5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe about Your Professors

Writing on chalkboard

5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe about Your Professors

1. They don’t want to talk to me/ They are too busy to help me.

2. They want me to do poorly on the exams.

3. They will test to see if I’m smart enough to talk to them by asking me hard questions.

4. They won’t give me points back ever.

5. If they don’t email me back immediately it’s something personal.


Myth 1: Professors don’t want to talk to me” or “Professors are too busy to help me”

Truth 1A: Professors get just as much out of conversations with you as you do. One of the ways that people learn is through collaborating, conversing, and interacting with other people. When instructors take the time to talk with their students in office hours, they benefit from being able to hone their skills as instructors by explaining the same concepts in new ways and presenting clear arguments extemporaneously. These are important skills for any instructor, and instructors are grateful to have the chance to practice these skills with their students. Furthermore, professors are experts in their fields; working with students who are novices provides them with reminders of how outsider’s understand and make sense of their field.

Truth 1B: Professors have office hours because they know that office hours benefit their students. If your professor’s office hours do not work with your schedule, your professor will probably still be willing to try to meet with you at a different time. You can e-mail your professor to ask for a meeting about a class assignment and especially do so if you need their help for something else (e.g., learning about their research, recommendations for further reading in their field, etc.). Most professors became professors because they are immensely curious about and interested in their research, so do not underestimate the time professors are willing to spend talking about what their research is to students who want to listen.


Myth 2: “Professors want me to do poorly on exams”

Truth 2: No instructor wants to fail their entire class. This is not the point of the university and it is certainly not the point of learning. Professors who ask “trick questions” or give hard exams do so because they want you to learn as deeply and completely as you can to prepare you for the next course in a sequence or department. In fact, courses at the college level (ideally) should not have to be repeated if you are thinking of going to graduate school in the same field, so instructors want to make sure that you are prepared to enter the best graduate school possible with the instruction you had in that one course.

When you notice yourself thinking that your professor wants you to do poorly, take it as an opportunity to meet with the professor and discuss their expectations (ask, for instance, “on the last exam I noticed that this question was really challenging for me, I am wondering how I could have studied for this sort of question better?” or “what do you hope I will know by the end of this course?”). A good starting point would be to examine the course syllabus for the course objectives and review the exam questions with these objectives in mind. Use the objectives to design your next study guide and think about how the exam will test whether or not you have accomplished the learning objectives for the course. If you would like help creating a study guide based on course objectives, make an appointment with an academic coach and bring your syllabus. You can leave the meeting with the skills to make study guides for the rest of your college career.


Myth 3: They will test to see if I’m smart enough to talk to them by asking me hard questions.

Truth 3: Professors often like to have intellectual discussions and enjoy engaging the minds of their students in critical thinking. Professors do this because part of learning is making connections and exclaiming “Aha! That makes sense!” The last thing an educator wants is to see a student struggle with a hard question and give up feeling defeated. Sometimes professors do not know their students well enough to know if they are pushing too hard, but as the student, you have the opportunity to communicate. If you notice that your professor is asking you to think about too much at once or you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or nervous about the questions you are being asked, just ask for a little more time or to take a step back so that you have a better foundation for working out the problem. The end goal of any hard question is to make a new connection and think about something from a new perspective. If you are putting in effort but still begin to feel less than capable, communicate that you need help and the professor will understand. In fact, one of the best things you can do as a student is reflect on what your mind is capable of at that moment, and focus on doing only that thing. As Dweck and Yeager (2012) describe in the education literature, the formula for academic success is “Effort + Strategies + Help From Others.”[1] If you put in the effort and try all the strategies you know but still do not feel successful, the best thing to do is to ask for help. Professors’ office hours are for asking for help and thinking through challenging problems with someone there to encourage you and provide you with helpful strategies that encourage critical thinking and new connections.


Myth 4: They won’t give me points back ever.

Truth 4: Instructors grade you based on what you know and what you have learned. Some will give points back and some will not; while every professor is different, it is often fruitful to go to office hours to discuss what you did not know on an assignment or exam. Professors almost certainly will not give you points back just because you felt you deserve a higher grade (with no evidence); however, most instructors are willing to discuss in detail what their recommendations are for your next performance (exam, essay, quiz, homework, etc.) and how you can improve between now and then. If, after handing back a graded assignment, your instructor says “come to office hours if you have any questions about your grade” you can be pretty sure that your instructor is willing to discuss how you can improve, and sometimes even negotiate alternative methods for earning points back (e.g., doing extra homework problems). Some instructors take the time to do a formative assessment of your knowledge by asking you to answer a similar question during office hours so that they can give you even better feedback. Remember, the points are not what are really important; rather, it is important that you learn the material and improve over the course of the semester. This is how professors grade their students, especially if they have met with them personally throughout the semester and have a significant qualitative understanding of their mastery of the material. If you go to office hours after every assessment to get further feedback on how to improve, the professor will understand that you are serious about learning the material. If you spend most of the semester harboring bitterness about an unfair grading policy and then confront the professor at the end of the semester asking for a higher grade, you are not likely to get points back, let alone master the material. Your best bet when looking to improve is to go to office hours and tutoring from the beginning of the semester and ask for lots and lots of feedback.


Myth 5: If they don’t email me back immediately it’s something personal.

Truth 5: Instructors are people too which means they have lives and responsibilities outside of their work. Just because we can pretty much all access our e-mail from our cell phones at any time does not mean that we will. Instructors receive emails at all hours. You know you have sent at least one e-mail to a professor after 1am. If they are asleep at 1 am and do not respond until after 9am, can you really blame them? It is nothing personal. Most of the time if a professor or instructor does not respond to an e-mail within a day or two, that means:

They have a routine where they respond to e-mails at a certain time or day (e.g., Tuesdays in the morning), and your e-mail arrived at the least opportune time (Friday in the evening)

There were multiple instances of the same question so the instructor would like to send a mass e-mail and is waiting for a convenient time to do so (see A.)

Life is unpredictable even for professors and personal or non-teaching related responsibilities have required their full attention

Finally, if a student e-mails their professor at the last minute before an exam (within 24 hours) with an urgent question, the student should not expect the professor to be able to answer. For this reason, always go to the professor’s office hours the week of the exam, as well as tutoring, and start studying at least one week in advance so that you are prepared with questions and will have the opportunity to ask them.


Written by Nora Devlin, Spring 2016


[1] Referenced from: http://www.sonievents.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Yeager_Dweck.3406...