In my “Open Letter to College Freshmen” I encouraged students to think of college as a professional position and professors as a type of boss.  This metaphor may help students develop good habits—including responsibility and initiative—and better grades.          

A high school teacher I know assigned his students to read my letter, and several students responded with very positive and thoughtful comments.  (I know they were thoughtful because they were positive….) One letter, from Vivian, was particularly thought-provoking.  Here is her (slightly edited) “Open Letter Back”:

The idea that college is a profession? Novel idea to me as a senior in high school. I have held positions before, the most prominent two being at a medical research facility and a sandwich joint. Here are a few qualities I have found to be terribly important in a boss:

  • Passionate: You feel more inclined to follow and listen to a man/woman who cares about what he/she does rather than one who seems to be going by a script.
  • Humble/Human: It makes a difference whether your boss decides to wear a suit all day and hang in the back executive office, or throws on the same scrubs as you and works by your side, inseparable in appearance from his/her employees.
  • Adaptive: You should be able to approach your boss openly with your own ideas. A boss who listens and allows for new ideas is one who betters the company or institution he/she works for.

All of these qualities are easily transferable to how a professor should act towards his/her students. These allow for a beautiful relationship between student and professor. Thus, I leave you with this response in the hopes that you will consider both sides of this profession. With this being such an important stepping stone in life, it is critical that the relationship is mutually beneficial. As long as my professors uphold these qualities, I vow to uphold my end of the deal, too.

Vivian identifies three wonderful qualities/skills that professors (I use this term to refer to anyone who teaches college courses) can aspire to, in addition to content knowledge, preparation, fairness in grading, etc.  I’ve written about some of these qualities in a blog entry about competence.  She also asserts quite eloquently that teaching is a two-way street with obligations incumbent on all parties. 

The last sentence of Vivian’s letter intrigued me the most—it implies a common sentiment among students:  If professors don’t show these three qualities, in sufficient quantity, then students cannot do well—cannot uphold their “end of the deal.”  Vivian:  To the extent that you are saying that your performance is (totally or predominantly) dependent on your professor, I really disagree!  This makes it sound like students are victims, when—in fact—they have an immense array of choices and behaviors to deal an immense array of professors.   

I’m not saying that professors have no obligation to demonstrate passion, respect, and other qualities.  I am saying that professors (like bosses) vary on all these dimensions.  For example, some professors may be very adaptable, moderately passionate, but not very “human.”  Students can still learn from less-than-perfect professors!

I’ve heard lots of variations on this "victim" theme over the years.  For example, students have said:  “I didn’t do well in that course because…

  • … the professor was boring.”
  • … the course wasn’t in my major.”
  • … the professor had a teaching style that doesn’t fit with my learning style.”
  • … I don’t like science (or social science, or humanities, or math, or music) courses.”

My basic response to these comments is that excellence as a student is not demonstrated by how students do in major courses with their favorite professors.  Rather, excellent students do well in courses they find difficult, with professors who may not be the best (or the best for them).  Yeah, there needs to be some "goodness of fit" between teaching style and learning style.  However, students have the ability to develop lots of different styles and to excel even when professors are not that good—just as professors can develop a variety of teaching styles to be effective for a wider and wider range of students. 

Here are a few of the things students can do to get the most out of their courses (including both learning and grades) and not be victims:

  • Get involved in the class. One good way to deal with a boring professor is simply to break up the monotony by asking for clarification or another example.  Or come prepared with questions about the readings, and ask them. Or provide an example you’ve come up with and ask if you’ve done it correctly.  It’s a great skill to involve yourself in a class both to relieve your boredom AND get something more out of the class.
  • Exercise whatever choice you have in selecting professors.  Gather information on what professors are like.  Many colleges and universities routinely have students evaluate courses and instructors, and they publish the results.  (This may be more valid information than web sites on which students post ratings—a discussion for another day!)
  • Visit your professors early in the semester and ask them questions like, “How can I do well in your course?”  Professors might have suggestions for study or classroom techniques that you’ve never thought of. This is your chance to learn more skills! 
  • “Humanize” your professor by asking these types of questions:  “Why is this course exciting for you to teach?  What got you into teaching (or psychology, or history, or biology) in the first place?”  These questions may help you (and your professor!) see where their professional passions lie.
  • Talk with other students and share strategies.
  • Talk to the professor early, perhaps with other students, about concerns you have.  Be prepared with arguments beyond “this course is too hard,” and “my grade is too low.”  When students come to me and say, “I’m a good student but I’m not doing well in your course,” one of my favorite responses is, “Good students learn new strategies; what have you tried so far?”  This invitation often leads to a great discussion about how we can both improve.

I know that courses vary, and that not all of these suggestions will work for every situation.  But it’s a start.  Thanks Vivian.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

You are reading

The Ethical Professor

Students Can Learn a Lot From Current Events

Four ways to think psychologically about electing a dog.

The Ethics of Sharing Client Stories

One approach to handling confidentiality when we teach workshops or classes.

Reading With Purpose, or Purposes

More great advice for college students.