How To Interact With Your Instructor: A Guide for Undergrads

by PM

11 April 2013, 1628 EDT

RateMyProfessors gave me two chili peppers and a rating of … horrible.

I’m passing along some ideas from Brian Matzke, a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Michigan. Making social rules and expectations explicit is a big part of contemporary classroom management, and this document is a good starting point for other instructors developing their own syllabi or cataloguing their own expectations. This version has been very lightly edited; you can see the original (with comic strip!) here.

Etiquette Guidelines for Students Interacting with Instructors

Success in any college course is determined by your performance on the graded material—the exams, the papers, the other assignments—but it is also determined by the relationship that you cultivate with your instructor. This might not seem intuitive, but making a good impression on your instructor and cultivating a positive relationship with them can lead to many tangible benefits. It can mean that the instructor will be more likely to excuse an absence or provide you with an extension on an assignment. It can make them more inclined to bump up a borderline final grade. It can turn them into a source for a letter of recommendation. And it can determine how harsh or lenient they are when they evaluate the more subjective components of your grade, like essays or participation. Cultivating a positive relationship with an instructor requires following certain etiquette rules. Some of these may seem obvious, but they are all important:


  • DO read the syllabus closely and consult it for answers to questions about course policies.
  • DON’T ask your instructor questions about the course that are answered on the syllabus.
  • DO ask for clarification about course policies or assignments as soon as possible.
  • DON’T wait until right before the due date to ask questions about the assignment.


  • DO begin emails with a salutation and end with a signoff.
  • DON’T misspell your instructor’s name.
  • DO give your instructors 24 hours to respond to email.
  • DON’T expect an immediate response to a message, especially one sent late at night.
  • DO be the last person to send an email during an email exchange. When arranging a meeting, it is your responsibility to send the last email confirming the meeting time. If you do not send the last email, your instructor might assume that the meeting isn’t on.


  • DON’T ask questions via email that will require a long response and DON’T ask for feedback on written work via email.
  • DO use email for short, direct questions. DO use office hours for any questions that require extensive feedback or a back-and-forth conversation.
  • DO take notes during office hours. You likely won’t remember all of the instructor’s advice.
  • If an instructor offers a block of time when they are available other than their regular office hours, DON’T assume that they will be in their office during that time. They are offering a block of time when they could be in their office if you make arrangements to meet with them.
  • DON’T refer to a meeting outside of the regularly scheduled office hours as “office hours.”
  • DON’T miss a meeting outside of regularly scheduled office hours, except in an emergency.
  • DO email to explain why you missed an appointment as soon as possible.


  • DO email your instructor ahead of time when you know you’ll miss class.
  • DON’T assume that by emailing ahead of time, your absence is automatically excused.
  • DO ask a classmate what you missed in class when you were absent.
  • DON’T ask your instructor what you missed—not in email or in office hours.
  • DEFINITELY DON’T ask, “did I miss anything in class last week?” The answer is always yes.
  • DON’T assume that an assignment can be turned in late because you were absent.
  • DO turn in your assignment even if you are absent, or arrange for an extension.


  • DO maintain a professional tone with your instructor.
  • DON’T share details from your personal life, unless they are affecting your performance in class.
  • DON’T try to friend your instructor on Facebook (maybe after the class is over, if you had a positive relationship).
  • DON’T lie to your instructor. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get caught. Don’t say you’re only available during a two hour window, only to arrange a meeting for a different hour of the day. Don’t tell an instructor you uploaded an assignment to the course website when you haven’t. Don’t kill the same grandmother twice when explaining your absences.

Generally speaking, these DOs and DON’Ts are all about empathizing with your instructors and understanding what they value in a relationship with a student. Many students assume that their instructors value “respect” in some abstract sense of the term. This isn’t exactly true. For example, many people who hold Ph.D.’s don’t particularly care if you call them “Doctor” or “Professor”; in fact, many will ask that you call them by their first name.

The top three things that most instructors value are:

1. Their time. Think about who is teaching your course. If it’s a full professor, they’re probably in the process of writing a book or an article, or they’re engaged in some research project. If it’s a graduate student, they’re probably taking courses or writing their dissertation, and might be applying for jobs. If it’s a lecturer or adjunct professor, they’re probably teaching many courses at once and applying for jobs. In any case, teaching you is not likely to be their first priority. This doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy teaching you or that they don’t work hard at it, it’s just the nature of the university. So if you’re going to respect anything, respect your teacher’s time, and don’t waste it.

2. Their students’ time. If an individual student isn’t paying attention during a lesson, many instructors won’t be offended, but if a student distracts other students during a lesson, they’re very likely to incur their instructor’s wrath.

3. Their work. Instructors love the thing that they’re teaching about, and they work really hard at it. So, the easiest way to make a bad impression is to give your instructor a sense that you are bored or lazy. If they sense that you don’t care about the material, then they won’t care about you. On the other hand, the easiest way to make a good impression is to show some passion for the material, or at least some genuine interest. Even if it’s a required course that you aren’t particularly excited about, finding a way to show enthusiasm will go a long way.