Shimer College, CC 2.0
Source: Shimer College, CC 2.0

Whether in high school, college, or graduate school, gaining the instructor’s respect is key not only to getting a good grade but, at the risk of sounding like the fuddy-duddy I am, learning more, including acquiring attributes more important than the course content: responsibility, communication skills, and perhaps even—and the data on its teachability is equivocal—thinking ability.

Let’s take it chronologically:

Read in advance. A great way to make a good first impression on an instructor while reducing your stress and getting a head-start toward a good grade is to read the syllabus’s first assigned readings before the first class session. Of course, that will likely help you understand what’s going on in those first sessions but will also make it more likely you’ll make thoughtful comments and ask questions. That impresses.

Speak up once or twice an hour

Do politely ask questions and offer comments but in a tone of respectful querying rather than trying to impress or even one-up the instructor. 

Inappropriate: Dr. Jones, you said that Erikson speaks of the 60s as the age of transgenerativity: when people want to transmit their knowledge to the next generation. That’s obsolete. We’re living a lot longer now.

Appropriate: Dr. Jones, you said that Erikson speaks of the 60s as the age of transgenerativity, but he lived a long time ago. We live longer now. Do you think it’s fair to say that the 70s are the new 60s?

Of course, making queries yields another benefit: It’s a way to get individualized feedback on the ideas you’re most curious about and the things you’re not understanding.

Most students err on the side of making too few queries and comments, and instructors wish more students would participate, but there is a limit. Many classes do have a know-it-all, whose comments and “questions” aren’t to learn but to show off and try to ingratiate themselves with the instructor, usually unsuccessfully. A rule of thumb: Ask one, maybe two concise questions or comments per hour of class time.

If, beyond that one or two comments, you have something important you’d like to ask but fear you’re hogging class time, visit the instructor during office hours or send an email. It may help to add a line such as, “I have another question. I felt I had already taken up too much class time. Do feel free to tell me to wait until class but (insert question.)” Chances are, the instructor will be delighted at your curiosity and your being respectful of the instructor’s time.

Using the instructor's office hours

Office hours are a great time to get one-on-one guidance, and it needn’t be limited to the course material. For example, you might ask, “Dr. Jones, I’m undecided whether to major in X or Y. I’ve reviewed their description on the campus website but I’m still not sure. Any thoughts or questions that might help me decide?”

A question far less likely to engender the instructor’s respect is, “Will this be on the test?” Of course, instructors know that many students’ prime motivation is the grade but instructors respect that much less than the student who cares about learning and thinking about the course material. Remember, your instructors likely became an expert in their field because they care about it intrinsically. You’ll gain far more respect asking questions about the course material and its real-world or theoretical implications than, “How carefully do I need to read this book?”

Embrace theory

I just mentioned “theoretical implications.” The more prestigious a university, the more likely your instructors care about theory, maybe more than about practice. That’s especially true among ladder faculty: assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors. Other instructors may be lecturers or instructors, who are more likely to focus on the practical. So, if you have a question about a theoretical model described by the professor or in a reading, great. You might even dare to develop your own model and run it by the professor to ask what s/he thinks of it. Here’s a sample of how you might ask without seeming presumptuous:

I know I’m just an undergraduate but was thinking about the models of personality we’ve discussed, and I’m wondering if a more useful typology might be to place people in contextual categories: for example, a person might be an introvert in a large group but extraverted one-on-one. What do you think, Dr. Jones?

Deriving more benefit from papers and projects

If you can come up with an alternative to the regularly assigned paper or project that would help you grow more, as long as it isn’t an attempt to do less work, ask the instructor. Not only will s/he likely appreciate your initiative but may welcome, after reading umpteen student papers on Freud’s legacy or lack thereof, reading one on the likely future legacy of gene editing for the field of psychology.

Make the ask

If you’ve come to respect and click with an instructor, you might want to ask him or her to be your advisor or to work on one of their research projects. That’s flattering to professors and many especially welcome having more free or cheap labor to work on their research. That's many professors’ first love and, at prestigious universities, key to their getting promoted and tenured.

Finally, having built a relationship of mutual respect, it certainly is appropriate to ask for a letter of recommendation to be used in employment or in applying for graduate school. Sometimes, instructors even welcome being asked, “Would it be helpful if I emailed you a list of some of our experiences together that I found particularly meaningful?”

The takeaway

Many students focus too much on the grade and too little on the learning. By doing the aforementioned things that engender an instructor’s respect, you’ll be more likely to learn a lot, get a door-opening recommendation, and yes, a better grade.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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