Asking your professor a question outside of class can be tricky. Here's how to do it right.
Your relationship with your professor is unique, and your communications should reflect that. You’re not going to Snapchat your English instructor (we hope) or hit them with an “lol” (we assume). From preferred word choice to the most appropriate platforms to use, here’s how to most effectively communicate with your professors.
Set the foundation in class
Don’t be shy: Once you’ve settled in and gotten comfortable in your class, introduce yourself to your professor in person. Ideally, you’ll do this before you start an email correspondence. This will make it easier for them to know who you are when your name shows up in their inbox.
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“Establish a connection with your professor early in the semester,” says Jason Chan, professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “Just respectfully approach them after class and start the conversation.”
Attend office hours
Speaking of IRL intros, take advantage of your professor’s office hours. This is a terrific platform for you to get questions answered, talk through challenging coursework, or just get to know your instructor better. Make sure to prepare questions and topics ahead of time and don’t forget to send an email to let your professor know you’re coming.
Email ... the right way
Email is likely how you’ll communicate most with your professors outside of class, so you should take care to do it right. When reaching out, always:
Re-introduce yourself and let them know which class of theirs you’re in.
Start with a professional greeting, like "Dear Professor [Last Name]" or "Hello Professor [Last Name].” Chan says to avoid addressing your professors like “Hey, Mr., Ms., or Mrs.”
Get straight to the point. Ask for what you need and be as specific (and polite) as possible.
Choose a clear subject line that reflects the nature of the email.
RELATED: How to email your professor, according to a professor
“Proofread your emails and write properly,” Chan says, adding that you shouldn’t expect to get an immediate response. “And if you don’t hear back from your professor after a couple of days, don’t be shy about sending a follow-up.”
Asking for extensions
The extension conversation is better in person, but if a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible, send an email as soon as you know you’ll need one. First, explain why you need extra time. Then suggest a new deadline that is both realistic for you and reasonable for your professor. Be transparent throughout the process, follow up, and keep your professor updated. Be sure to thank them if they grant you the extension and try not to let it become a regular thing.
RELATED: A professor explains how to ask for an extension
Extra help and clarification
You can be listening in class and taking notes, and still sometimes a lesson will go right over your head. Other times, you might understand the lecture, but forget what your professor said at the end about which pages to read for homework. Determine what kind of help you need—is it a question with a simple answer (“what date is the test again?”) or something that will require more time and explanation (“how do I solve this differential calculus equation?”).
For simple questions like homework details or exam dates, double check the syllabus before asking your professor. If you still can’t find the info, send an email.
For more complicated queries and clarifications, schedule a meeting or drop by your professor’s office hours.
When asking for help or clarification, provide examples of the material you’re struggling with, and be clear about what you need help understanding. After your meeting, follow up with your professor to thank them for their time and share any further questions or concerns. “What’s on the test?” This can be a tricky question for both you and your professor. They may be wary of sharing too much information that could give students (those who ask, at least) an unfair advantage. Meanwhile, you just want to know what to study. There are a few ways you can approach this:
Instead of asking what's on the test, ask where you should focus your studying efforts.
Attend office hours and ask for guidance, allowing for a more detailed conversation that might shed some light on your forthcoming test.
Review course materials, lecture notes, and past assignments to give you a better idea of what topics are important.
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