself up cause you’re about to talk to one of the most educated minds in their field. Next, calm down cause they really buy groceries and don’t know the difference between tights and leggings just like everybody else (no, just me?).  

If you are still uncomfortable, ask your friends if they’ll come with you. They don’t need to be in the class either. Professors usually understand when friends tag along. 

Honestly, getting the courage to walk into my professor’s office hours and request that they help me was extremely daunting. But getting over that first hurdle and realizing they’re just a regular person there to help makes it a little easy.

2. Preparing Questions for Your Professor

a. For Reading and Writing Assignments

First, do your readings assignments how you usually do. When you get stuck on understanding a passage, first number the page either with a bookmark or sticky note. Then, ask yourself what you are confused about. Are you having trouble understanding how the theme of the passage relates to the story as a whole? Do you want to know if you can use the passage for your essay? Or do you completely have no idea what that 1700’s quote is saying in basic English?

Identify what you are having trouble on and move on to whatever is assigned next. The next thing to do is to make time for your office hours with the intentions of asking your professor for help.

b. For Problem Set or Problem Solving Questions

These are your math or science homework/chapter problems.

First, mark down EXACTLY where you get stuck on. Let’s say you have a problem solving for this equation and you get stuck on whether you need to multiply or add first.

2(x+3) – 5 = 14/2

Mark that specific question down on your homework paper or note, and have it ready for your professor. Now when you ask your question, you can ask your professor where exactly you get stuck on instead of him having to do the entire problem for you.

However, if you don’t know how to do the problem at all, then feel free to mark down the number and be honest. The professor will (or should) not judge you if you genuinely do not know how to start or even do a problem. Showing up to office hours gives them the idea that you are putting effort and are taking their class seriously.

Remember, do not be afraid to ask. Someone’s probably asked the EXACT same question before too. So talk to your professors and let them walk you through the rest.

 

3. How To Talk to Your Professor about Failing  

This is never easy. You ca study all week, get a good nights sleep, and still be shocked that you scored a 50 on your midterm (not even above the class average). Trust me, I’ve been in the exact situation. If you need a guide on how to make a crazy comeback to save your grade late in the quarter or semester, check out my guide on How to Save Your Grades. 

One of the most important things to do is to relax and realize you have to start asking your professor for help. I know what you’re thinking.

But Chris, I haven’t seen my professor all semester, isn’t that awkward going to them for help?

First off, you won’t be the only one. Everyone and their EarPods will be in that office when the class final comes around. That’s why I believe it’s super important to meet with the professor in the first few weeks of school. This helps set yourself apart and might improve your chances of getting some extra 1-on-1 office hours.

Even if you didn’t take advantage of the near empty office hours, you’re fine. If you’re failing, it only means you need the most help and your professors are there to provide that. REMEMBER, your tuition pays for their help.

 

a. How to Talk to Your Professor about failing your Midterm

When you fail your midterm, it means you simply have gaps in your knowledge. Nothing wrong with that. So here’s my tip:

If you have a class where they use scrantons and let you take the midterm with you, I recommend going directly to your professors office hours and ask to go over your answers with them. I promise you that room will be empty and will give yourself an accurate idea of what your grade is. Not only that, you’ll come out with ALL of your questions answered with complete comprehension.

If you don’t get to take your exam home, then it’s best to wait for the results and the written feedback. I would then take it or print out the feedback and go to your professor’s office hours

c. How to Talk to Your Professor about failing the Whole Class

Like I mentioned before, I legit went through this very moment and admitting it to the professor was super humbling. Thankfully,

I would recommend you send an email to your professor letting them know your situation. They’ll either reply or ask that you come in to their office outside of class. When you show up to their office, have an open-minded and b receptive to their feedback. They are there to help you get a better grade in their class. Your failure is more a reflection on their teaching ability so as long as you’re doing everything to keep up with the work, don’t take it personally.

So don’t be anxious. Learning how to talk to professors can be challenging. Just make sure to make the effort.

4. Building Professional Relationships With Your Professors During Office Hours

When you talk to your professors, just be yourself. Do not try to flex your extracurriculars or your grades. They could care less. They really are there to help you and then get back to scrolling on Facebook or their research 

Just BE YOURSELF. Sure that sounds corny and lame but professors notice when a student is just trying to suck up verses someone who’s genuine and interested in the class. Just have a good attitude, ask your questions and be yourself.

If you are looking to get closer to your professor don’t be shy in asking for some personal time.

Something I did was sign up for a class that required that I talk to a professor. 1-on-1. I decided to ask my Gen Chem professor if he would be down if I could get to know him better. I essentially interviewed him, asking him about how he became a professor, where he went to school, and what his personal life was like.

Even though he wasn’t working on research, he still sent me an email that link to all types of summer programs and opened up to other research opportunities.

An Email showing the benefits that come when you talk to your professors
Image edited for confidentiality

The email was much larger with more links but I cropped it out for space. The point is, it doesn’t take much to try and connect with your professor and create a professional relationship.

 

5. How to Deal with Disrespectful Professors

These are the ones that make you feel dumb during office hours, have a thick accent, or simply don’t prioritize helping students. These are the professors who call out students in class and get mad when no one knows the answers to their questions. They are literally there to do research or focus on their own special projects and have no real interest in teaching.

So How do you deal with a disrespectful professor?

First avoid them like the plague. You got ratemyprofessor, your university’s Reddit, and hopefully a mentor to steer you away from them.

If not, no worries, I got you. Whenever you have a question or in need of a letter of rec, here’s what I recommend:

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First, for questions about the material covered in class, go to your TA’s office hours or your college’s tutoring resources. Preferably a TA. Why?

Well one, the TA usually is required to attend lecture so they can answer and talk about relevant topics in the class. So whenever you have a question, they know what you’re talking about.

Second, they can keep track of important dates and materials in case you miss a class (try your best not to miss a class though).

Third, in case you need a letter of rec, a TA is a solid alternative to dealing with a disrespectful professor. A TA, especially one who guides your lab, can comment on how you work with a partner and how well you work in a lab. Both are great qualities to highlight when applying to summer research programs.

To get that extra weight, you can ask your professor to cosign the letter of rec as well. Keep in mind that, while a TA’s letter of rec will be sufficient for some opportunities, it does not carry enough weight to be used for graduate level applications.

If both the TA and your professors are unhelpful, don’t be afraid to reach out to another professor’s office hours. Find professors who teach the same class and genuinely care about their students.

If all else fails, reach out to campus funded tutors or drop-ins, or find the genius in the class and ASK them! They’ll either be the ones bragging about how easy the class is or sitting in the front row asking a ton of questions.

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Whenever we see our professors lecture, we tend to overthink and sometimes glamorize our professors. Sure they successfully got through grad school and earned a teaching position at your school. But that doesn’t make them any more of a person than you.

Get over those inhibitions and get to know your professors. Visit them in office hours! The conversations you will have may surprise you.

 

Best wishes,

Chris L.

 

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