Navigating the Classroom and Professors

Classes are in full swing, and your students have been sorting through the syllabus for each of their classes, doing their homework and participating in class. They are probably also realizing that college level work is different than high school level work. The volume of work is much greater – maybe reading a whole English novel or lengthy chapters of science texts in the course of just a few days. Your student may feel that in the first few weeks of college level math or chemistry, they’ve covered what took their high school teacher an entire year to teach.

It is common to be nervous about the pace of the work, the expectations of the professors, and whether one’s schedule is going to be well-suited to one’s strengths. The first few weeks can be an anxious time as students adjust to the “new normal.” So, how do you help mentor your student as they begin to navigate the classroom and interact with professors?

Students studying in Tribble CourtyardOne of the best bits of advice you can offer your student is to take their academic temperature early and often. “Do I understand the course material? Am I getting it? Am I keeping up in class?” And if the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then the student needs to take control of the situation and get assistance.

class-tribbleAssistance can come in many forms. The first step should always be to go to the professor’s office hours (time set aside each week when the professor will be available to meet with students, whether in person or via Zoom) to go over course material and ask deeper questions.  Students can also go to the Learning Assistance Center for free tutoring or suggestions on how to study better, or go to specialty academic assistance offices (also free!) such as the Writing Center,  Math and Stats Center, or Chemistry Center. It might also be worth talking to other students in the class to form a study group.

Students can also always consult their academic advisor and the Office for Academic Advising. We also encourage students to seek out the University Counseling Center if they are experiencing anxiety or need assistance with other areas of the college adjustment.  It is far better to seek help earlier rather than later and to get help before the issue becomes worse. The UCC is also free, and confidential, and provides high quality therapy.

Sometimes first year students do not want to ask for help because they feel like they “ought to know” how to do well in their classes, and they are embarrassed that the professor might think less of them. Most Wake students are accustomed to being shining stars in high school; perhaps they haven’t ever struggled academically. Suddenly they’re in classes with peers who are just as good (or better) than they are. This can hurt some students’ confidence. Should this happen to your Deac, you can remind him or her that the smartest students are those who ask for assistance when they need it.

teacher discussion

One perennial issue that my faculty friends at Wake and other schools tell me about is getting questions about things that are in their course syllabus. The course syllabus is essentially the contract for the class – it tells students what the assignments are and when they are due, when tests/papers/quizzes are due, whether there is an attendance or class participation policy, what the grading system is, etc. So if a student emails a professor to say “what happens if I miss class today?” and there is a clearly-stated attendance policy on the syllabus, that student is revealing that they have not done their homework in knowing their obligations for the class.

Faculty want students who are actively engaged in learning. Students can – and should – bring their ideas to the table. Each first year student will take  discussion-based seminar classes – a First Year Seminar (FYS) and Writing 111 (unless they got AP/IB credit).  Students should feel free to speak up, ask questions, and voice their opinion. Your student doesn’t have to agree with everything other students (or even the professor) say in these seminars – sometimes the best classes are ones where there are vastly differing opinions and ideas. Those hearty discussions often prompt the most learning.

Professors also like to connect with students during their office hours. Encourage your student to utilize office hours to get to know their professors as people, not just as faculty members. Wonderful friendships can develop when students and faculty members discuss and share ideas and discover mutual interests.

A lot of the pressure and anxiety students feel about class are tied to what they think your expectations are (whether real or imagined). Students tend to be terribly afraid of disappointing their loved ones with “bad” grades, and are their own toughest critics. Help your students feel comfortable to discuss academics with you without fear of retribution. It may be that your student is doing all they can – studying, getting extra help, using office hours for their professors – and the best they may be able to do is still a C. Let your student know that all you ask for is their very best effort, and that your love is unconditional.

The reality is that in college, very few students can be a star at everything. It may help to share a story with your student about a subject you struggled in – or any struggle really, doesn’t have to be academic –  and let them know you still got through the tough time and SO WILL THEY.

As the semester continues, and students have received grades on tests or papers, they become more comfortable with the pace of college level work and what is expected of them. For now, parents and families can help by listening and providing encouragement, reminding their student to do the best they can, to get any help they need, and be to be honest in all academic (and other) matters.



To contact the Office of Family Engagement, please visit our contact page.

If Your Student Has a Problem

One of the best ways parents/families can help their students is to let them solve their own problems. Use the Stop, Drop, and Roll method when your student contacts you with a problem.  The flyer also lists contact information for serious concerns where family intervention might be appropriate.

Orientation 2020 slide shows

Parent and family Orientation sessions are available online.