The basics: In the first meeting of every course, your instructor will go over the syllabus. This is the single most important document – the manual, really – for the course. Almost all of the questions I get from students throughout the semester can be easily and quickly answered by looking at the syllabus. These are questions that every instructor gets and hates to answer. Before asking, look at the syllabus and make sure that the answer to your question isn’t sitting right there in front of you.
There is another class of questions that every instructor would love to answer, but which students never ask.
Be original: A student has never asked me about course design. A way you could approach this is by asking your instructor if they’ve taught the course before or if it is the first time. You could ask them what they’ve done to improve the course since the last time they taught it – did they change the readings? Redesign assignments? Select different topics to be covered in the course?
If so, you could ask why they made these changes and how they expect those changes to improve the course?
Find out about your instructor: If your instructor has not taught the course before, you should understand that they are likely to be a little nervous, that some things won’t work out how the instructor planned, and that the course may not be presented as a cohesive whole – this is as much a learning experience for your instructor as it is for you. Either way, you could ask the instructor which readings and topics they are most excited about and which ones they dread teaching.
Find out what to call your instructor: There is no longer any generally accepted rule on how to address your instructor. Some instructors, like myself, are very informal and prefer that you use our first names; other instructors are very formal and prefer that you call them Professor. But at no point should you call us Miss, Mrs., Mr., teacher, or Sir (unless we explicitly say that’s how we want to be addressed, of course). Not all of your instructors will be professors. Many of them will be contract instructors, such as myself, and it is improper to call us professor. If your instructor doesn’t tell you how they want to be addressed, you should definitely ask.
How to participate in classroom discussion: Similarly, some instructors conduct their classes very informally. Those instructors won’t mind if you blurt out questions or comments – so long as you don’t interrupt the instructor or another student. Other instructors are very formal and will expect you to remain silent for the whole class or to raise your hand and wait to be called upon. Again, if your instructor isn’t clear about their preferences, please ask for clarification. It’s important for you to know what is expected of you to participate effectively and get the most from your classroom experience.
Should you put away your phone? Likely yes: Likewise, as it becomes apparent that technology in the classroom is not the panacea that it was once imagined to be, many instructors are sensibly beginning to prohibit electronic devices, including tablets, notebook computers and, especially, phones because not only do they affect the learning of the students using them, but they also affect the learning of the students sitting around them. I do not welcome these devices in my classroom; but other instructors do – if they don’t clearly say you can or cannot have electronic devices in the classroom, you should ask first. The only exception to this is where assistive learning technologies are required to aid differently-abled students. If you require any special accommodations, there are resources on campus available to assist you and your instructor will be happy to help you find them.
Don’t be shy: Another issue is how do you go about speaking to us? This is largely a matter of your comfort. We usually arrive to class a few minutes early and we usually stay a few minutes late. We are happy to talk to you during this time. Most instructors have office hours (if they have an office) and they usually sit there bored because students don’t bother to show up. This is time we have allocated to interacting with students outside of class; thus, it is your time, you should use it – you are welcome to stop by and say hello even if you don’t have any questions about the course.
How to write an e-mail: When you send an instructor an e-mail, you should put the course code or title in the subject line (e.g., SOCI 1000A) and your e-mail should be brief and to the point (“I would like to go over my essay with you because I don’t understand where I went wrong and would like to do better on the next one. Are you available for a meeting?”). Your e-mail should be written in full sentences using proper spelling and grammar. Finally, you should remember that the larger the class, the more students there are competing for our attention. We cannot get back to you immediately. We are not “on call” 24 hours a day. If we haven’t replied within two days, then you should re-send your e-mail because the original was likely lost among the hundreds of other e-mails we deal with.
Courses work best when both students and instructors are committed to them as an intellectual project and when both take responsibility for the course. Instructors work hard to present the material in an understandable and interesting way, make the assignments challenging but not too difficult, and assess your work fairly and impartially. The point is for you to leave the course a stronger student than when you entered: a better writer, a better reader, and a better thinker.
On your side, students must also take responsibility for the course by showing up to class, by doing the assigned readings, paying attention to lectures and discussions, and – most importantly – asking questions when you don’t understand something or need assistance. It’s not a lie, there really are no stupid questions (except those that are answered by looking at the syllabus)!
Craig McFarlane teaches sociology and legal studies at Carleton University.