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Four Ways to Annoy a Professor When Asking For Help (And Four Things You Should Do Instead)

October 14th, 2008 · 28 comments

Note: I was away for the holiday weekend, attending a college conference. Because of this, there was no Monday Master Class yesterday. Today’s post will take the place of both yesterday’s Master Class and the normal Wednesday post.

Professorial WisdomHand

I often recommend to struggling students that they talk to their professors. My philosophy: when a class is giving you trouble, figure out exactly why and then craft a customized solution. Your professor’s input is an invaluable piece of this process.

But here’s the thing: a lot of students have no idea how to approach a professor. As an academic in training I’ve witnessed this firsthand. In this post I want to describe four common mistakes students make when asking a professor for help. I pair each with a suggestion of what to do instead.

Way #1: Saying “I don’t understand this at all.”

Many students see professors as a magic wisdom-imparting machine. To them, the very act of attending office hours holds out the promise of instant understanding. This leads them to show up and say, in essence, “I don’t get it,” and then sit back and wait for glorious comprehension to flow like water.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work that way.

The professor has spent hours teaching these subjects, if he could make you understand them from scratch in one short conversation, he wouldn’t have spent so much time going over them in the lecture hall.

Instead: Before you attend office hours, work through the problematic concept, using both lecture notes and relevant readings to help guide you. Identify exactly where you get stuck. List out what you tried and why it didn’t work. Explain all of this to the professor so he can help dislodge you from your specific mental logjam.

Way #2: Trying to justify your lack of understanding instead of seeking help.

The following scenario is surprising common: A student is frustrated that he can’t understand some concept. He’s spent hours. It seems utterly incomprehensible! When he arrives at office hours to chat with the professor, he spends incredible energy trying to explain why no one could possibly understand it. Every time the professor offers advice or a suggestion, the student quickly retorts with how he has already tried that or why it won’t work.

This just annoys the professor. You are not going to convince her that the concept is somehow unknowable. It is. You’re making a mistake in your thinking.

Instead: Follow the strategy suggestion for the previous problem. By explaining what you understand, where you’re stuck, and how you tried to get unstuck, you will maximize your chances of getting real help.

Way #3: Asking if there is any way you can improve your grade.

Many students think of grading as a bargaining process. Sure, they might have scored lousy on the exams, but that’s just the starting point for the negotiation, right? There has to be some extra project or sob story that can get that ‘B’ looking more like an ‘A’?

Wrong.

Professors hate this. Many will simply respond with the following secret to getting a better grade: score higher on the tests and assignments. Some will seem concerned, but secretly mark you down as someone to avoid.

Instead: Participate a lot in class. Show a real interest. Get to the know the professor during office hours and demonstrate the effort you are putting in. If you do this, he will likely give you a break if your grade is borderline. He’ll do this for good reason and without you having to ask.

Way #4: Asking for advice on how to study.

It’s a not-so-subtle tactic. Students pretend like they are being conscientious by asking for advice on how to prepare for the big test. Their underlying motive, however, is trying to figure out exactly what they need to review to ace the exam.

Professors see through this ruse. Their default answer is always: understand the readings and what we discussed in lecture and you’ll do fine. In other words: bug off!

Instead: Make sure you understand what type of questions the exam will cover and what level of understanding will be expected. This is fair game. A professor should divulge this information in class before the exam. If she doesn’t, remind her. Once you know these general constraints, then, in standard Study Hacks style, you need to devise the most efficent and specific possible study strategy that prepares you to handle these demands.

28 thoughts on “Four Ways to Annoy a Professor When Asking For Help (And Four Things You Should Do Instead)

  1. You get an AMEN from this college prof on everything you said. In fact I’m forwarding this to all my freshmen students and advisees.

    A note on point #4: It’s not so much that we professors are telling students to bug off, but for most of us, telling students to understand the readings etc. is how we managed to succeed in our courses, so it’s the default for explaining to others how to succeed. Asking for advice on how to study is actually likely to result in nothing more than bad advice — most of us profs are not cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists, so we honestly have no idea what exactly a random struggling student can do to help themselves other than understanding the readings. I know stuff that works for me, but trying to generalize that to the student across from me in office hours is a recipe for disaster.

    Quite seriously, rather than dispensing my own advice about study strategies to students, I’ve just been telling them to go read Study Hacks.

  2. Jason says:

    Definitely useful information, though I wonder how many Study Hacks readers don’t know how to approach professors. I admit that I could be completely wrong- perhaps if I saw a day in the life of TA or professor I’d think differently – but I’d imagine that learning how to approach a professor proceeds skills like time-blocking and managing things with GTD systems.

  3. Nate says:

    #3’s “instead” strategy does not always work, but students should only take this into account when participation is actually graded and taken into account. Solely participating does not help your grade when it’s simply based on three exams, for example.

  4. Nazim says:

    Very helpful!

  5. Kit says:

    Robert, that’s funny you tell students to come here. In fact I’m really surprised that any professors read student oriented blogs! Definitely some “cool points” for you. ;)

    Jason, you said you were surprised that many students don’t know how to approach their professors. Well, honestly I think it goes with finding the courage not only to admit to yourself that you need help but to admit to someone else you need help! I think it can be pretty intimidating to people, especially if it’s a large class where they feel by approaching the teacher they might as well be approaching a complete stranger. Myself, I try not to be in any huge lecture classes (which are terrible learning environments, but that’s whole other issue) and instead find smaller classes with more approachable teachers. One tactic that I’ve noticed professors using is to “force” students to meet with them one-on-one, by having students sign up for times to meet during what would be normal class time (basically, class is “cancelled” but you instead have your appointment, and going to that does count as attendance). I think that once you’ve met with the professor once, it’s easier to approach him/her again.

  6. Kate says:

    I’m a big fan of utilizing office hours to check my answers to homework problems that are not available in the text. The professor at least knows that someone in the class cares enough to make sure they have the right answers before handing in an assignment. Bonus points for that can be later reflected when the prof can round up your grade or leave it as is. : )

    Great advice Cal!

  7. Hongrui Niu says:

    Good post! Thank you!

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Asking for advice on how to study is actually likely to result in nothing more than bad advice — most of us profs are not cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists, so we honestly have no idea what exactly a random struggling student can do to help themselves other than understanding the readings.

    Robert, thanks for the insider insight here! I hadn’t thought of it this way, but it makes a lot of sense. (If the organization-level of the professors I know here at MIT are any indicator of their study habits, I too would advice a student to seek such tactical help elsewhere…)

    Definitely useful information, though I wonder how many Study Hacks readers don’t know how to approach professors.

    Jason, you would be surprised. I think you’re right that a lot of Dartmouth students are pretty good at these interactions, but there’s a lot of schools, and a lot of different academic experiences funneling into American colleges.

    Solely participating does not help your grade when it’s simply based on three exams, for example.

    This might certainly be true in some cases. From my limited experience, however, a lot professors do seem to note whose engaged, whose annoying, and whose tuned out, and these influence final grade decisions.

  9. Vik says:

    Hi. I got a question not related to the post at hand.
    I’m currently studying law and all my tests are of the open-book format. Hence, I don’t need emphasis on memorizing stuff. What im really stuck with is on the issue of taking notes. I find that most of the time, i end up copying the text-book almost word for word whilst making my notes. Needless to say, this takes up a lot of time. Should I persist on in this or should I just aim to capture the big ideas? I’m hesitant to do the latter as I’m afraid I might end up missing out the smaller, crucial details. Any tips for me?

  10. Study Hacks says:

    Should I persist on in this or should I just aim to capture the big ideas?

    For each “chapter” (or whatever the natural segmentation of your textbook), write up a quiz whose questions, when answered, covers both the big ideas and the small details. Use your textbook as the answer key when answering this quiz. For the big ideas, you should be able to answer without peeking. For the small details, it’s okay to take some glances — you’re gunning for familiarity, not memorization.

  11. David says:

    For the big ideas, you should be able to answer without peeking. For the small details, it’s okay to take some glances — you’re gunning for familiarity, not memorization.

    This is exactly what I catch myself doing whenever I’m studying big long Greek texts for tests and I know that I’m not going to be able to memorize a word that only occurs one or twice and is not very important overall. The small details do count, but not get bogged down in them makes a LARGE difference in how effective your study sessions are. When I’m doing a Q/R, the last thing I want to do is be continuously looking at my answer key.

    Also, If it has been awhile since I’ve looked at the material, I spend some time initially just re-familiarizing myself with the text. This can involve consulting my list of vocabulary words for that passage and/or making notes in the text.

    I’m glad you brought this point up though. It took me a little while to figure out how it applied to what I was studying.

    @Nate: Even in classes solely determined by tests/papers, there is often an unofficial “participation” grade, which can manifest itself on your paper/test grade. After having been docked in one of my classes for basically not participating enough, I know this painfully so.

  12. As a Public Speaking instructor and a Political Communication TA, I couldn’t agree more!

  13. workaholic says:

    As a teacher, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only one little exception – because I teach at lower-secondary school I am sometimes sort of happy that certain students come seeking an advice on methods of studying. Some of them really want to improve, but this “awakening” came with the age.

  14. Linh says:

    If the organization-level of the professors I know here at MIT are any indicator of their study habits, I too would advice a student to seek such tactical help elsewhere…

    So true! Which takes me to a question that’s been bugging me forever: if their study habits are so terrible, did they succeed entirely with their innate genius?

  15. Study Hacks says:

    So true! Which takes me to a question that’s been bugging me forever: if their study habits are so terrible, did they succeed entirely with their innate genius?

    I wouldn’t say “genius,” but, basically: yes. To become an MIT professor requires: (1) you effortlessly do well in undergrad CS courses (not super hard if you have an aptitude); (2) as a graduate student, publish groundbreaking research (super hard).

    Neither really requires great study habits. A lot of this work seems to be done in place of sleep…

  16. David says:

    I wouldn’t say “genius,” but, basically: yes. To become an MIT professor requires….as a graduate student, publish groundbreaking research (super hard).

    As a grad student, doesn’t this pressure frighten you somewhat? I mean, coming from MIT, you’d probably get tenure in a lot of places, but what if you were especially interested in getting tenure at MIT? Seems to make keeping the 9 to 5 intact more impressive. I know if I were in a situation like that, I’d probably conclude that (doing more work) = (better results) which obviously means (using more available hours) = (better results). I guess what I’m trying to say is that just having free time in a situation like that is practically countercultural and (at first glance) damaging to one’s job prospects. But than again, we thought the same for undergrad and grades didn’t we??

  17. Study Hacks says:

    As a grad student, doesn’t this pressure frighten you somewhat? I mean, coming from MIT, you’d probably get tenure in a lot of places, but what if you were especially interested in getting tenure at MIT?

    I would have to prepare myself to be disappointed. :) Here’s the thing, MIT rarely hires their own students. They prefer to wait until people become famous, then hire them. The best way, therefore, to get tenure at MIT is to go get famous. Therein lies the super hard part.

    I know if I were in a situation like that, I’d probably conclude that (doing more work) = (better results)

    That’s not the culture in the Theory Group here at MIT. Working long hours signals you’re a hard worker. Who cares? The standard everyone idealizes here is the Good Will Hunting type that walks in late, solves an unsolved proof, then gets lunch. Of course, outside of one exception, no one actually can do that. But at the same time, no one feels like burning the midnight oil will somehow produce better insights.

  18. Former MBA-School Prof says:

    You wrote some interesting stuff. Regarding “Ways” #1 – #3, you overlook a potentially tremendous resource for getting through rough patches, namely the class itself. Class participation, in my experience, didn’t do squat along the line you suggest in Way #3 as far as influencing grades I received goes (I got my MS and PhD in engineering from Stanford), nor those I dished out in top-tier MBA programs, where I did not have a “class-participation” component – only two exams. It was HUGELY helpful, though, in establishing feedback to the professor; often if one person doesn’t get something, he’s not alone, and the prof can adjust to the situation as warranted. Further, students might be able to see where you (or they) are having trouble when the professor can’t, and can pipe in on the discussion, benefiting everyone (hopefully).

    More on Tao #3 and 4: I found that cramming just didn’t work in the long run — invariably I would need to leverage on what I was supposed to have learned, not just put into short-term memory. So for both the math-oriented material and learning a foreign language, a very effective way to improve one’s grade is to study, study, study essentially daily, not in large gulps every few days; this has the additional if helping you identify during a class session where you are having, or think you soon will have, a problem. Study to understand the material, and the grade will follow.

    You wrote “If the organization-level of the professors I know here at MIT are any indicator of their study habits, I too would advice [sic] a student to seek such tactical help elsewhere…” What do they have to do with each other?!? There might be some seriously cool stuff brewing that needs those seeming organizational non-linearities.

    We “burn the midnight oil” because we love what we do (I’m thinking research-oriented environments) – you’ll likely develop the habit by the time you defend your thesis; if you don’t, then don’t even consider an academic career. :-)

    Keep up your good work, here and there!

  19. Jason says:

    To Kit and Cal:

    I totally agree that it’s useful information! I don’t think Dartmouth students are exempt from needing to communicate more effectively with professors, either. I’m certainly not- I went to a lunch and talk about just this topic during orientation. I also totally appreciate how it can be intimidating to get to know professors.

    What I was saying was that I wondered if the demographic that reads Study Hacks would derive maximum benefit from the tip, but it looks as though I’m wrong! =)

  20. supergirl says:

    @ Vik – I’m assuming you’re in a common law jurisdiction and therefore you have a book full of case extracts with very few accompanying notes and a 100% exam at the end based on a hypothetical client.

    My advice would be to drop the case-copying because it’s only really tangentially useful. Instead:

    1. Figure out what causes of action a potential client could have
    2. List out what steps they need to prove for each cause of action (also helps to have a list of things that the other side would have to prove to kill it) – do this by distilling principles from the judgments and weighting their relative authority
    3. Slot in the relevant details from the cases (which will usually illustrate how to satisfy/not satisfy each step although some cases also illustrate historical or theoretical points)
    4. Compare the problem with this outline.

    Steps 1 and 2 will basically yield you a list of questions (is there a duty of care, has it been breached, etc), and step 3 will give you a list of possible answers and why you might choose to argue that answer in a given situation. It’s basically what Cal said, but structure is going to be even more important, because you need to know the details (because these will decide your case) but also the big picture (so you know what to argue in the first place, what to try if it doesn’t work, how to arrange it persuasively). Also, never follow the structure of a casebook because they tend to present things in terms of historical/theoretical development and in multi-page chunks of case which is great for intellectual development but terrible for exam notes.

  21. Vik says:

    @ supergirl – You are right. I am in a common law jurisdiction. For my subjects like criminal and contract law, I’ve got two books. A textbook, which contains both learning materials and cases in an abridged form and a case book which does not really contain learning materials but has the cases in a more extensive form.

    I don’t really have a 100% final exam. But the final exam does carry the most weightage. And my questions are in the form of hypothetical scenarios.

    So, are you suggesting that I churn out the questions on my own? Should I churn out this questions on a per-topic basis or come up with questions comprising a range of topics? Or both?

  22. Study Hacks says:

    [class participation] was HUGELY helpful, though, in establishing feedback to the professor; often if one person doesn’t get something, he’s not alone, and the prof can adjust to the situation as warranted.

    Great insight.

    We “burn the midnight oil” because we love what we do (I’m thinking research-oriented environments) – you’ll likely develop the habit by the time you defend your thesis

    “We” is too broad. In the math/theory community, burning the midnight oil on a regular basis doesn’t help, and here at MIT, few do it in this group. At the same time, of course, other research areas do lots of late night work. Head up a few floors to find the systems guys (who build and program things), and you’ll see that almost every graduate student office has a couch, pillow, and blanket in it. This just depends on what area of research you’re in.

  23. Dustin says:

    This is pretty much exactly what I’m terrible at doing.

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