Have a Tough College Professor? Here's Your Survival Guide

Not all professors are created equal.

The degree of difficulty among college courses is as varied as possible majors, and taking a course from a tough professor can be particularly stressful. Here are a few ways to survive — and thrive — in a tough professor’s class.

How to Survive

Don’t panic.

Chances are you’re going to figure out how tough your professor is very quickly. Professors are as interested in your characteristics as you are in theirs, so as you walk through the syllabus on day one, remember that you’re not the only one who knows that you may drop the class later that day. If it’s early in the semester, the toughness could be a tactic.

Should the professor weed out less enthusiastic students early, she will end up with fewer students — but they will be more engaged and willing to work harder than the deserters. That makes the course more interesting and enjoyable for everyone, particularly the professor. That’s not to say the workload won’t be legitimately demanding, but if you can take the heat early, you will learn much more as the semester progresses.

Get to know your classmates.

It is possible that the resource most underutilized by college students is the people sitting next to them in class. Forced group work is never ideal, especially if you’re the person everybody dumps their work on, but voluntary collaboration can help you meet a tough professor’s demands. In many cases, what makes a professor appear tough is the amount and/or depth of the material she covers, and working with classmates can help you conquer the material.

When it is legitimately difficult to stay on top of everything, consider getting to class five minutes early and making a few connections with your classmates. Forming a study group will help in many ways. Reading can be divided so that each group member can read a part of the assigned text closely and provide others with a detailed summary and notes. This is a particularly useful strategy you can use to prepare for class, since you’ll arrive with a broad view of the material and specific knowledge about at least one aspect of it.

Getting familiar with and comfortable around a small group of classmates will continue to pay off as the semester progresses. For example, some students don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class but will share their insights more often in a small group. One of my college classmates would never speak up in class unless called on because she didn’t want to circulate her best term paper ideas. Outside of the classroom, however, she would speak more freely to our group. She would enrich our understanding and also receive what I call “non-competitive feedback” (or insight from classmates who wouldn’t use the conversation to get an edge in the classroom) on her strongest ideas. Your ability to take on a tough professor will increase as you study and write (and even complain) together.

Never take the professor’s demands personally.

Many students make the mistake of assuming that a professor is out to get them, that the scare tactics and demanding procedures are unfairly geared toward them as individuals. This is simply not the case. I had a professor who would call on me at least once every class. I didn’t think it was fair because my classmates were only called on sporadically.

Later in the semester, I asked why she did this. She smiled knowingly and said simply, “I like to watch you think on your feet. You’re good at it.” For weeks, I had assumed she did not like me, but the opposite was true. She enjoyed teaching and pushing me, and I had wasted so much time believing otherwise.

Something else to keep in mind: professors have a lot on their plate, and although teaching is a very enjoyable part of the job, it’s by no means the entirety of their responsibilities. In many cases, classroom time is the most invigorating aspect of an academic career. So if you are going to take something personally, take it as a personal compliment that your professor sees your potential and wants to drive you to greatness. Use this opportunity to set yourself apart from other people in the class who may be more focused on doing the bare minimum.

How to Thrive

Get to know your professor as a professional.

Although they may be intimidating, professors are people too. One thing students tend to forget (or never learn in the first place) is that professors have their own interests, sensibilities, and even weaknesses. Although she may not be the most personable or entertaining individual, an established professor is an expert in a specific field. (If you’re really lucky, your professor will be a household name among other professors in that same field.) Figuring out what your professor’s specialties and interests are will help you relate to and talk with her.

A little research will tell you where your professor completed her degree(s), where her academic interests lie, and what other courses she is teaching or has taught. In addition to teaching, universities require faculty to publish articles and books every so often, and reading them will teach you about your professor and add depth to your knowledge of the field. But more than that, these recent publications will help you pinpoint your professor’s real passion. Your stuffy Shakespeare professor may actually be an expert on female pirates, or your business professor may have made her first million selling popsicles in Brazil. Whatever her specialty, knowing a tough professor’s background may explain that toughness: she has likely pursued rigorous academic opportunities to get to where she is today.

Stay on the radar.

Remaining in contact with professors you love is easy, but it’s worth getting out of your comfort zone to keep in contact with. Demonstrating even a passing interest in her subject area will show your professor that you’re willing to go the extra mile. And there’s a built-in place and time for students to do this: office hours. Professors are required to hold them, so make a point of visiting the professor on her turf.

If you’re hesitant to enter the lion’s den, go armed. It’s always good to show up with a specific question, because it gives you something to talk about (and a reason to leave once it’s answered). But there are other options as well. For example, asking a professor for additional reading suggestions will show that you are willing to explore beyond the syllabus. There is always an article or a book the professor couldn’t fit into the course that could give you an edge — oftentimes this may be something she published but did not include.

Making use of office hours a number of times throughout the semester will allow you to build a rapport with your professor, which makes it much easier to request things — like assistance choosing a project or a letter of recommendation — as the course progresses and even once it ends.

Think beyond the grade.

When it comes down to it, the best way to thrive when you encounter a tough professor is to relish the opportunity to push yourself. A tough professor requires you to work harder than you are used to, harder than you want to, and sometimes harder than you ever have before. The best students see the value in being stretched, and come to class to actually learn.

All professors dislike students who are hyper-interested in their grades, and tough professors are no different. One way to stand out is to accept the toughness and succeed because — not in spite — of that environment.

When you encounter a tough professor, whether it’s the first time or the umpteenth time, do everything you can to recognize how this particular relationship can be of worth to you. Find a silver lining that has nothing to do with the course itself, and then keep it in sight. For example, employers love to ask interview questions like, “Tell me about a time you encountered and overcame a difficult situation,” to gauge how prospective employees react to adversity. Should that question arise in your first interview after college, you’re toast if you’ve never hunkered down and fought for something. But imagine responding with a description of the four months you spent in a demanding learning environment and your choice to remain there despite major opposition.

Jeffrey R. Holland, former president of Brigham Young University once told students, “An easy education is a contradiction in terms.” Tough professors know this better than anyone, so the sooner you learn that an education means much more than a grade, the more success you will find.

Want more advice on how to navigate college with ease? Check out more advice on college success from Professor Calvin Olsen and other Noodle Experts.