My sister started college last year.
Before she left, I recommended she take time to drop in on her professors during office hours. She responded, “What if I’m not having a problem in the class?”
She’s not the only student who’s unsure how to approach office hours. A survey presented in College Teaching of students at a mid-Atlantic research university found that two out of three respondents hadn’t visited their professor during office hours in a given semester.
If you’re not sure how to ask for help or advice, here are some conversation openers to get you started.
“Here’s where I’m stuck.”
Most students visit their professors during office hours because of problems with a concept or assignment. It may not be fun to admit you’re having trouble, but rest assured that professors would rather you ask them for help than struggle in silence.
“My favorite question would begin with a statement,” says Dr. Robert Zambanini, a senior lecturer in computer science at Penn State. “‘I was trying some of the stuff you taught us, and I hit a snag at this point.’”
Coming in with a specific challenge is a lot more helpful than just saying, “I’m lost.”
Background information on how you’ve approached a problem, text, or prompt can help your professor zero in on the exact issue. Plus, by explaining the work you put in before you asked for help, you’re showing that you made an honest attempt and are now taking the initiative to understand the material more fully.
“When I see students who have worked on [a problem] and tried, that’s neat,” Zambanini says.
Dr. Martha Reid, a professor of English at Moravian College, points out that poor grades aren’t the only red flag. “What if they’re doing well in the class and haven’t got a clue why?” she asks. Some students feel like they’re making correct guesses but worry about when their luck will run out. If that’s you, stop in and say, “I’ve been doing well, but I don’t know how to approach this next assignment.”
“Can you help me develop my thesis?”
If you’re worried about a big paper, your professor can help.
“What I’d love to have happen,” says Reid, “is that with plenty of time in advance, [a student] comes in and says, ‘I want to write about [X topic], but I don’t know where to begin.’”
Again, the key is to arrive with a specific issue to work on. Ask for help refining a strong thesis. Present an outline including your main argument and counter-arguments and check that you’re on the right track. Don’t drop your draft on the desk and say, “So, what do you think?” And definitely don’t ask your professor to research your sources or do any of your work for you.
You can still get useful feedback after grades are in, too. Megan Rogers, who’s taught English Composition at the Community College of Baltimore County – Essex, says, “I would have been very happy if I had a student who came up to me to discuss a specific paper so I could talk to [her] in more depth than the written comments I gave.”
Even if it’s too late to change a grade, you can get valuable feedback for future projects.
“I have a personal situation.”
There are periods when class is the least of your worries. If you’re going through a personal emergency, it’s important to reach out for the help that you need. The professors I talked to say that their offices are where some of these conversations start.
“Sometimes, they’ll come in because they’re failing the course, and they’ll burst into tears,” says Reid. She’s had students come in to talk about family crises, homelessness, and other serious life problems.
“My door’s always open if they need to talk about anything,” Zambanini says. “That’s where my role as an advisor comes in.” He estimates that once or twice a year, students come in debating whether or not to drop out of college. When they do, he makes sure they’re comfortable having a conversation that’s not related to school and might touch on sensitive topics. If they are, he’s willing to talk through problems with students as best as he can.
For some situations, professors are able just to listen, while for others, they may feel more comfortable referring students to professional counselors. Either way, it’s good to know that turning to your professor is an option.
“Would you work with me on a project (or a course, or a major)?”
Not all colleges provide students with an opportunity to create a major or plan an independent study project, but many do. If there’s a subject you’re itching to examine in detail, see if a prof you’re close to shares your interest. I once worked together with a professor (who happened to be a film buff) on an independent study examining the ways in which various iconic movies helped shape cultural attitudes at the times they were made. It was useful for my media culture major, and it was fun learning about these touchstones one-on-one with my mentor.
Independent study requests are pretty rare, Reid says, but they’re a highlight of office hours when students do bring them up — so don’t be shy.
Even if customized courses or majors aren’t an option at your school, a professor may be able to recommend other ways for you to explore a given academic interest.
“What kinds of careers can this degree lead to?”
Let’s imagine you’re a psychology major. Are you interested in counseling? Research? Industrial or organizational psych? You may not realize the variety of jobs you could pursue in one niche of your major.
Working both with your professors and your campus career center is smart. Different people’s feedback can be useful for building your résumé, preparing for interviews, and learning more about career opportunities and internships in your field.
One tip: Don’t stop in spontaneously and expect to get detailed information. Your professor may need some prep time to give you the best advice. Email first and explain what you’d like to learn more about, and ask when would be a good time to have a conversation. You’ll look professional and considerate, and get much better (not to mention more personalized) results than dropping in without warning.
Office hours aren’t just for undergrads. Your professional network after graduation includes the professors who got to know you as a student. Keep them posted from time to time on your career and life developments. If you find yourself near your alma mater, drop in and say hello. It’s fun to hear about changes that have occurred in your department and share your successes with teachers.
“We adore having graduates come back and visit us,” Reid says. “Don’t be a stranger.”