Five things your professor wants you to know

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

College is intimidating for a lot of reasons, and at the top of the list is always professors. There's something about their age and knowledge that's intimidating for new students.

But you shouldn't be scared of your professors. They want you to learn and be successful. They're not out to get you, they're out to help you.

Many college students have wondered what their professor is thinking. As a graduate student and a lab instructor for a class many new students take, I have the experience of simultaneously being both a teacher and a student.

Here are some things I wish I knew as a student, and some things I wish my students knew.

1. Talk to your professors

If you have questions, ask them. If you don't understand something, get help. I'm not kidding when I say that if students actually followed those two simple rules it would solve at least half of their problems.

It might be as easy as showing up to class a few minutes early or staying a few minutes late. Perhaps just sending an email will do the trick. Or, you might have to see your professor during office hours. No matter how you do it, talk to your professors about any questions or concerns you have.

Be sure to talk to your professors as soon as something comes up, too. I've had students come to me with a list of things they'd like me to look at on the last day of class, some of it months old. That's not going to work. If you contact your professors right away, they'll be more likely to help.

There is one caveat to this rule, however.

2. Check the syllabus, class resources and the Internet first

The syllabus is the bible for your course (except you should actually read it). It has all the assignments, due dates and other information you need to know. My syllabus outlines to the minute when things are due. From day one, my students know exactly what's due when, even in week 15.

The syllabus will often contain useful hyperlinks or provide contact information for your professor. It should go without saying that you need to check this document before you ask a professor a question.

Most professors will also create worksheets for each major assignment. If there's one available, read it so many times you memorize it. It drives professors nuts when they go through the time and effort to create a syllabus or assignment sheet only to have students ask questions that are answered right on those documents.

Finally, before asking a question, try finding the answer on your own. If I Google a question a student asks me and the answer is found on the first result, I'm not happy. The Internet isn't a secret resource. Use it.

3. Be professional

A common complaint I hear from students is that professors don't respect them. They say that their professors are late to office hours, don't respond quickly to emails and are inconsiderate of their time.

A common complaint I hear from professors is that their students don't respect them. They say their students are late to class, use texting lingo when sending emails, and are inconsiderate of the work professors put into their classes.

Bottom line: If you want your professor to respect you, earn it by being a professional all the time. Read your emails for spelling and grammar before you send them. Don't miss class or walk in late. Check the syllabus before asking questions. You have to give respect to get it.

4. Participate in class

You hate it when a professor spends the entire class period lecturing. You might be surprised to find out that professors hate it, too.

For one, it's a lot of work to put together a lecture that lasts for more than an hour, and it's difficult to speak for that long. Most professors are smart enough to know that the longer the lecture, the shorter the attention span.

And, yes, we know when you're on Facebook or texting. It's not hard to spot. It's disrespectful, but it ultimately amounts to students wasting their own money. You're paying for each class. A shrewd student would not only show up for each class, but he or she would pay attention, too.

I plan for in-class discussions and activities when I teach, but sometimes I don't get to do them because no one has done the reading or no one wants to talk about what they've read. When that happens, I have to revert back to lecturing. No one is happy when that happens. Participate, and it doesn't have to.

5. If you do the work, you'll do well

I have never failed a student who showed up, turned in work and made an effort. I've had students who were worried about failing who eventually got an A. I've also had students who expected to get A's who didn't.

It all comes down to how much effort students put into a class. If you do poorly on an assignment, talk to your professor about it. See if you can re-do it and re-submit it. Ask what you can do next time to get a better grade. Make sure you follow through with any suggestions your professors give you.

Doing things other students aren't, such as seeing a professor during office hours or being an active participant in class, makes you stand out in a good way. Professors notice this, and they will remember it when grades are due.

Timothy Maylander is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and teaches a lab for the Fundamentals of Journalism class.

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