Guidelines for Communicating with Instructors

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the benefits of communicating with instructors

Getting along with instructors and communicating well begins with attitude. As experts in their field, instructors deserve respect. Remember that a college education is a collaborative process that works best when students and instructors communicate freely in an exchange of ideas, information, and perspectives. So while it pays to respect your instructors, there is no need to fear them. As you get to know them better, you’ll learn their personalities and find appropriate ways to talk to them. Below are some guidelines for getting along with and communicating with your instructors:

  • Prepare before meeting with the instructor. Go over your notes on readings and lectures and write down your specific questions. You’ll feel more comfortable, and the instructor will appreciate your being organized.
  • Be sure to introduce yourself. Especially near the beginning of the term, don’t assume that your instructor has learned everyone’s name yet, and don’t make him or her have to ask you. Unless the instructor has already asked you to address him or her as “Dr. ____,” “Ms. _____,” or Mr. _______,” or something similar, it’s appropriate to say “Professor _______.”
  • Respect the instructor’s time. In addition to teaching, college instructors participate in committees, conduct research and other professional work, and have personal lives. It’s not appropriate to arrive several minutes before the end of an office hour and expect the instructor to stay late to talk with you.
  • Understand that the instructor will recognize you from class. If you spent a lecture hour not paying attention, it will reflect badly on you to come to an office hour to find out what you missed.
  • Don’t try to fool an instructor. Insincere praise or making excuses for not doing an assignment will rarely play in your favor (they’ve heard it all before!). Nor is it a good idea to act like you’re “too cool” to take your classwork seriously—another attitude that’s sure to put off an instructor. To earn your instructor’s respect, come to class prepared, do the work, genuinely participate in class, and show respect—and the instructor will be happy to see you when you come to office hours or need some extra help.
  • Try to see things from the instructor’s point of view. Imagine that you spent hours preparing for class, on a topic that you find very interesting and exciting. You are gratified when people understand what you’re saying—they really get it! And then a student after class asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” How would you feel?
  • Be professional when talking to an instructor. You can be cordial and friendly, but it’s ideal to keep it professional and on an adult level. Come to office hours prepared with your questions—not just to chat or joke around. (Don’t wear sunglasses or earphones in the office or check your cell phone for messages.) Be prepared to accept constructive criticism in a professional way, without taking it personally or complaining.

The following infographic gives you a visual way to remember key concepts about communicating with your instructors.

Talking to Your Profs and TAs: 1. Use office hours. Many students never attend office hours. Profs wait alone or assume everyone understands the class. 2. Don't be afraid. You have valuable thoughts and you'r in college to learn. Ask questions early and often. 3. Have something to say. Your prof wants you to challenge ideas and be engaged. 4. Come prepared. You will gain more if you have specific questions ready. 5. Clarification can be easy. Often your question doesn't take long to sort out. Just go talk to your prof early.

Effective Email Communication with Instructors

Just as digital messaging has become a primary form of communication in business and society, it has a growing role in education and has become an important and valuable means of communicating with instructors. Most college students are familiar with digital messaging, such as email, texting, and messages via the online-course learning-management system. Using digital messaging respects other people’s time, allowing them to answer at a time of their choosing.

However, digital communication with instructors is a written form of communication that differs from communicating with friends. Students who text with friends often adopt shortcuts, such as not spelling out full words, ignoring capitalization and punctuation, and not focusing on grammar or using full sentences. Such texts are usually very informal and are not an appropriate style for communicating with instructors. Your instructors expect you to use a professional, respectful tone and fairly formal style.

  • Use a professional email name. If you have a nickname you use with friends, create a different account with a professional name for use with instructors, work supervisors, and others. “BoatyMcBoatface” is not an appropriate, professional email name.
  • Include something in the subject line that readily communicates the purpose/topic of your email: “May I make an appointment?” says something; “Help!” doesn’t.
  • Address digital messages as you do a letter, beginning “Dear Professor ____.” Include your full name in the closing.
  • Get to your point quickly and concisely.
  • Write as you would in a paper for class, avoiding sarcasm, criticism, or negative language.
  • Avoid abbreviations, nonstandard spelling, slang, and emoticons like smiley faces.
  • Be courteous, accommodating, and respectful. Avoid stating expectations like, “I’ll expect to hear from you soon” or “If I haven’t heard by 4 p.m., I’ll assume you’ll accept my late paper.”
  • When you reply to a message, leave the original message within yours.
  • End the message with a “Thank you” or something similar.
  • Proofread your message before sending it.
  • Wait to send if you are upset. With any important message, it’s a good idea to wait and review the message later before sending it. You may have expressed an emotion or thought that you will think better about later. Many problems have resulted when people send messages too quickly without thinking.


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