UM is a big school, and it can feel easy to sit back and become one of the crowd. Don't. Instead, take every opportunity to have one-on-one, face-to-face conversations and build personal relationships with faculty members. Here’s why and how.
THE WHY: BENEFITS OF CONNECTING WITH FACULTY
- Learn More: Speaking with faculty can give you a chance to clarify and deepen your understanding of class concepts. If you’re struggling, a conversation with a faculty member might help you find additional strategies or resources that can help. If you’re excelling, a conversation with a faculty member could let you explore more advanced concepts.
- Learn Differently: A one-on-one conversation is different from a lecture or an in-class discussion. In conversation you can approach ideas from a new angle, ask different kinds of questions, and learn from your professors in new ways. In conversation faculty might share additional insights and talk about personal experiences.
- Explore a Major or Minor: When you talk with your professors you can learn more about majors and minors in their field, find out what they think you’re especially good at, and hear what other classes they would recommend for you.
- Gain an Advocate: When faculty get to know you, they have a chance to understand who you are, respect you as an intelligent person, and remember you as an individual. Which makes it much more likely they will be willing, down the road, to write you a letter of recommendation [link] or think of you when they learn of research or internship opportunities.
THE HOW: WAYS STUDENTS CONNECT WITH FACULTY
HOW TO USE OFFICE HOURS
If you’re afraid of office hours, don’t be. Professors value the chance to have the one-on-one conversations with students that are impossible, say, in a large lecture. These conversations allow faculty to see how you’re doing, answer questions, and perhaps even learn about the student response to the class’s big ideas and methods. Most professors are enthusiastic about their classes and the chance to help engaged, thoughtful students.
- ETIQUETTE: Arrive to your appointment on time, address the professor by her last name with the appropriate title (professor, doctor, etc., unless she has asked you to address her by her first name). Keep your interactions professional, and thank the professor for his time. Some professors will be happy to chat about a range of topics, but some will want to stay focused on just those topics directly related to their class. Follow the professor’s lead.
- A LITTLE PREPARATION GOES A LONG WAY: Write down some questions to ask, and bring a notepad to take notes on the answers. Bring your text, your class notes, and any recent assignments you would like to discuss. This all shows the professor that you’re on top of things—and that you respect her time.
- DON’T WAIT: Go to office hours early in the semester, when you can talk about ideas without the anxiety of an impending exam. Keep going to office hours, so you can ask questions as they arise and not let them pile up. This can help you stay on top of the course material—and, when you show up for the professor’s help at exam time, you won’t be a stranger.
But I still don't know what we'll talk about!
If the above doesn’t settle this for you, here are some additional possibilities.
I’M NOT DOING WELL—HELP!: If you are struggling in the class, you should absolutely meet with your professor to ask for clarification of key concepts and for help adjusting your study strategies. To get the best help you can, show the professor that you are indeed doing the work and taking responsibility: make sure you’re caught up on the reading, have reviewed your notes, and have attempted to solve any sample problems on your own. Write down specific questions, highlight sections of your notes you would like to discuss, and bring problems that have baffled you.
TIP: Don’t Use Office Hours as a Replacement for Going to Class
It’s appropriate to stop by office hours if you missed a class and need some clarification of the topics covered, but don’t ask or expect the professor to re-teach the material or go over everything you missed. Go in with a short list of specific questions.
I’M DOING PRETTY WELL, BUT COULD I BE DOING EVEN BETTER?: You can meet with your professors to discuss your performance in the class and the possibility of revising your strategies to do even better. Professors can help you formulate the kinds of questions you should be asking when reviewing the readings for the course, think about the best way to prepare for an exam, understand their evaluation of your written work, strategize about an upcoming essay assignment, etc.
Tip: Use a Recent Test as a Springboard
If you’ve recently taken a test for the class, take it with you so you can discuss specific questions with your professor. Ask if she notices a pattern in the types of questions you missed—and if she has advice about how you can better prepare for such questions.
EXPLORE MAJORS, CLASSES, & OPPORTUNITIES: You can ask questions like: What majors would be the best fit for me considering my interest in your class? What other classes could I take to continue to explore the topics your class addresses? What kinds of organizations or programs would help me to develop these interests outside the classroom? What kinds of careers are available to someone who pursues this field of study?
SPECIAL REQUESTS: Visiting office hours is a great way to respectfully request a letter of recommendation [link], discuss graduate school possibilities, ask about an independent study or internship opportunities, etc.
The most obvious place to get to know faculty is in the classroom. But your professors simply can’t get to know you among a sea of three hundred other students if all you do is simply attend lecture. So what should you do?
BE EARLY, OR AT LEAST ON TIME, AND SIT NEAR THE FRONT: In a big lecture, or even in a medium-sized class, this gives the professor a chance to see that you’re present, attentive, and engaged. Even this nonverbal interaction creates a connection.
BE WELL PREPARED FOR CLASS: Even in a big lecture hall you can ask an intelligent question, and professors are quick to notice students who seem especially sharp and engaged. You’ll be able to think of an intelligent question if you do the reading, take notes on lectures, and stay on top of homework.
TIE THE CLASS TO CURRENT EVENTS: After class or during office hours, mention connections you’ve noticed between the class’ subject and any current events you’re relatively informed about. This shows the professor that you’re not just in the class for a grade and credit—you’re making thoughtful connections between the classroom and the wider world.
TAKE A SMALLER CLASS OR SEMINAR: All these strategies are good, but if you seek out smaller classes and seminars (say, with no more than twenty-five students) you won’t have to work so hard to get on your professor’s radar. You’ll still want to demonstrate thoughtful engagement, of course, but in smaller classes professors are more likely to require regular participation, know your name, notice when you’re not there, and otherwise get to know and care about you.
TIP: Take More than One Class with a Professor You’ve Especially Enjoyed
This gives you another way to build and develop a one-on-one relationship.
RESEARCH: Committing to a research project for at least one year can be a great way to get to know a faculty member—and for them to get to know you. To get started, check out the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) and the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training (MHIRT) Program. Your major department might also have postings of research opportunities. Talk with a department advisor about your research interests.
EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: Applied, field, or other kinds of “real world” experiences—such as Camp Davis, New England Literature Program, BioStation, and Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU)—can also be a great way to get to know faculty and can serve as a foundation for developing a relationship over future semesters.
Here are some tips for making most of any research or experiential learning opportunity:
Be Selective: Choose a project that suits your interests and strengths and that pairs you with a faculty member who is researching a subject that appeals to you. If you commit to a project you don’t care about, you may find it difficult to do your best work and demonstrate what you’re really capable of.
Be Open: Ask for feedback and any kind of constructive criticism of your performance. Be ready to receive such criticism in an open-minded, productive way. Be ready to learn new approaches.
Be Proactive: As you become more familiar with the project, look for ways to become more involved and to assume more responsibility without being pushy. Ask questions that demonstrate your engagement with and energy for the project. Talk with your faculty mentor about how your research experience connects to or shapes your personal, academic, and career goals.
Be Reflective: Keep a record of your experiences; journaling can be a good way to document your experiences for future reference and reflect upon their significance.
TIP: Attend Departmental Events, Public Lectures, Receptions, Conferences Such outside-of-class events are a great place to connect with instructors on an informal basis. It shows you’re interested and proactive enough to attend “non-required” events, and thus lets you demonstrate your academic seriousness.
Follow this link for details on requesting letters of reference.
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