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.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Five Communication Strategies for Summer School Success!

Can't you picture yourself reading on this comfy chair?
In my last post, I talked about one of my summer classes at my former community college in Nevada. 

You remember:  I got a "C" and I am at peace with it! (My name is "Ellen"... You:  "Hi, Ellen!" Couldn't resist.)

In that post, you may recall that I communicated exactly twice during that class:

Time #1: I feebly tried to ask my prof if there was anything I could do to improve my grades.

(The answer was "No." What creative, out-of-the-container thinking was I expecting when my prof's teaching method of choice was lecturing from a legal pad for three hours?);


Time #2:  I passed notes.

(Not my finest hour of student behavior).

We can safely say that I made some mistakes in that class. Now, after spending years in school and now as a prof, I know better. After I published that post, I remembered that I was talking about summer school, and taking summer classes can pose special opportunities and challenges.

The good about summer school?
-You get to pick up some extra credits in a shorter period of time.
-The classes run for fewer weeks.
-The workload is typically distributed differently than in a regular-term class. By the way, it's a false sense of security to believe that you will have far less work in a summer term or that the work is way easier.

The challenges with summer school?
-You may be a little burnt from the rest of the academic year and need a break, but can't take one.
-The classes run for fewer weeks.  
-The learning requirement/workload feels way faster than a regular term... because it is.

Whether you're new to this blog or a two-month veteran of it (as in, when I started), you know that I believe communication skills up your success capital in college. Summer school is no different. Here are five talking strategies to do your best while you're there:

-Talk to your professor on the first day!
This is a two-parter:  If you've read my previous blog posts, you know my ongoing theme is "early" when it comes to talking to your profs about goals or getting help. The pace of summer school means that you have no time to waste. If you "need an 'A'", or any other grade, in that summer school class, see the prof before the first class, after the first class, or walk with him/her out to the parking lot if you have to (but no stalking!).

Say, "I am looking to earn at least a B in this class, and hopefully an A. Do you have some advice? Will you review work early?"

You simply don't have the time to find out in week 6 that you are not getting the grade you want. So, hatch your plan on the first day of summer school!

then, part two...

-Talk to your professor every day, if necessary!
Have I mentioned in this post that summer school moves at a quicker pace? That you may feel like you have to learn at lightning speed? (I believe I have!). If you struggle in the shorter timeline, there aren't as many days to pick up the pieces. So, ask for help as often as you need it and be extremely proactive with your professor!

In fact, don't just rely on your prof for help: A summer term is a great time to familiarize yourself with other on-campus resources. Ask your prof, "Can you tell me what tutoring, resource centers, or other campus help might be available?" Then go to those areas and check on the summer hours.

It might be tempting to drop your summer class, and the only way I'd even consider recommending this is if you and the prof collaboratively determine that you are far in over your head (On this note, it's not the wisest decision to take your toughest class in the summer unless you can devote every waking hour to it, and to getting help for it). Otherwise, this accelerated schedule is a great time to pump up your work ethic, become brilliant about locating help for yourself, and get to know on-campus services that you may not have needed or had time to investigate.

-Ask about your prof's office hours or e-mail availability, if this is not abundantly clear in the syllabus.
Most profs feel just like students do:  It's a long year; we want to hook up some summer! Profs do not usually have committee work or regular meetings over the summer, which means that they are not available on campus as much. This could be a disadvantage for you if you need a good deal of help. If your syllabus doesn't tell when your prof is available, either in-office, on the phone, or on e-mail, then make sure you ask. This way, you can schedule yourself around the times that your prof is there for you.

-Chat up classmates--quickly! 
In your summer classes, you are likely to have both students who have been at your college a while, and you might have others who are just there to pick up a class or two. These "others" could be folks from the business world, or, they might be students who are home from other colleges and picking up a few summer credits.

Meeting these new classmates offers great opportunities for you to:

a) make new connections that you can bridge into the fall term--can't have too many fresh study partners or friends, right?;
b) find out about an actual student's experience at a college you may consider attending;
c) meet a new professional contact, if the person is out in the workforce already.

But don't wait until mid-summer-term to start chatting with someone of interest! Summer is shorter and nurturing new friendships and networks takes time. Try making some small talk, such as:

"I see that you have U of X logo on your backpack. Was last year your first year?"
"I remember that A & P book. Do you have Professor Jones?"
"You said on the first day of class that you work for the city. How long have you worked there?"
"Didn't you and I have Environmental Science together last semester?"

-Get to know profs-to-be.
It's hard not to count down the seconds before summer class ends so you can sprint to your car, get to work, or hit the pool or beach. However, if you will remain at the same institution for your fall term, sticking around campus after class, or getting on campus an hour or so early, can give you a head start for later. Here's why:

Many students know their fall schedule when taking summer classes. This gives you a golden opportunity to meet your profs well before the term starts, if they are on campus during the summer.

Why not go visit a prof or two, say hello, see if you can grab a syllabus, and even check out the textbook? If you have a special issue with a course, or have particular goals, even more reason to see the prof early and say,

"Hello, I'm Ellen. I'm looking forward to taking your class, but have an intense fear of public speaking. Have any early suggestions I can use?" (Saying, "I just wanted to let you know" is also fine)


"Hello, I'm Ellen. I know this is really early, but I'm in your class this fall. I'd love to see a syllabus if you have one so I can learn about the class and prepare myself."

The personal connection will make you feel more comfortable when you walk into a prof's class on the first day.

And, if your feelings aren't warm and fuzzy about the prof or the class, guess what? You have plenty of time to get out of that class and change your schedule.

Prof off for the summer? The department secretary might have access to a syllabus from the previous term.

I sincerely hope that you have an incredible summer that is full of barbecues, lots of (safe!) sunning, outdoor movies, vacations... and the college credits that you seek.

Communicate--not by passing notes like I did--and make it so!

For students who are summer school veterans, what are your tips for success? Colleagues? What would you tell students about summer school?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When a "C" is a Lifeline... or a Life Lesson

I've got one, and I'm actually damn proud of it:

A "C".

An often misrepresented "C".

You know, the one that many students think is really an "F" in disguise.

Every single term for years now, I have the same conversation over and over again with at least a few students about "C" grades:  Many students equate it with failing.

I've even had students tell me that they'd rather drop a course entirely than receive a "C"--and we're talking at the end of the term!

This always surprises me. Is a "C" what every student should strive for? That's a personal decision, of course, but in my opinion, I would say hard work and grade excellence that goes beyond a "C" is in order.

However, I do believe there are times that a "C" has its place, and not in the "like-an-F" category that it so often gets lumped in. 

I think we need to "re-message" the perception of a "C".  A "C" is a midline grade--typically 70-ish percent.

Last I checked, that's average.

Not failing.

Not high achieving.

Just average.

There are times that "average" absolutely has its place.

As I said, I have one "C" on my transcript from my first two years of college.

And I'm here to tell you that "C" was completely hard-won.

Now for the story (Of course, there's a story!):

It was summertime, Vegas (my hometown), 115 degrees.

I was taking a few core classes at my community college, one of them offered twice a week for three hours.

I could handle it. We weren't talking about twice a week, three hours, for the rest of my days on earth... just six weeks (or whatever the summer term was).

The professor walked into class wearing a tweed sportcoat.

(Yes, the sportcoat had those pleather-looking elbow ovals.)

Did I mention that it was 115 degrees outside? The air conditioning in the college wasn't that powerful.

After a brief review of the syllabus, the professor pulled out a legal pad.

The prof proceeded to lecture from that legal pad.

For. Three. Hours.

Now, I was a diligent student. In my last post, I mentioned that it took me six years to return to school. This class was on my return trip to college when I was striving to become a college prof, so I was extremely dedicated.

The first class session, I took very thorough notes during the neverending lecture.

I hoped that the lecturing from the legal pad would be a one-time event.

It wasn't. This was apparently going to be the teaching method for the entire summer term.

The second class session, I took less thorough notes, but made a few flower and lightning doodles on the side of the paper.

The third class session, I took scant notes and made more elaborate sketchings. I think I drew the Sistine Chapel or Wembley Stadium... or maybe it was just a lopsided 3-D box.

The fourth class session, I took even fewer notes, but found that I was very good at passing notes with an equally mind-numb classmate. 

The fifth class session, I was taking no notes, but passing notes the entire time.

(Hey, at least I was writing something. Two students in the back of the room literally played Gameboy the entire three hours!).

Did I mention to you that I was just under 30 when I was attending this class??? In other words, I knew better. Not to mention, remember that I said I was returning to college to become a college prof?

Right. I'm disgusted by my own reflection of this behavior.

Bottom line: I wanted to scratch my skin off with jagged fingernails in that class.

Even worse, ready to hear how my grade would be calculated?

-Six multiple choice quizzes
-One mid-term
-One final exam

I have been known to stink at test-taking, even when I am not passing notes or watching other classmates play Gameboy.

I was screwed.

After the first quiz where I scored one of those average grades, I tried to talk to the professor about what I could do.

I'd love to say the professor was helpful, but no. I could really answer my own question:

Listen closely. Take better notes. Read the book.

I tried with everything I had in me to do those things. But I let my anger about how bored I was take over. That anger cost me my grade.

I had one thing working in my favor:  The book ended up being the primary source for the test material. So, although I was taking notes in a very minimal way, the reading saved me.

That and the fact that a ton of students also did poorly. Hence, many of the scores were curved.

I did not fail, but somehow, some way, I ended up with a "C".

I have to tell you that I could have thrown a party over that grade.

That "C" represented my weeks of sticking with that class when I so desperately wanted to run out into the oppressive heat and never return.

I attended every single session, sat through every one those drawn-out lectures (in body at least, not always in mind), braved my way through those tests that inevitably covered so little of what those lectures contained.

I shouldn't be proud of that "C", but I am proud that I didn't bail on a bad situation.

I am proud that I learned more about myself as a student in that particular class than in many others.

I am proud that I decided, both philosophically and practically, the type of educator I would and would not be because of that class. 

I am proud that I didn't fail.

So what's the communication lesson here?

There are many, many reasons that "C" grades happen. Here are several:

-You take a class on a difficult subject that you simply can't get into and you make an agreement with yourself that you'll just squeak by.
-You have a life event occur during a term that threatens your stronger grades. You are unable to salvage enough to achieve your usual high grades, so you have to settle.
-You miss the mark on several high points-bearing assignments, earning B-level work or even "C's". You receive "C's" on major exams, too. Combined, all your grades average a "C".
-You are truly fine with getting "C's" in college and plan to be a "C"-career student.

My first communication advice is to have a talk with yourself accepting your decision. However, if you are the comfortable "C" student, you've probably already done that.

I say you need a second conversation. . . with your prof. Why? Because what you may consider "average" work might be substandard "D", or worse, failing work to your prof. You don't want that "C" to end up being lower.

You can say, "I am just trying to get through this class and I'm fine with finishing somewhere in the 'C' range. Can you look at this major paper and help me make sure I am not slipping lower than that?"

(By doing this, guess what? You might end up actually earning a higher grade due to the improved feedback loop! Would that be so terrible? Just saying...).

Let's say that you're the UNcomfortable "C" student. The "C" is not your norm and you are mortified about it, so much that you would almost rather drop the class than see the "C" on your transcript!

By all means, go talk to your prof, as well, and do it the minute you believe your grade will be threatened. NOT at the end of the term!

You can say, "I'm ordinarily a very strong student. This term, I am struggling with ______________ (something about an assignment, your life situation, etc.). I see that I may end up with a 'C' grade, based on my calculations (you can also say that you fear your future work will also result in a 'C' grade). Can you offer any advice so I can raise this grade?"

You may want to also ask the prof to recheck your calculations to be sure you will end up with the "C". 

Do not say, "You gave me a 'C'!" or "I wasn't expecting to do this horribly!" or "I never get 'C's!" Accept your responsibility for your role in the "C". If you believe that there is a bigger problem, such as grades that truly seem incorrect, then this is a different issue that you will have to responsibly and appropriately challenge, and maybe take higher, as I noted in my previous post about "I" grades.

If you end up like I did, and you have that "C" as part of your world, I ask that you communicate with yourself, once again... 

Please, please try not to beat yourself up over it.

Yes, I realize that GPA's are precious. Yes, I realize that scholarships and financial aid are at stake. I don't diminish those important facts, and to that end, I recommend that you communicate proactively about your "C" grade with your adviser, financial aid department, or anyone else who will need to know that your grade wasn't where you expected or hoped it would be. 

But, here are a few realities:

-You can retake that "C" class later and try for a higher grade (financial aid won't pay for it, but you might be willing to).
-A "C" is far better than dropping the class late in the term because what if you never get around to taking that class again, or what if your schedule prevents it? At least you have the credit and the points from the "C".
-You can average out a "C" on your transcript by earning additional "A's" in other classes.
-You can communicate positively about your "C", if it ever comes up. Talk about your pride, not necessarily in the grade, itself, but in the fact that you did not give up, despite your circumstances.

Is a "C" the ideal? No. Not if you are someone for strives for more. I know that the "C" feels like failure and I don't take that away from you.

But a "C" is NOT the same as failing.

A "C" is simply average.

Sometimes, when your world or a college class becomes more of a cross than you can bear with usual excellence, a "C" can be a lifeline... or a life lesson.