Category Archives: Asking Questions

What the Heck are Office Hours Anyway?

Why does every professor note “office hours” on the course syllabus?  Am I the only one who has no clue what they are?  Is this when the professor is working and if so what does she do with all of that other “free time”?

These great questions are posed by many first year and even upper year students who aren’t familiar with the office hours concept.  I’m going to use this post to reveal the mystery behind office hours so that students understand what they are and how they can benefit.

Office hours are designated times professors deliberately schedule in order to meet with students.  Whoa.  Hold up.  Why would my professor want to meet with me?

I’m going to be honest here.  Some professors could care less about meeting with you while others are quite open to the idea.  Most post-secondary institutions require professors to hold office hours at a rate of one hour per class instructed, or something along those lines, so it’s not necessarily coming out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.

On the other hand, many professors value the opportunity to get to know their students personally and to help their students in a number of ways.

Here are the four most common ways students utilize my office hours:

  1. Clarify course content by asking specific questions.  I love it when a student prepares a list of questions in advance of a visit.  These students are able to stay focused and make the most of the time.  I appreciate it when students don’t waste my time by spending the majority of the meeting rifling through their paperwork.
  2. Discover opportunities to learn more about future courses, program options, volunteering opportunities and work experiences.  Professors can be an amazing resource for all types of information.  If you have legitimate questions about program pathways or ways to gain experience, your professor just might have some answers.
  3. Ask questions about papers, tests or assignments.  Sometimes you just don’t know what the professor meant by writing “awk” in the margin of your paper.  If you take the time to clarify feedback, chances are you will perform better on the next paper or test if you can apply those lessons learned.
  4. Express concern over course performance or progress.  If things are not going well and you’re not sure what you can do, your professor might be able to provide some guidance that could help you get back on track.  You might even learn that this course/program is not for you and make some changes (caution: always seek a second opinion!).

Some of the benefits of visiting your professor during office hours are obvious from the above list.  Another obvious benefit is that the professor gets to know you.  This is a tremendous help if you ever ask that professor for a reference.  See the Will You Be My Reference? post for more tips on what it takes to receive a qualified reference from a professor.

Another benefit is that you get to know your professor too.  There might be some interesting clues in your professor’s office that reveal useful information.  During one office hour visit a student realized I was a past Chapter Board Chair of Kids Help Phone from the recognition plaque on my shelf.  It turned out that she was interested in getting involved with the organization as a volunteer and we were able to have a meaningful talk.

Most professors have specific guidance around preferred systems for managing office hours so pay attention the information she shares.  In my previous role, I managed my office hours using an advanced booking system because there were just so many students to accommodate.  In my current role I operate on a drop-in basis because it better suits my style and the students I work with.  Some professors operate on an open door, drop-in basis while others would give you the nastiest stink eye ever for not respecting their time.

ProfWhile we’re on that note, let me remind you to please respect your professor’s office hours because they actually have a lot more work to do outside of preparing for class, teaching and meeting with students.  See the What Do Professors Do Anyway? post for more on that topic.

I hope you’re better equipped to understand when and why you might visit your professor.  If you have any questions around office hour etiquette or purpose, please post below.

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3 Questions to NEVER Ask Your Professor

QuestionDon’t get me wrong.  Asking your professor good questions is definitely ok.  See the It’s Ok to Ask Questions post for exactly what I mean.

Asking questions demonstrates that you care about the course and content.  The interaction is also a fabulous opportunity for you to start building a relationship with your professor which may come in handy down the road (See the Will You Be My Reference? post).

The bottom line is that you need to think about what your questions really say about you before you ask.   I’m not saying that you should never think about these questions and seek out answers to them but most of the time you shouldn’t present them to your professor.

The list below highlights the dreaded questions followed by your professor’s true feelings.  In some cases your professor might actually verbalize the response which will likely result in embarrassed faces and awkward moments and in others you might simply notice that your professor is rolling her eyes while she grunts a short response.

Neither situation is ideal.

Here we go…

1.  Will that be on the test?

Who cares?  Aren’t you here to learn?  It’s impossible to “test” every single topic, concept and idea so…maybe.  That’s right maybe.  All content covered in the readings, lectures, class discussions and exercises is fair game people.

Advice:  Be prepared.  Assume that all content covered in readings, lectures, discussions, exercises and through guest speakers is testable unless otherwise noted.

2.  What did I miss in class?

Who am I?  Your mother?  I have (insert large #) number of students in my courses and I’m a busy person.  I can’t possibly “re-do” the missed class for you.  Figure it out yourself.  

Advice:  It’s your responsibility to get what you need/what you missed from somebody else in the class.  Most of the time professors post lecture notes and announcements through their course websites so some of this information is easily accessible to you.  Get to know other students in the class early in the term so that you can connect with them and find out what you missed in the case you need to miss a class.

3.  Is it ok if I leave early/miss class?

See the initial response above.  You are an adult and capable of making your own choices.  If you choose to leave class early to tend to something else you deem more important then don’t look for my approval.  I manage to schedule my dental appointments, doctor’s appointments, personal training appointments and everything else outside of my teaching hours because class is important to me.  Do what you need to do.

Advice:  Unless you are asked to report absences (perhaps for a seminar session) or your absence will affect the way the class functions (like you were supposed to deliver a presentation) it’s best not to say anything on this one.  If you need to leave early then sit somewhere where you won’t disrupt the class when you leave.

Aside:  I once had a student tell me at the beginning of class that she had to leave early and then pack up and walk out five minutes into the class.  Are you kidding me?

I want to know.  Have you ever asked your professor a question and received a surprising (good or bad) response?  Share!

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Will You Be My Reference?

Help Me!

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a loooooong time.  Clearly I’ve been too busy writing reference letters!

Let’s face it.  At some point in your life you may need an academic reference (i.e. a reference from a college or university faculty member).  This could be for any number of reasons including a grad school, scholarship or job application or maybe even for a volunteer position would you like to hold.  Academic referees are often required to answer specific questions (rather than simply provide a general assessment) about the individual in question and in addition we are often asked to rate you (yes you!), against your peers in a number of categories including communication skills, academic ability, judgment, leadership ability, maturity and the list goes on.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a professor is the number of unqualified reference requests I get from both past and current students.  Let me explain what I mean by unqualified.

An unqualified reference request has one or more of the following elements:

  1. I don’t know the student well; therefore I am not able to evaluate if the student’s skills and accomplishments are a good match for this program/award/position.
  2. The student did not perform well in the course (final grade below 75%, did not attend classes, etc.).  What do you think the rankings are going to look like?
  3. I don’t know what I’m being asked for.  The student hasn’t sent me all necessary information to evaluate if acting as a reference would make sense.
  4. I don’t remember the student.  Gasp!  Yes, this has happened.  I’ve taught a lot of students and my memory isn’t what it used to be.  If it’s been five years since you graduated (assuming we haven’t talked since) this could happen to you.

So what are you to do?

Here are my tips for what to consider before, at the time of and after the reference request.  I hope this information will shed some light on the subject and save you (and your professors) from some awkward correspondence.

BEFORE You Ask

  • How well does this person know me?  If the answer is “well, she knows my student number and midterm exam grade” and that’s it – we’re in trouble.  Think about what your professor might be able to say about you in relation to the program/award/position you are applying for.  Draft a letter about yourself.  Do it!  This is a great exercise.  If you don’t know what to include in a letter about yourself how will this person be able to figure it out either?
  • What do I want this person to say about me?  Do you want them to speak to your ability to work well in a team?  Your leadership potential?  Your willingness to contribute to class discussions?  WHAT?  If you don’t know, how are we supposed to know?  If we have observed these behaviours, skills, etc.  in action then it would make sense to ask us to speak about them on your behalf but if not…

WHEN You Ask

  • If in person, make sure that it is a good time (like not right before class when your professor is madly trying to get the projector to work) and if it is through email then make sure you communicate professionally (appropriate subject line, capitalization, sentence structure, etc.).
  • Indicate why you are asking this particular person for a reference or why you think this person would be a good reference for the purpose.  What value will he or she be willing to add to your application?  Professors like this.  It demonstrates thinking.
  • Include all relevant information in the request like the due date (big one!) and a description of the program/award/position (a link to a website with this information is also very useful).

AFTER You Ask

  • No matter the response, be gracious.
  • Make sure that you follow up with all additional information (contact information of where the letter should be sent for example).
  • Don’t assume that you can use this person as a reference for the rest of your life.  You need to ask each time you would like this person to be a reference for you.

On that last point, a couple of months ago I was surprised to get a phone message from a background check company on behalf of a student I taught SEVEN YEARS AGO.  Thankfully I wasn’t in the office when the call came in so I had a chance to figure out who this person was.  That doesn’t mean I was able to give a good reference.  I really didn’t remember this person or know anything about the position he had applied for.

I hope I haven’t scared you.  The purpose of this post was to provide you with some context so that you make sure you are proactive in building relationships with individuals who might be able to help you in this capacity.  What a great idea for a future post!

Have you had a good/bad reference request experience you would be willing to share?

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It’s Ok to Ask Questions

For some reason students feel like they shouldn’t ask their profs questions.  Why is that?  Do you think that how to amortize bonds payable using the effective interest method of amortization is common knowledge?  No, it’s not.  It’s a difficult concept and so are many other theories, processes and formulae you will cover in all kinds of courses ranging from anthropology to zoology.

Most professors are happy to answer your questions for these three reasons:

  1. Asking questions demonstrates that you care.  The fact that you are concerned enough to ask a question shows us that  learning is a priority for you.  We really like to help those students who are interested, passionate or just plain curious about a topic.
  2. We genuinely want to help our students succeed.  We enjoy facilitating discussions and grading papers where students “get it”.  Believe me, it’s no fun grading a failing paper.
  3. We like interacting with our students.  Those of us who teach large classes don’t get to do this very often.  When we respond to questions in a one-on-one setting it can be a great opportunity for us to find out what students are struggling with so that we can make changes to content delivery.

Before you approach your professor with an “I don’t understand” statement, be clear that we do have some expectations.  We expect that you have done some preliminary work and have made some effort to familiarize yourself with the concept/topic/process.  Use this list of questions as a checklist and only approach your professor after you can answer yes to all of them.

  • Have you completed the reading?
  • Have you attempted the review questions/demonstration problem?
  • Did you pay attention/take notes/get notes to the lecture/discussion on the topic?
  • Have you attempted to discuss the concept with other students in your class or study group?
  • Have you actually thought about the concept?

Here’s a question for you.  Does this help?

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