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Freshman Year | Academics | August 2012

Make a Good Impression on Your Professors

By Taylor Cotter |

Make a Good Impression on Your ProfessorsEvery fall, college professors meet a new wave of students for the first time. Tenured professors likely have decades of experience in creating a positive first impression. 

Students, on the other hand, lack that experience. Meeting dozens of new professors that first week on campus can be a stressful task. However, if students follow these tips from instructors across the country, they will have a huge advantage to make a good impression on their new professors.

Whether either side wants to admit it, the first impression could have a huge impact on the course of the relationship.

“Research shows that when we first meet someone, that impression serves as the basis for all future interactions with that individual, up to a point of course,” said Sarah Hill, assistant professor of psychology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “Our initial impressions lead us to pay attention to behaviors consistent with our expectations, interpret behaviors in a way that is consistent with our expectations and remember things that are consistent with our expectations.”

In high school, teachers frequently began classes as a review of old material for a week or longer to reinforce what students may have forgotten. But Dr. David Rudd, professor of business administration at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., notes that seeing a student starting slow out of the gate can make it an uphill battle over the course of the semester.

Start every class at full intensity. It is easy to think that the first few sessions of a class are going to ease you into the content and that you can afford to cruise at low speed, especially for freshmen who think they already learned the first material in high school,” said Rudd. “This is a trap. Most of the time there is a collegiate, higher-level thinking twist on the material.” Professors can tell who starts out with a mindset ready to learn and who is easily distracted by the newfound freedom of living alone. 

After mentally preparing to start classes, a deliberate introduction can prove to be a difference maker instead of just assuming it is the professor’s responsibility to break the ice.

“Professors like to know about the backgrounds and interests of their students and there’s no better way to make a good first impression than showing the enthusiasm to introduce themselves,” said Daniel Connolly, associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. “Enthusiastic students tend to make good impressions on professors because it shows their eagerness to learn.” 

During an in-person introduction, Deborah Ricker, dean of academic services at York College of Pennsylvania, always pays close attention to eye contact and a handshake.

“Eye contact is big for me. Looking someone in the eye conveys a sense of connectedness and engagement in the conversation,” said Ricker. “If students can’t, or won’t look me in the eye, I wonder how serious they are about the conversation. It further makes me question their commitment in general.”

With so much digital communication today, a first impression can develop long before a student can look into the eye of their professor. Clean writing skills are perhaps more valuable, since other verbal communication subtleties are not possible through email.

Every email must be professional with appropriate greeting, spelling, grammar and punctuation,” said Steven Benko, assistant professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “Emails that start with ‘hey’ or look hastily composed and replete with errors do not make a good impression and do not create the atmosphere for a good response.”

As students pile into the classroom, they might just be looking for the closest empty seat. But the one they choose could actually impact how their professor interprets their view of the class and also how likely the student will be to stay engaged in the lecture.

Classroom attention is important. A student who can’t focus or who can’t be brought back to the situation is not going to learn,” says Chris Hakala, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “There’s a lot of research on the waxing and waning of attention in the classroom. In lecture, students’ attention tends to bottom out about 30 minutes into class, which is just when faculty are getting to the most important information. Proximity to the professor does have an impact on that.” 

Staying engaged is critical but it’s not enough to just raise your hand every once in a while or to ask a basic question or two. Rick Scott, professor of finance at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Fla., listens intently for informed dialogue from his students.

“The professor notices when students ask insightful questions and make pointed comments in class. The interaction in class becomes a relationship,” Scott said. “Some students think that if they ask a lot of somewhat random or uninformed questions, the professor will look favorably on that as class participation. Unfortunately, if the student is repeatedly asking about something that they should know if they are keeping up with the class, it disrupts the class or takes up a lot of the professor's time re-teaching things and this reflects badly on that student.” 

Professors’ time is valuable to them. Clearly, regular attendance illustrates a respect of that time as students seek the information being presented. While there is little excuse for chronic absences, occasional complications will occur that students must follow up appropriately with their professor.

“If you must miss class, email the professor or stop by during office hours. Take responsibility for the work you missed,” said Cynthia Edwards, professor of psychology at Meredith College. “Whatever you do, do not ask ‘did we do anything important in class yesterday?’ That is offensive to the professor who works hard to try to make every class valuable.  Get the notes from a friend, do the reading, and then ask questions about anything on which you are unclear.” 

Since time is of the essence, office hours where professors make themselves available for students are an excellent forum for both course-related and unofficial correspondence. 

“Most students stop by during my office hours the day or two before a test to ask questions about the material, but very rarely do students come by to introduce themselves, talk about what they want to do with their major, or just chat about their goals, dreams, aspirations and how their coursework might contribute to them,” said John Fea, associate professor of history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. “Take advantage of office hours.  I wish I had done more of this when I was an undergraduate.”

It’s hard to see how the relationships formed now can have a lasting impact over an entire lifetime, but many professors will continue to have an impact long after the final exam. 

“Developing relationships with faculty can be valuable,” said Robin Lauermann, associate professor of politics at Messiah. “Not only will students gain more from their academic experience, but the faculty can be mentors, references and otherwise important contributors to student development.”

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