I bet you communicate with someone somehow every day without thinking too much about it. You text your friends, call your parents, speak with people in class, and use many other forms of communication within your daily life. However, when you go to email your prof to set up a meeting, or go to ask them a question after class I bet you are just a little nervous almost every time. You make excuses for not asking your questions; you make your questions sound less important, less needed, or even down right dumb. Most students make their questions seem unvalued or unreasonable: “I don’t want to bother them,” “I don’t think I need the answer, I’ll just assume,” or “They will think it’s a dumb questions.” In the end, you are probably thinking "I don’t want to be that student." While you are having this internal battle about whether or not to ask your question, that prof is probably moving on to a new topic already and doesn’t know that you don’t understand.
We all know some profs are a little easier to approach than others, but if that’s why you are not asking your prof, maybe asking your TA is the better option.
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In my own experience, it seems like the main reason people are nervous when emailing a prof is that they don’t want to ruin their “flawless” reputation, or make the professor think they are not smart enough to be in the course. This is not the case! Most of the time when you do not ask your questions to clarify an assignment or a topic brought up in lectures, you make a mistake that gets you a lower mark than if you had asked. Most profs don’t know when their students don’t understand a topic. If you ask the prof a question it is likely that you are not alone in this confusion. Ask your questions, it will help you and your peers.
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Would you rather ask, “How would you like the paper formatted and what type of citing should I use,” and get an 85% on a paper, or not ask and loose marks on the formatting and sources sections, only get a 65%? Due to your unwillingness to ask, you now received a lower mark. This goes to show you that people who make the excuse of not wanting to seem dumb by asking are not always right. Shown in this example, if you don’t ask and get a lower mark the prof will possibly have that very idea about you from now on.
Although the most common reasons for not asking questions are keeping your reputation, not wanting to sound like a “first year,” or not wanting to be a bother, the real reason is students are not mature enough to admit they don’t know everything. You are at school to learn about your field, get valuable information from your profs, and learn how to ask when you don’t know the answer.
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Let’s put asking questions into a different context. What if you are working at a store and you aren’t sure what the return policy is, so you tell the customer it is 60 days. That customer now thinks they can return the product for 2 months after they bought it. You didn’t want to ask your boss because that might make you look less confident to the customer and seem needy to your boss. Well, when that customer comes back to the store 60 days later, to return the coat, and your manager says they cannot because the return policy is 30 days, that customer will be unhappy. If that customer says you are the one who told them that it was 60 days your manager will now be unhappy with you, causing you to also be unhappy too.
Let’s put this into an even more extreme situation. You are working at a restaurant and someone asks you if there is egg in a certain dish, so you tell them you will go ask the chef. You go to the back and notice the chef is really busy, so you ask his assistant if there is egg in the dish and they say they don’t know. You don’t want to keep the customer waiting so you say no there isn’t egg. In the end, they order that dish. The customer eats the dish and there is egg in it, because you didn’t ask they are now having an allergic reaction. How horrible would you feel? Now not only will this customer be quiet upset, so will your boss because that could be a potential law suit! Due to you not asking a question, now the business’s reputation is on the line, along with your job.
Clearly in these two situations communication and knowing how to ask questions is quite important. I am usually very surprised by people’s reactions when I say I always email my prof or ask when I have questions. The number one question I usually get is “how do you do it?” Well my answer is usually what do you mean, it’s just like talking to anyone else, and that a prof is still a person. Just because they are a professor does not mean they look at communication a different way. The only thing I usually change when asking them questions is being more formal, making sure I have a specific question, and using language I would use in an assignment or when speaking with a family member.
Tips I use for talking to Profs:
- Calling them by their title and last name (i.e. Dr. Smith, Mr. Hunter, or Ms. James) until they reply signing with their first name, then I start to use that
- Always use a descriptive subject, not using “Questions” instead using “Questions regarding Lecture 2A for Midterm” (this allows the prof to know what the email might be about)
- Follow the instructions they have for asking questions (check the syllabus, if the prof says email my TAs first then me, do that, if they don’t then email them first)
- Make sure you only send the email to ONE person. Unless you are instructed to, never email more than one person when asking about an assignment, it makes it seem like you want more than one opinion, don’t trust one of the opinions, and it will just get confusing
- Make sure you mention what class it is you are asking about, most profs teach more than one class so they might be confused if it’s not included
- Always sign off with a thank you. I usually say “thank you for reading this, I look forward to your answer”
- ALWAYS sign off with your FULL NAME (first and last), your student number, and program
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In the end, the best way to be successful when asking your prof a question is to remember that they are a person too. When you are emailing them or talking with them you don’t need to be nervous, you have a lot of experience in communicating with people, you do it every day. Just remember, talk to them like they are your mother and you are asking her for money. By that I mean, use their title, don’t swear, don’t use slag, act confident, and always say thank you at the end of your conversation. Most importantly, do not make it sound like a demand, if it is truly a question ask it don’t tell it.
Talking to mom: “Hey mom, I was wondering if I could borrow $20 for gas money. I will pay you back once I get paid this week.” If she says yes or no, still say thank you. You say this because it’s for taking the time to listen to your question.
Talking to prof: “Hello Dr. Smith, I was wondering if you could explain the meaning of reflective writing you discussed in class on Monday? I was confused about how I am supposed to reflect on the topic, but not say I in my paper. Thank you for taking the time to read this email, I look forward to your answer. I will greatly appreciate it.”
If you would like to go more in depth in this topic please look into our resources on the Writing Centre website.
Just remember, you communicate with people every day and your prof is a person too, therefore, you have nothing to worry about!