Navigating the Classroom and Professors

Classes have begun, 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 couple of weeks can be an anxious time as students adjust to the “new normal.”  So, how do you help mentor your student as he/she begins 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 his/her 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 (regularly scheduled hours each week when the professor will be in his/her office to meet with students) to go over course material and ask deeper questions.  Students can also go to the Learning Assistance Center for tutoring or suggestions on how to study better, or go to specialty academic assistance offices such as  the Writing Center,  Math 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.  It is far better to seek help earlier rather than later and to get help before the issue becomes worse.

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 discussionIn terms of helping them be successful in interacting with professors, here is an excerpt from a Daily Deac we did this summer on faculty etiquette:

Students should always err on the side of respect when talking to their faculty.  By this I mean, always refer to your faculty member as “Dr. Smith” or “Professor Smith” unless or until the faculty member says otherwise.  One should not call a professor by his/her first name, or Mr./Mrs./Ms [Last Name].  Dr. or Professor are the proper titles.  (Think of it like this – you would never call the CEO of your company – or your senator – or a judge – by his or her first name, you would use the title that office affords them).

Similarly, when emailing your faculty member (as with anyone else), remember that you are making an impression on that person, and you should be as professional and polite as possible.  This means opening with a “Dear Dr. Smith,” and closing with some polite send off (“Thank you,” or “Sincerely” work well) and signing with your first and last name so your faculty member knows who you are (a faculty member could have five Andys among all the classes she teaches, and the way our Wake email addresses are constructed does not always make it obvious what one’s last name is.)  It also matters that your grammar and punctuation are correct, that any questions you ask are clear and concise, and that you do not take an overly familiar, chummy, personal tone – keep that professional distance unless/until you have formed the kind of relationship where your faculty indicates more familiarity is allowed.

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 he/she has not done their homework in knowing their obligations for the class.

From the faculty I know, they seem to 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 see students during their office hours.  Encourage your student to visit his/her professors and to get to know them as people, not just as faculty members.  Wonderful friendships can develop from the casual visit to office hours, where student and faculty member 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 parents 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 he/she can – studying, getting extra help, visiting office hours for their professors – and the best he/she can do is still a C.  Let your student know that all you ask for is his or her 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 him/her 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.

PS – You can help the University by reinforcing to your student that it is important to be vigilant about plagiarism and to respect the Honor Code.  Professors deal in the world of ideas and theories – so to take someone else’s idea, theory, or quotation and use it as your own (without proper citation) is a very serious academic offense on any campus.  Remind your student that even though it might seem that doing some late night research on Google and borrowing a few paragraphs is no big deal, it is a very big deal and one must always cite one’s work.


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 2017 slide shows

Select slide shows from Orientation sessions are available online.