5 Guidelines for College Student-Professor Interactions

Students should avoid excuses that are the modern equivalent of ‘My dog ate my homework.’

Students can overcome generational gaps by using several tips when they communicate with professors.
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Jeffrey Cohen has heard about so many of his students' grandmothers dying during his courses that he warns them during the first session that his classes have proven fatal to "legions" of grandmothers. Students should enroll at their own risk, Cohen, an English professor at George Washington University, tells them.

"Every professor has a litany of excuses students have used in the past that don't work," he says. "[The announcement] does cut down on the funeral excuses."

Students should be honest, admitting when they've made mistakes, and focus on improving over the remainder of the course, Cohen says. "It doesn't happen much," he admits, "but when it does—well that level of maturity certainly leaves me favorably inclined towards assisting the student."

Even when college students aren't inventing deceased relatives to save their grade point averages, interactions with professors can be more complicated than the age-old strategy of leaving an apple on a teacher's desk in elementary or high school.

Students who need to address academic issues with their professors must navigate generational gaps and power discrepancies—each of which could be intimidating. Keeping these five guidelines in mind can help students maximize their chances of resolving challenges that arise.

[Read six ways to deal with a bad professor.]

1. You're not an adult in training. If students act maturely, professors will treat them as such, says Cohen. "Students will claim that a professor is a tyrant for being inflexible with deadlines, as if everyone merited flexible deadlines, as if the work world had suggested days for task completion rather than do-or-die days," he says.

It's not easy for students to accept this kind of responsibility, Cohen admits, but being a grown-up can be difficult. "Better to learn all that in a supportive environment, where your teacher is very much on your side and wants you to realize the potential you have," he says.

2. All classes are important. When students know they will need to miss class, many ask the professor if they will need to make up anything important—or, after the fact, if they missed anything important. Those are both mistakes, because professors work hard to prepare for every class, says Ellen Bremen, the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor.

"If students want to clarify what they missed after an absence, they can say—preferably in person and with notes in hand—'Professor, I was absent last Thursday. I saw on the schedule that you went over chapter 11. I read that chapter and worked on the assignment. I asked a classmate what else you covered that day, and I believe I have all the notes. Have I covered all my bases?" Bremen says.

[Learn why at some colleges, professors live in dorms, too.]

3. Your GPA isn't your professor's problem. The most egregious mistake students make is waiting too long to discuss their grade goals with their professors, even if they know they need to maintain a certain grade point average to keep a scholarship or financial aid, according to Bremen.

"They finally turn their attention to grades in week 13 of a 15-week term, and then the situation is a crisis," she says. "Instead, students must proactively initiate grade goal discussions on day one, or at least by week one."

4. Be respectful. Timmian Massie, a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., readily admits that he's the age of many of his students' fathers. But Massie, who served as the Marist spokesman for 17 years, is very active on social media and communicates with students via Twitter and text messaging. (He requires all of his students to provide him with their Twitter handles and cell phone numbers.)

When Massie alerted one student that an account the student was encouraging his Twitter followers to read was particularly offensive, the student used "the common refrain of young people, who do not like to be corrected: How dare you be so condescending to me!" A frank conversation later, the student saw things Massie's way.

"A student needs to realize he or she is talking to an authority figure—whether it is a teacher, a parent, or a boss at work," Massie says. "Flippant or insulting comments won't help."