Photo Credits: OLIVIA KOTLAREK / AGGIE
How students and professors can work together to change the restricted atmosphere of college
When transitioning from high school to college, students may find it challenging to interact with their professors. Instead of being able to stop by during lunch hour or after school, college students have to make time for their professors’ assigned office hours, which may not always coincide with their free hours.
Most of the professors that college students meet during their academic careers also have hundreds of other students taking their courses, so names and faces are often forgotten. According to a study facilitated by UC Davis professors Michal Kurlaender and Scott Carrell, students who lack the close interaction that was once familiar to them prior to college see this change as an obstacle that hinders their academic progress and can lead to poor performance in the classroom. What can students do to overcome the stress of visiting the “daunting” office hours of a professor? How can professors extend a hand and make themselves more available aside from the two hours a week outside of class? While no concrete answer exists yet, recent research has helped shed light on this important topic.
Recent experiments, published in an article by Inside Higher Ed, have found that when professors take the time to send individualized emails to students regarding tests results and overall performance, students tend to appreciate the gesture and improve their working habits with the knowledge that the professor is monitoring their progress. After these experiences, struggling students felt much better about reaching out for help either to their professor or a teaching assistant. This method of interaction seems only applicable to certain situations, however. Graduate classes, where class sizes are generally smaller, are the perfect place to implement this idea of giving each student personalized feedback. In a regular lecture hall, however, sending hundreds of personalized emails may be as practical for professors.
Sandra Carlson, a professor in the earth and planetary sciences department, shared her thoughts on what could be done to improve interactions between students and instructors. She recalled her time in college and her frequent visits to office hours.
“I would go when I felt comfortable going,” Carlson said. “I talked to a lot of my professors, especially the ones I enjoyed for the subject. I wouldn’t say I went to a huge amount, but I definitely talked with them.”
As a student, Carlson had a range of opportunities to meet with faculty members in her desired field, which gave her a great avenue to make connections and network with people that would be integral to her future success. Working as an established professor, Carlson believes it has become harder for students to feel comfortable talking to professors.
“I think [office hours] are nice, both for the student and the professor,” Carlson said. “For the professor, you’re teaching, you go home and do your research, but I think it’s good to stay in touch with students and find out where they are, what their background is, and what they’re interested in. I don’t think it’s good to be too separate from your students.”
Carlson also mentioned how students can learn a great deal from professors since they can offer different perspectives on maneuvering through college. Students have an incredible opportunity to learn more about their field of interest through interacting with professors who have dedicated years to their craft. Conversations are not always limited to academics; sometimes it can be useful to simply talk about what a student has going on outside of class or is currently going through.
Carlson believes that students should take a look at the classes they are currently taking and really find out how much they can learn both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Students should make a point of setting aside 20 min. or half an hour and saying, ‘Okay, I have some time free, I’m gonna go introduce myself and talk to my professor,’” Carlson said. “They should come with a question, and it can even be a question about current events, but make a point of doing it.”
Although student schedules are always in flux, Carlson mentioned that students can reach out via email to set up separate appointments with professors. Students should search for the value that can be gained from these simple conversations and the knowledge that can be shared. In a research institution as large as UC Davis, Carlson also stressed that there is so much diversity in students and professors backgrounds and disciplines that information can be found seemingly anywhere.
Stephen Brown Mayfield, a third-year nutrition science major, noted how difficult it can be for professors to make more time for students, but proposed his own idea for how professors can maintain a personalized interaction through 10 to 15 min appointments set aside for each student. While this would be difficult in a lecture setting, smaller classrooms and graduate classes, Brown Mayfield believes, would benefit greatly from this type of interaction.
When attending office hours for his own professors, Brown Mayfield mentioned how he used that time to chat with his professors and spend valuable time learning in a personalized space.
“I utilized office hours pretty well last quarter,” Brown Mayfield said. “I would say two-thirds of it was because I needed help, but also just to further my understanding of a topic that isn’t necessarily being covered. I usually will always go to office hours at the start of a quarter to introduce myself.”
Brown Mayfield also said that he is fully aware that most students do not have the desire or motivation to visit office hours but finds that it has become an asset to his learning experience. When choosing to talk to either the professor or the TA, Brown Mayfield finds it easier to approach a TA first.
“I personally find it more inviting to talk to the TA,” Brown Mayfield said. “You have that connection since you’re still in that same realm of being a student. My TA in my biology course, we’ve already talked a ton and have gotten to know each other well.”
In many of Brown Mayfield’s courses, a TA will lead discussions and labs, which has helped him find familiarity with the subject and the TA as well. Professors do not always have the opportunity to lead hands-on learning like TAs do, which may also explain why TAs are considered more approachable, a sentiment Carlson also shared in her experience as a student.
Brown Mayfield noted that talking to professors in his discipline is more daunting than talking to professors outside of his major.
“In my humanities classes, like sociology and psychology, I feel like [the professors] have been easier to approach,” Brown Mayfield said. “Since science is my major, I feel more intimidated because first impressions are big and all that. With other professors, I’ll only see them once and that’s it.”
Linda Covarrubias, a second-year sociology and psychology double major, hasn’t taken advantage of office hours as much as she would like to. She attributed this to her time in high school and the lack of preparation she received about how to approach professors.
“We weren’t shown how to interact and talk to a professor,” Covarrubias said. “I’m not really comfortable trying to talk to a professor, so I usually just go to my TA.”
Although Covarrubias prefers to visit her TAs, she still feels the same intimidation that most students feel when approaching these instructors for the first time. But now that she has experience with it, Covarrubias is trying make the most out of these interactions.
“I’m trying to push myself to find resources through my instructors,” Covarrubias said. “I’m not having much trouble in classes right now, but I’m still trying to go and talk to them.”
Covarrubias also found that having a TA led discussion setting has helped her become comfortable reaching out to her TA. She described the experience as exciting since her TA is always helpful and willing to answer any and all questions she may have.
Professors have so much on their plates already that finding extra time to interact with students can be difficult. While some situations lend themselves to personalized interactions, it is not always possible to go that extra mile. Students and professors should work together to find time and create a space where greater interaction can flourish. While many students find it easier to approach TAs, this should be viewed as a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of fostering student and professor connections. Professors are valuable assets waiting to be tapped into by their students, and this can only be achieved if both parties make this a priority.
Written by: Vincent Sanchez – firstname.lastname@example.org