American Experience | 体验美国

Speaking With Your Professor

September 19, 2013 7:48 am | By Wenjing

Go to your professors if you have any questions!

It is way easier to study in the US now given the easy information on the Internet. Yet many students have not realized the real challenge is not in applying for an ideal school, but how to adapt to the study and living environment in US universities; as well as how to gain an international perspective so as to enhance your competitiveness among your counterparts. This is much more difficult than memorizing and writing letters of reference.

For Chinese students who are used to traditional education, it is very difficult to deal with problems on their own. Especially given the fact that they are living outside their own countries. When having difficulties, some students want to talk to the ‘headmaster’ in class, but only to find that the concept of ‘class’ does not exist in the US at all.

When the excitement of the first few weeks wears off, you might find yourself uncomfortable in many areas. Take studying for example. You may find it hard to understand cases, unfamiliar with the cultural background, or not being able to understand the professor’s accent. If it is not a lecture class, you might summon your courage and ask the professor questions after class, but if it is some basic courses where there are more than 100 students in class you might not be able to approach to the professor who is crowded with tons of talkative students. If you are introverted, things could be even worse. Do you want to wait in line? I’m sorry, because it might take more than a few minutes. Even it is your turn, the professor might not have much time elaborating on the question. Therefore, it is very important to make the best use of a professor’s office hours.

First, always show up for the first class. Many students will drop or change courses after the first class, so professors don’t take attendance in the first class. But don’t miss the first class because professors will write down their contact information and office hours on the blackboard. (Although this information is usually available on the syllabus, it cannot be guaranteed that all that info is correct). It is important to write down this information in case you may have some questions in the future. This information is useful even after graduation.

When is the best time to talk to my professor?

Consulting other’s opinions is always the most effective way to solve problems, but a lot of students will not go to professors until the end of the semester. Some always go to professor whatever problem they have. Both situations above are inappropriate. The former is being lazy. The latter is being immature.

The uniqueness of American higher education is to help students develop their sense of independence. The biggest asset for students is how to search for answers by themselves. When running into problems related to studying, the first thing to do is search for related materials from the Internet, the libraries, or online libraries.
Then you can seek help from people around you: your classmates, roommates, or teaching assistants if your class has one. If the usual study methods don’t work or the explanation from your classmates and TAs don’t make sense to you, then you can go to the professor. Keep in mind that you don’t procrastinate and put everything off till the last week. Just imagine what the professors would feel if you tell them “I have many questions” one day before the final or “I have no idea what to write” one day before you are supposed to summit the essays.

Different from the high school classrooms that many oversea students are familiar with, American courses do not put as much emphasis on students’ memorization. On the contrary, the real intention of many undergraduate courses is to change students’ way of thinking and their vision of the world. In order to reach the professor’s requirements, students need to have a great deal of practice. If your course is only 10 to 14 weeks, missing one or two weeks will lead to very serious consequences. Whatever problems you have, you should deal with them with seriously.

How should I frame my questions?

It is not as scary as many people expect to ask questions to your professors. Most professors will try their best to help their students. However, do not ask vague questions, and don’t simply say “I don’t understand.” Be specific as to which part you don’t understand. Is it the material or the explanation from the professor? Or is it about your understanding of the class requirements? It is best to show the professor your class notes and how you try to solve the problems so that they know you tried. Some professors would ask about your learning method and give some advice accordingly, such as how to use the resources of your school.

Speaking of office hours, you should make reservations by writing emails or ask in person after class. Please explain your situation first if necessary. Most professors would love to spare extra time to help you. Do not expect to drop in anytime when the professors are in their office. If you were lucky, they would give you a short answer. Other times you will not get a chance to talk to them. Professors do not come to school very often, so their office hours are very important. If someone from your study group has the same problem you can go together.

These are my experience as an overseas student in the US. I would love to share my experiences of American life, study, and job interviews with other Chinese students.
Any advice is very welcome. You can reach me at or 羊贩 (micro blog)