Partners with the Professor

Discover a little known secret of academic success

by Donna E. Rickerd

Ryan Sawyer is a Rhodes Scholar, but he says he owes it all to his professors.

Ryan, 28, a graduate of Seattle University, was able to attend Oxford due to a Rhodes Scholarship. He credits receiving the Rhodes to his relationship to several Seattle University professors, a university that believes that students relations with faculty are as important as what they learn in the classroom.

But just how important is knowing your professor?

It is no accident that many of the keys to success in college are well known. For example, keep a regular study schedule. Take good notes. Don’t emphasize the social scene over long term goals. But one of the best kept secrets is the importance of the student/professor relationship. Why? Because research clearly shows that faculty have a strong impact on the students that they teach, and such relationships are closely linked to learning.

More Effective Learning
When a student enters college, he or she finds that learning is different from what they were used to in high school. College stresses critical thinking skills and complex problem solving. Success is related to effective communication across the curriculum: reading, writing, speaking, listening. Students are encouraged to question (not just memorize and recite) and engage in divergent thinking. They need to form their own analysis of material, involving discussion, debate, developing opinions and supporting them. Such a transition can be challenging, especially to an older student who hasn’t been in a classroom for many years.

In spite of this difficulty, many students never come to know their professors. They shrink from initiating contact because of a felt status difference. Others feel faculty don’t have time for them, or would be inconvenienced by questions. Some believe that seeing a professor means weakness, or that it’s a way of “earning points.” Still others shy away because of a perceived “professorial mystique.”

Depending on the type of university and professor, faculty may be more or less involved in research, scholarship, publication, or academic specialties pursued outside of the classroom. They have busy, diverse schedules. Yet the most effective learning comes about when a student partners with a professor. Independent study, field research, and laboratory studies all lead to such collaborative learning relationships. And many of these partnerships are a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.

Mentoring Partners
For example, at Birmingham-Southern College, Dr. Dan Holliman, Professor of Biology, worked closely with student Anne DelBene, who was confined to a wheelchair and had to drop his class. Her condition, viral induced neuropathy, was getting progressively worse and had made her an incomplete quadriplegic. But Dr. Holliman designed an independent course of study for her in ornithology, enabling her to continue her education. Now Anne works at home gathering scientific research about Alabama bird life. Anne, an interdisciplinary biology/psychology major, is actively pursuing a doctorate. Her professor, Dr. Holliman, who has worked closely with many students, feels that these relationships are among the best of his teaching experiences. “Too often we convince ourselves that the closely guarded cell that we call the classroom is the only place where learning can happen,” he said. “One of the most stimulating experiences for me during my thirty-three years as a field biology teacher here at Birmingham-Southern has been a one-on-one relationship with my students.”

In another example, at the University of Alabama, undergraduate Karen Murphy worked with Dr. Marian Lewis, a cell biologist, on a bone cell experiment slated to fly on the Space Shuttle. The experiment was designed to provide clues to combat osteoporosis and other common health problems. The cells simulated growth was to be compared to an earth-based experiment using similar conditions. Karen, who had teamed with Lewis on three other projects, was truly affected by the experience. “The atmosphere was so intense,” she said. “It was great to be around people who truly love their work and are so dedicated.”

These student/professor partnerships may result in a special mentoring relationship which lasts far beyond graduation. Such was the situation for Howard Segal. By his second year at Franklin & Marshall, Segal knew that he wanted to go to graduate school for history. He was introduced to Solomon Wank, now professor emeritus of history. “He was extremely bright and interesting,” Segal said. “Despite my predisposition toward the study of history, he opened my eyes to a broader perspective.” Segal feels he chose American utopianism as the topic for his doctoral thesis because of Wank’s influence. “It had a connection to Wank’s implanting in me the idea of looking at alternatives–in the past and in the present,” he said.

Also fortunate to find a mentor was Donnell Butler. Donnell, a student at Franklin, says sociology professor Katherine McClelland “gave me a great chance to explore my ideas without feeling intimidated. That’s a good feeling, when somebody makes you feel like you’re a partner. You work harder because you want to be worthy of that respect.” The two worked as a team on research, and during McClelland’s first-year seminar, Butler also taught with her. “(Sociology) spoke to him in the same way it spoke to me,” said McCleeland.

Such relationships can be a turning point in a student’s life. Hood College biology professor Drew Ferrier said it happened to him. “You can learn about biology or biologists by sitting in a classroom, but when you’re mentored by a professor you become a biologist,” he said. “You’re no longer sitting on the sidelines, but are a participant. These are watershed experiences that can literally be what makes you decide what you want to do.”

Ferrier said he was involved in a three week program where he was guided by a professor in Florida. “I left as a biology student,” he said, “but I came back an environmental biologist.” Ferrier said he “lived it and loved it.” Immersion, he believes, is something that really does cause a change in you. “You have to make students a participant,” he said, “and that’s what an interactive relationship with a professor can do for you.”

At Randolph Macon’s Women’s College, the emphasis is on teaching, not publishing or research. Kristi Kneas, a 1995 graduate, worked with Professor of Chemistry William Mattson to do research on improving measurements in chemical analysis. Both Kneas and Mattson presented papers at the 207th American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Diego, California, a rare opportunity for an undergraduate. Randolph professors also provide unique opportunities abroad. Recent overseas experiences include an archaeological dig in Carthage, Tunisia, a course on rain forest ecology in Costa Rica, and a political science “outing” to South Africa.

There are many more such instances. A senior and professor of behavioral psychology at Wheaton College, Masachusetts work together to complete a unique study about how children learn music. A history professor with a law degree at Birmingham Southern College helps his students get internships in law firms. Such stories are inspirational. But in today’s busy lifestyle, how does one go about getting to know their professors?

Academic and Professional Assistance
Many universities are large, with classes taught by assistants, and the climate can be impersonal. For this reason, it is best to find a school that has a faculty:student ratio that ensures classes are small and students get personal attention. Some universities place teaching excellence above everything, and make every effort to help students understand that their relations with faculty are as important is what they are learning in the classroom. Working with the professor is considered part of the total student experience. Look for a university that puts emphasis on collaborative research projects involving students and faculty. Check college rankings that indicate the importance faculty place on interactions with students. It is not uncommon for classroom conversations to spill over to lunch and dinner conversations with faculty members.

More importantly, professors make themselves available for academic and professional help which often translates into internships, career direction, jobs and graduate school acceptances. If you are having difficulty with a subject, ask for one-on-one help. Visits to faculty members during office hours can provide a more leisurely means of mastering the material. Use out of classroom visits to explore dimensions of a topic not covered in class. It can be an exciting and enjoyable experience to debate or discuss issues with a professor, a way of stretching your mind and moving to a higher stage of learning, to find out about what else exists on the subject.

If unsure about approaching a professor, it’s important to remember that many have become professors because they love to teach and love their discipline deeply, and there’s nothing that makes them happier than to learn that one of their students shares their passion. Student-faculty interactions not only benefit both students and faculty members, but create opportunities beyond the classroom that can result in career opportunities and lifetime friendships.

Faculty are there to share their expertise and love of a particular discipline and to show the connections between those disciplines and life. Students experience intellectual growth, become more oriented towards a scholarly career and develop higher aspirations. Student-faculty interaction has also been shown to have positive correlations with every area of academic attainment outcome: college GPA, degree attainment, graduating with honors, and enrollment in graduate or professional school. One woman, under the influence of her professor, had the courage to choose a male dominated career.

Professors are also part of the reason alumni remember their college days so fondly. For many, the relationship doesn’t end at commencement. The person who was a professor has become a friend – sometimes for life. Students who don’t take advantage of that opportunity miss much of what a college education is all about.

Benefits of Working with a Professor
– It helps keep students in a degree program to completion. If they make a connection with faculty who care and are interested in them, they are more likely to remain.
– It increases academic performance. Students who know their professors are more likely to seek assistance and tend to perform better in class.
– Students receive job placement assistance when they graduate. Additionally, students gain invaluable professional references and networking opportunities, and learn about internships, cooperative learning, and research appointments, which give them an edge on graduate school applications and job searches.
– Students may receive career advice. Some students are not sure of what they want to major in during their first years of college. Professors can provide insight.
– Students can receive coursework guidance. Faculty can advise students on which courses to take, when to take them, and suggest the right course load.
– Students find help with portfolio preparation. Some schools are requiring the submission of portfolios or projects before graduation. Often, professors can provide insight and guidance.
– Students can often become involved in the research of faculty. This gives them a better understanding of the discipline, often leads to co-authorship (a plus on a resume and graduate application), and helps to define career interests. They also often have an opportunity to present their research at conferences, regional, national and international.
– The professor who knows a student well can write better and more persuasive letters of recommendation.
– Finally, faculty can be instrumental in helping students identify opportunities they might otherwise miss. One student was able to get a research appointment with funding at the University of Missouri and at Fermi National Energy Laboratory in Chicago because of faculty who knew her, her strengths and interests, and had contacts that let him know about these opportunities.