Monday, June 27, 2011

Want Your Prof to "Notice" You? Tweak This Advice Before You Take It

If you are a student reading this post, maybe you've seen the following phrase in other college success advice:

"Get your professor to notice you."

(I've also seen this variation: "Get your professor to like you.").

As I read college success tips in books that I've reviewed or blogs/articles/research via Twitter, I keep seeing this idea of being noticed or liked by a professor. It reminds me of articles I used to see in Glamour or Seventeen Magazine about how girls can get guys to notice/like them. Even a hint of correlation makes me shiver a little bit. Maybe this is why I've been reviewing this advice with a particularly sharp eye. 

From a student perspective, getting a prof to notice and like you sounds like a good thing, doesn't it? If a prof "notices you", maybe you'll get better grades, or the class will be easier. If the prof "likes you", maybe you can turn in work late or you can be absent more, right? 

With those benefits that will likely not happen (sorry to disappoint!), should you take the advice that you read on becoming noticed or liked by your professor? I say that some of it could use a reframe... a tweak, if you will. I'll explain as I discuss three tips I've come across: 

Tip #1:  Sit in the front row.

I have seen this one more than any others.

I struggle with it.


Because history tells me that my most incredibly engaged, contributing students can--believe it or not--sit anywhere in the room, including the very back! And guess what? I "notice" students with their hands raised and their enthusiastic/thoughtful participation in activities and discussion, regardless of their location.

I don't even need a GPS to find them!

I was an excellent student (except for my blip in the summer class that I discussed in this post), and my seat of choice was always near the back, close to the door. (I also like aisle seats on planes and in movie theaters. Yes, it may seem a little strange and I'm okay with that).

Did this send my profs the nonverbal message that I'm not an engaged student? I hope not because I certainly didn't behave that way. I spoke up in class. I took part in the activities. I participated in class conversations. I am certain that this can happen from any part of the room.

Likewise, I've seen some students in the front row: 

-fail to make regular eye contact
-study for other classes

See what I can see in the front row?

Now, granted, I don't teach 300-student lecture classes. However, even if I did, I find it hard to believe that professors give preferential treatment or more favorable grades to students simply because they recognize them as the front row crew.

Also, what if your prof walks around the classroom a lot? Then, that front row is ever-changing, isn't it?

I totally get that some students in the front row are there because they pay closer attention and they want their profs to see them paying close attention. Other students think about participation points and how it will be easier to receive them in the front row.  

If your prof has a participation policy, then the onus is on your prof to know who you are and to track your interactions. The magic isn't in your seat position; the magic is in you doing what is required to earn those points.

Bottom line? If you love to sit at the head of the class or prefer it for personal or practical reasons, then pitch your tent and stake your claim. But, rest assured that the prof seeing your face isn't what will get you better grades. Being an active in-class participant will.

Tip #2:  Get to know your prof's interests, even take a jog with him/her on the track. They might become a good friend.

I have seen the term "friend" and "professor" used in tandem too many times for my comfort. This concerns me on two levels:  First, the question of whether students and professors should be friends, and second, the idea that befriending the prof and aligning your interests with theirs will grant you better grades.

Regarding the student-prof friend dynamic, I distinctly remember one of my Post-Secondary Ed profs (undergrad) saying this on the subject: "A professor gains a friend and a student loses a mentor."

Seem like an extreme comment? Mentors become friends all the time, right? Of course! I'm not discounting that fact.

While I didn't get this statement at all during my undergrad years, I figured out what some of it meant in grad school:

I had a female prof who was actually not far from my age. Many of my cohorts called her by her first name (likely by her choice), though interestingly, they always called our more senior profs "Dr." Now I called this female prof "Dr." because I was taught that you address people of seniority by their titles.

(I still address my daughter's K-2 teachers as Ms. or Mr., too. It's a hard habit to break when I'm doing the addressing. Even weirder? My own students call me "Ellen" and I'd have it no other way!).

I respected this prof tremendously. She gave me academic and career advice that I share with others to this day (I would have never known about a teaching philosophy or a teaching portfolio without her). However, when the class ended and we became "friendly" (not necessarily friends--there's a difference), I noticed a perception shift. I wasn't feeling negatively about her, just different.

Knowing Dr. more as a person still made her awesome to me, but I was less awed by her, if that makes sense. My feelings had nothing to do with her, but about how I changed when I was around her. I realized I sort of liked that little nervousness that kept me on my "professional" toes around Dr. when she was less of my friend and all of my professor.

All this said, I believe (and practice in my own career) that there are and should be some personal boundaries between students and professors, and I believe those boundaries stand to greatly benefit students while the professional relationship is in place.

I realize that some reading may think I'm drawing too sharp a line here. I'm not saying your professor can't get to know about you on a less-superficial level, and even in some aspects on a deeper level, such as your career aspirations, your concerns about college, as a whole, other professors, your interest in their teaching area, etc.

By all means, if you are having a personal struggle that threatens your classwork, you may choose to share that with your professor. For me, if a student discloses that they are having a major crisis outside of class, I don't necessarily need details about the issue, but I can help with the in-class ramifications. Likewise, I can guide the student to free counseling services on campus, which, sadly, so few who I have referred actually knew about, but were incredibly thankful once they did!

I suppose we're talking about semantics, but in my mind, the person who fills the role I describe is not called a friend, but a helpful adviser, a trusted mentor, and a knowledgeable, caring teacher. A professor may certainly turn into a friend after you are outside of the professional working relationship. Or not.

If you perceive that befriending your professor will improve your grades because you each know each other on a different level, ethically, that should never be the case. In fact, while you look at your professor as a mentor, it is often far, far easier to take their constructive criticism and feedback when you believe that is his/her job.

When your prof is suddenly your jogging buddy, the lines of what their job should be can feel blurry and uncomfortable. Even worse is when you've suddenly formed an interest in jogging for the sole (no pun intended!) reason of befriending your prof. 

You have all the time in the world after your class to get to know your professor on a different level--if that is agreeable to and comfortable for both of you. But while you're in class? Let that person be your mentor, your guide, your teacher. Be a professional just like you would in any other work-related setting.

Tip #3:  Send your professor an e-mail, even if you don't know what to say.

Keeping the lines of communication open with your prof is a key recommendation, and I believe that can start even before you enter your first class. The introductory e-mail can make you more comfortable about starting, and provides a springboard for the face-to-face introduction i.e., "I'm the student who e-mailed you."

However, don't force a conversation or ask a question just because you think e-mailing your prof is going to get them to remember you or like you. Professors--most people, really--have a sixth sense about when someone is cozying up just to get on their good side. You don't want to be "noticed" for the wrong reason, like being insincere.

If you want to connect with your prof before your class or after your first class, do it genuinely. You can say the following:

"My name is Ellen Bremen. I wanted to just say hello and tell you I'm looking forward to your class."
"I wonder if you have a syllabus I can take a look at before class. I don't mind if it is one from last term."
"I am wondering if you have a policy about early review of work? Are you willing to look at drafts? When should I turn that in?" (this information could be on the syllabus, but definitely ask if it isn't).
"I have a concern about this class. What are your office hours so I can come discuss it with you?"
"I was looking at the content/syllabus/schedule and I have a specific question about _________."

These are all legitimate questions and, sure, you may earn your professor's early respect for being proactive. But if you don't send the e-mail, this does not mean you will not have a good working relationship with your professor.

Remember, while you are in class, your relationship with your professor is business. You don't need to be "noticed" to get strong grades.

No schmoozing necessary.

Be engaged.

Be respectful.

Be proactive.

Be diligent and dedicated to excellence in your class work.

And remember, you can do all of these things and sit wherever you feel most comfortable. 

Students, where do you sit in class? Do you believe that you have to get a prof to notice or like you in order to improve your standing or your grade? Colleagues, what is your take?

(I am all about giving credit where it is due and I've seen variations of these tips in more places than I can effectively reference. But I will reference two: This article on Campus Spash discussing moves that a student should make on the first day of class, and this article on profs and Facebook friends from USA Today College. Both of this pieces contained extremely useful advice... and there were parts I thought important to expand on.)


  1. Row depends on the class and how many friends I have in said class.

    Nothing wrong with friending a prof, just make sure its for the right reasons.

    Email is a nice way to start. It at least shows you bothered to seek them out.

    Full disclosure: I sat in the second to last row in Ellen's class at Darton, she's on my FB friend list, and picked her comm class because they showed it on TV. =)

  2. See, Kyle? You were a back-of-the class'er and I remember that you were very, very engaged and always contributed to class discussion :-). And, yes, we are FB friends, but it only took me 7 years past Darton to get on FB. I really appreciated your comment!!!!!

  3. I think this is great advice... Personally, I can't see how a student and a professor could be true friends. Mentor and mentoree? Yes. Definitely.

  4. Ellen, do professors notice students with high and low grades? For example as a professor while grading, do you capture the high scorers and maybe want to put a face to the name and also the weak students and hopefully reach out to help?

  5. I was also wondering how this plays for online classes. From my experience of online classes, being industrious, proactive, and totally dedicated, goes a long way in connecting with the professor and even upon a face-face meeting, feels more like a reunion and not an initial meeting due to the constant communication throughout the course.

  6. Hi, Damaris,

    So are you asking if profs look at students in class differently once we know who is doing well and who is struggling? I think there are definitely profs who... do not know students names the entire term and may not make the connection. I've heard students complain about that, particularly in very large classes (some students also go a while term without knowing their prof's name, as well!). However, many profs will reach out via e-mail, or through their feedback on work, and try to help those who are struggling :-).

  7. Hi, again, Damaris :-),
    Regarding online, yes, yes, and yes! The important piece that you brought up about online courses is to make that face-to-face connection when necessary. Some students solely rely on e-mail, but technology fails, and sometimes, that next level of communication (phone, face-to-face) is critical. And, I agree, when the online connection has been solid, the face-to-face or even phone connection feels very comfortable.

  8. Hi, Amber,

    I have seen SO many pieces on this subject of student-prof friendship and the opinions go both ways. Some believe similarly to your perspective (and mine, at least while the class is happening). Others feel that professors should appear more "human" and that there should be less power distance between professors and students. It's interesting!

    I'm glad you commented!


  9. Given my 'druthers, I tend to sit either towards the back, or near a wall. Not sure why -- I just prefer it. I don't think a professor "liking you" is necessarily important, however. If you're a good enough student, they'll "like" you for that alone. The same thing goes for being noticed -- though I suppose that that's what was said in this post. If you're an engaged and active student, then your professor will notice you, and if you are, in fact, as engaged and active as you seem to be, then you'll probably be getting reasonable grades at the very least.

    On the other hand, I'm the kind of person who, given the opportunity, goes to each professor on her schedule for the next semester and says, "Hi! I'll be in your class next semester. I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself." I'm not sure, however, if this is because I'm a suck-up, or just because I like hanging out with the professors more than I like hanging out with the students.

  10. Great post! As an administrator in charge of enrollment, I especially appreciate the "human" aspect in balance with the respect.

    In my experience, prospective students really respond to the feeling that the faculty are accessible and connected with their students but with obvious boundaries.

  11. @HigherEdGirl, I very much appreciate these words! Students don't realize that many faculty are accessible, but the onus is always up to students to make that (appropriate!) move. I hope more and more will--the connection makes such a difference! Thank you, thank you for commenting. I hope to hear from you more! Ellen

  12. Radio, it sounds like you could have written this post :-). I had to smile at your "suck-up" comment: Students can only suck-up if the prof would really "measure" those interactions along with their grade. In my mind, not possible, and I bet your profs don't see it that way. They probably appreciate your professionalism and proactiveness! (I also bet you aren't alone in feeling more comfortable with profs than students--I've heard this before!). Thank you so much for commenting! Ellen

  13. @Radio. In my class, if you prefer profs over students, it doesn't matter where you sit, or what introduction you roll out. You wouldn't fare well. For the record, "liking you", means you are collaborative and participatory with everyone - include me...which, on my syllabus is pass/fail.

  14. There are reasons besides wanting better grades, getting to turn papers in late, etc. to get to know a professor such as establishing a mentor relationship with someone who can guide you in your chosen field of study, particularly if one hopes to go to grad school or is on an academic career track. For some of us, changing the power balance in the relationship by establishing a relationship beyond "Dr." makes learning easier. Perhaps I'm biased, having attended an academically rigorous Quaker school in which the norm was for faculty and students to be on a first-name basis. My beloved botany professor, Dr. William Fulcher, was the exception, preferring "Dr. Fulcher". However, he maintained the spirit by referring to all of his students by "Ms." or "Mr." Is naming critical to education? No, but can be part of an engaged spirit of mutual respect, and a posture of mutual learning.

  15. @Radio, I appreciated your follow up. I am wondering how the prof quantifies the pass/fail participation grade. Just a thought...

  16. Hello, Anonymous,

    I wholly agree with you about knowing a professor for truly valid and worthy reasons, as you mention. I experienced this, myself, numerous times during my academic career. It sounds like you did, too. The part I take issue with in the college success advice that I've seen is the idea that taking these steps would change/improve a grade. I can see where some students would believe that being liked is as measurable as work completed.

    I really appreciate you writing!