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I Can't Figure Out What My Professor Wants

Professors have many different styles of teaching and examining students. After all, they are individuals--just as students are. How do you, as a student, begin to grasp the individual expectations of every professor whose class you take?

Your starting point is close observation. Look at the person who is standing before the class. Imagine him or her in action. Does he take out a set of notes, place them on the podium and read? Does she ask questions and use the answers to get students involved in a discussion? Does he use study questions in the text book to check on student preparation? Does she go over the homework? Does he throw out an idea intended to provoke students? Does she digress? Does he talk about his children? Does she ask students to make seminar presentations? What seems to count most in class?

Once you start to observe the pattern of the class, you will begin to make intelligent guesses about what your professor expects on exams and papers. If your teacher is a lecturer and sticks to lecture notes or the organization of the text book, then exams will probably be based on lecture notes, text or a combination. You can expect information to be the priority, and so your answers should present information as completely as possible. In classes where your professor's point of view seems to be extremely important, you can guess that taking an opposing stand might cost you points! If, on the other hand, class discussion is the basis of your professor's course, then you can expect student ideas to be of great interest to that teacher. That teacher might give highest points to students who explore their own perspectives, even if they are very different from the professor's. Such a professor will probably give essay exams and want to have your ideas and reflections play a major role in your writing. In other words, professors who are formal and structured generally want formal and structured work from their students. Professors who seem spontaneous or creative generally encourage spontaneity or creativity in student work.

Once you have begun to see your professors as people, you should also find it easier to talk to them. Ask your professors what they expect. Most teachers are glad to discuss examination or paper format and what is required to do well. Some may even let you see examples of past examinations. Ask. With respect to papers, you might even ask whether you can show the professor a rough draft of the introduction in order to know whether you are on the right track. The more help you can get directly from your professors, the more you will understand what he or she wants.

Most professors have taught at Post for at least a few years. That means other students have already taken courses with them and can tell you something about their expectations. The Honors Program is a useful grapevine. Ask students in the Honors Lounge for their own experiences in taking that courses with your professors. Here's a secret. There's a book in the lounge written by students. For years they have been entering personal reflections on classes and faculty. Read the book!