The simple habit that can make or break your college experience

Getting to know your professors is key to success.
Getting to know your professors is key to success.
Image: Flickr/Tanel Teemusk/CC 2.0
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My first class as a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles was the “History of Rock ’n’ Roll”–a 400-person lecture so packed that students were forced to sit in the aisles. Indeed, for the first few years of my college career, most of my classes were equally massive. Professors seemed far away, intimidating, and super busy. I rarely spoke to them. I had no idea what I was missing.

Today, I teach writing and media studies to college students. One of the first things I tell incoming freshman students is to go to office hours. “Get to know your professors,” I urge them. “Come to us with questions.”

Office hours are a college student’s secret weapon—and far too few students know how to use them. One-on-one time with professors helps students improve their work and, by extension, their grades. They’re also a necessary way to help students form independent relationships with their professors, something that becomes essential when it’s time to ask for recommendations for internships, scholarships, jobs, and graduate school.

Yet many students shy away from solo chats.

“I was really hesitant to go to office hours because professors seemed really intimidating,” Lakshmi Raju, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Georgia Tech, told me. “But when I realized I needed help in a class and made the first visit, I realized that it is a really helpful tool.”

Professors may need to help students get over these psychological barriers. One of my colleagues, a community college professor in California, notes that many students—especially freshmen and first-generation students—don’t really understand what office hours are for. Her students frequently seem worried they will bother professors if they drop by, when in fact office hours are dedicated to them.

“I tend to get more students now that I’ve started calling them ‘student hours’ instead,” she says. “I emphasize to students that those are their hours, not mine; they aren’t ‘bothering’ me if they show up with a question.” Professors have to remember, she continues, that “we’ve been in academia much longer” than our students. We can’t take for granted that students understand what a professor’s role in their education can and should be.

In order to reap these benefits, students need to understand how to make productive use of office hours. Showing up and asking “Did I miss anything important in class?” is unhelpful. Since professors go out of their way to ensure that everything they do in class is important, such questions will only frustrate us. Asking, “Can you change my grade to an A?” won’t go over well either. (The answer is also no.)

That said, there are a lot of things students can and should talk about when they come to office hours.  As Skylar Ojeda, a cinema studies and public relations graduate from the University of Oregon notes: “Visiting office hours cannot only help you be a better student, it can help sharpen your professional communication capabilities. It will help you engage closer with the class material, and ultimately help you take away the most you can from a subject.”

Some of my students drop by with substantive questions about essays we’ve read, or practical questions like “Please translate your insane handwriting for me so I can read your comments.” Other students come with drafts of papers, and others ask clarifying questions about assignments. All of these are great reasons to drop by office hours—but do try to come prepared. As Melissa Sexton, a postdoctoral fellow in writing and communication at Georgia Tech, notes, “Professors are strapped for time, and they will be more impressed with you if you show up with a question or two about their feedback.”

Personally, I’m also thrilled when students arrive in my office hours early in the term and just want to chat. I’ve talked with my students about subjects ranging from TV shows like Black-ish and Pretty Little Liars to how they are adjusting to college life and the intricacies of dorm social scenes. Sometimes these conversations can even wind up informing future paper topics and projects.

Office hours also make me a better teacher. When I know students’ individual interests and anxieties, I can offer them better advice. And I’m better equipped to understand what they are picking up (or not) during class.

Moreover, as students get to know their professors, they often feel more comfortable participating in classroom discussions. Olivia Moore, a pre-med student at Georgia Tech, tells me that she views office hours as “your professor being your personal tutor for that specific timeframe.”

The benefits of office hours often linger long after classes have ended. I recommend that students work to stay in touch with the professors they’ve built relationships with. Over the years, I’ve often met up with former students to work on their resumes, weigh the pros and cons of PhD programs, or just swap television show recommendations. (I’ve personally introduced many students to the joys of the teen-detective series Veronica Mars.)

But it’s also important for students to keep in mind the economics of teaching at contemporary universities. Professors, as well as lecturers and graduate students, often commute to school and have a lot of other professional demands on top of heavy teaching loads. So students need to be willing to work with faculty. If you’re unable to make regular office hours, be ready to hop on Skype with questions or exchange emails instead. This issue is particularly relevant for adjunct faculty, who often commute to multiple campuses each term, have little to no job security, and are frequently underpaid.

“I think students need to become more aware about issues like these that are a growing reality in academia,” Sexton says. “Office hours are valuable for students; but for professors to have the time for flexible and accommodating office hours, they need to have stable positions as well as reasonable expectations in terms of teaching and service hours.”

So to the incoming class of 2020, I urge you not to make the same mistake that I did as a freshman. Find a few professors, lecturers, and graduate students who seem interesting, and introduce yourself. Not every connection is going to result in a Mona Lisa Smile-style college experience, but don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Remember that office hours are there for you—and they’re way more fun for us when you visit.