Last week I posted The 10 Questions You Should NEVER Ask Your Professor and the response has been really fun, as people have chimed in from everywhere, adding to the list such questions as “Will this be on the test?”; “How many pages do I have to write?; “Why did you give me this grade?” The last is always a problem and definitely should have been on the list, because it reveals a fundamental problem with the way some students view their academic work, who think that grades are given, not earned. It’s actually the other way around.
But I digress. As entertaining as all these new questions have been, I think it’s important that we also think about the good questions that students really need to ask in order to plan their semester and be academically successful. The essence of learning is the ability to ask questions, and it is the responsibility of the student to ask them and the professor to answer them.
Accordingly, I have gathered the following list of essential questions that all students should ask, dealing with everything from etiquette issues to understanding the course content:
- How do you wish to be addressed? All of your professors are different: they have different teaching methods, different personalities, and different classroom standards. They also differ on what they liked to be called. I have noticed, though, that students seldom refer to their professors by name, often because they are unsure what the etiquette is. I always have students who just sort of huddle near me, hoping I will notice them and ask them what they want, so they don’t have to call me by name. For example, some professors like to be called by their first name, but do not assume-ever-that this is the case for all professors. I, for one, do not allow students to use my first name because it complicates an already tricky power dynamic. The default title that students should use is “Professor [insert last name here].” But most professors have doctorates, which they earned through a huge amount of complicated and intense work. Like Dr. Evil, they did not spend six years in evil graduate school to be called “Mr. or Ms.” If we introduce ourselves as “Dr.,” please call us by our proper title. It’s such a common dilemma that there’s a great cartoon that describes the student dilemma over addressing faculty. Note: You may also find that professors don’t love being addresses as “dude,” as in “Yo, dude, what’s gonna be on the test.”
- Am I officially registered in this class? This is one of the most crucial questions you can ask in the first few weeks of a semester, especially if you have enrolled late. It may be that your tuition payment hasn’t been processed, for example, the professor may not have you listed as a student in the course. This can result in terrible problems, such as not being allowed in the course after all, because the course looks open to the registrar, who will fill in any open spots. If you do not hear or see your name on attendance lists, double-check to make sure you are actually registered.
- What requirements does this course fulfill? Many students are simply told what to enroll in without learning why a course is important or how it fulfills a program requirement. Some students register because they think a course looks interesting. But students need to be in complete control of their own education, so it is important to know, early in the semester, if the course will actually fill a requirement or not. If you want to cut short the time you spend in school, you may not have much time to take courses just because they are interesting. Your professor may not be able to answer a question like this, so it is also important to ask your advisor and read your program catalog.
- What do you look for in student work? This question should replace one of the questions most hated by all professors: “What do I need to do to get an A in this course?” When students ask me that question, I always say the same thing: “Work very hard to produce excellent, high-quality work that meets the analytical levels required of this discipline. Or give me a trillion dollars. Either works.” I mean, for that much cash, I might bend my ethics a little. But when you ask a question about the kind of work you should be doing, you’re getting into great territory about standards and expectations. Clarity on that will help you produce excellent work. Professors can explain how they grade, the level of sophistication required, etc.
- Do you look at rough drafts? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I’ve yet to meet a professor who isn’t willing to look at a rough draft, even when it isn’t already part of an assignment, to help you make sure students are on the right track. This question is a much better one than, “Why do I have to write a rough draft,” because you just do-it improves everything. It’s also why you need to consider the whole work load when enrolling in a course. As higher education researcher Jeffrey Alan Johnson suggests, students should find out the average amount of time a course’s work will require per week or over the semester, in order to better understand the course requirements. That will include time to write rough drafts and get them back with comments.
- What can I do to improve my work? This question is the one that should replace “What do I have to do to get a better grade?” The answer is always the same: improve your work (or give me a trillion dollars.) But what if you are not sure how to do this, because you are, after all, just learning the material? Ask the professor. The answer to this question will differ depending on discipline. In my history courses, for example, I emphasize the development of historical thinking, critical analysis of primary sources, etc. I can help students improve those skills, so that their work and therefore grade will improve. But improving your work in a math course may be quite different and require a different set of skills. Don’t ask about how to improve your grade-ask about how to improve your work. A related question is “What resources are available to help me improve my work?”
- Can you explain the best way to cite a source for this course? Different disciplines have different citation styles. Do not assume that the MLA citation form you learned for your English course is going to be the same form you use in your biology class, because it isn’t. If there are no instructions on your syllabus, ask your professor for assistance. This helps prevent you from accidentally committing plagiarism. Trust me on this: we would rather help you learn how to cite sources appropriately than submit a failing grade for plagiarized work. Some students are under the impression that all professors just wait for an opportunity to flunk someone, wringing their hands and cackling maniacally in anticipation-but it’s really an agonizing decision that we wrestle with, because we want all of our students to succeed.
- I’ve never studied this subject before. What are the best study methods? Similar to “what can I do to improve my work,” this question allows the professor to give you real guidance that will help you develop all of your skills. Every field has a variety of study methods that work differently for everyone. I often tell my students about what I call my “flip card” method of studying, which I used for my doctoral exams. It was a spiral-bound pad of index cards, on which I wrote a book title or theory on the front of the card and the relevant information about it on the back. I kept that little book in my bag at all times, and flipped through it whenever I was stuck somewhere like the DMV or in standstill traffic. It helped reinforce my knowledge, and I like to believe it was this little extra bit of work that helped me not only pass my doctoral exams, but do so “with distinction” (ahem). But it may not work for everyone or in every subject, so it’s only one of the methods I explain. Your professors will have many more. Ask them.
- Can I schedule an appointment for extra help? You can always stop by during office hours, but sometimes there are many students waiting and you won’t get much time with me. If you want me to sit down and look at your work, schedule a specific time when I won’t have to worry about the students waiting in line and can really concentrate just on your work. Additionally, when you make the appointment, ask the professor what you should bring to the meeting with you. I require my students to bring their textbooks, notebook, and all complete work to date. It helps to get a bigger picture of how learning is, or isn’t, taking place. For example, when I look at your textbook and see that virtually every sentence is highlighted, I know that you have difficulty picking out the main points. I can help you learn to do that.
- What work experience can I get/should I get as an undegrad to give me experience so I better understand my major/career path AND so I have some useful experience for when I apply for jobs or grad school? This question was submitted by Neil O’Donnell, professor and academic advisor at Canisius College, who pinpoints one of the most crucial questions a contemporary college student can ask. College courses are all valuable for different reasons. But if your primary reason for attending college is to increase your employability and earning potential, this question will maximize those efforts. In addition to your school’s career center, professors can highlight areas that you may not even consider as relevant and show you how to use them.
What other questions should students ask their professors? Submit yours here!