How to Communicate with Professors in Online Classes

Written and submitted by: Anna Wdowczyk

Approaching your professors can be intimidating enough without a global pandemic that forces most classes to move online. 

I personally encountered this struggle when I completed four online classes in the Spring/Summer 2020 semester. Rather than simply walking up to my professors after lectures to ask specific questions, I had to take more initiative.

In this new school setting, I managed to excel in all of my courses to earn the highest term GPA I’ve ever achieved. How did I do it? Although this new challenge took a great deal of resilience, I attribute my success to the fact that I engaged with my professors at multiple points throughout the semester.

You can do it too! I have composed the following list to summarize best practices for forging strong relationships with professors in an online environment.

  1. Allocate time for asking questions before academic deadlines in a calendar.

It is crucial to plan sufficient amounts of time for asking your professors any questions. From my experiences, professors can take around 24-48 hours to respond to any online messages. Depending on the professor, they may even take weekends off. This means you may not receive a response to an important question if you do not prepare in advance.

Some great tools for tracking due dates include Google Calendar, which is accessible on a smartphone, and a portable agenda that you can take anywhere.

The best method is to note all the deadlines stated in your syllabus. Then, you can mark the dates that fall about four to five business days before all your deadlines. Label these dates as your last opportunities for asking questions. This will ensure you receive a response, and that you will have enough time to incorporate any necessary changes.

Asking insightful questions ahead of key deadlines will not only help you perform well on tests and assignments; it will also help you build your reputation as a professional and reliable student with faculty members. This can be useful if your professor assigns grades for professionalism, or if you ever need a letter of recommendation in the future.

  1. Send emails using the right techniques.

The subject of your email should always include both your course code and your section number. These pieces of information can be found in the first line for each course on your timetable. Your professor likely teaches more than one class and more than one section of students, so it is important that they know exactly what material your questions and concerns stem from.

Begin your email with a professional greeting. Some examples include starting off the email by writing “Hello,” or “Dear Professor (insert your professor’s name here).” 

Next, keep the body of your email short and sweet. Professors are usually quite busy, and they will appreciate it if you respect their time. In this part of your email, you should clearly outline exactly what assignment and course material you are referencing. Then, get to the point by asking your specific questions or pointing out your concerns. 

Use appropriate language and a positive tone. You should speak to your professor in a respectful manner while conveying that you are interested in learning and improving. If your professor genuinely believes that you want to enhance your learning experience, they may be more eager to help.

Finally, maintain your professionalism as you wrap it up. Some appropriate sign-offs include: thank you, best, warm regards, and with thanks. These sign-offs are to be followed by your name in the next line. Before you hit send, proofread the email to ensure correct spelling and grammar.

  1. Be respectful while participating in remote lectures.

The way you conduct yourself in virtual lectures speaks volumes about how much your academics mean to you. And as I mentioned earlier, your professors will likely be more interested in answering your questions thoroughly if they really believe you care about their course content.

Firstly, ensure that your behaviours facilitate a learning environment in which all students are able to focus. This involves muting your microphone when you’re not speaking to avoid the creation of additional noise. It also encompasses signing into your remote lectures on time, and exiting only when the lectures are over.

You should always use appropriate language in an academic setting; it is a professional expectation. Waiting for your turn to speak is another important aspect of professionalism. 

Different professors have different rules regarding participation, so you should follow their unique guidelines. Oftentimes, professors allow students to unmute microphones whenever they have questions as long as no one else is speaking. However, some professors prefer if their students use the virtual hand-raising function on Zoom. You can also write your questions in the comments section.

  1. Arrange virtual appointments with your professors to discuss specific questions.

You may encounter situations where the contents of your assignment are unique. You may also face individual struggles that require additional assistance. In these situations, it usually does not make sense to ask specific questions that are tailored to your needs among a large group of students. The solution is to have a one-on-one conversation with your professor.

If your professor hosts virtual office hours, then that is the best place for you to go in these scenarios. You can even email your professor in advance to inform them that you plan to attend their office hours, along with a brief explanation of what you want to discuss. But if your professor does not offer this option, then you can request a virtual appointment.

Based on my personal experiences, most professors are open to one-on-one meetings. If your professor does not advertise personal meetings, then you should request them as a last resort. However, you can feel free to take advantage of this service while being courteous of your professor’s time if your professor enthusiastically opens it up to all students.

Request the appointment in an email by following the format I outlined earlier. An appropriate duration is typically 30 minutes. Additional appointments can always be arranged if you and your professor agree that you need more time together at the end of the initial meeting.

Be as flexible as possible by aiming to meet at a time that is most convenient for your professor. You are responsible for corresponding with your professor to determine a specific date and time after your professor responds to your request.

What if your professor declines the request? Although this situation is quite rare, there are many other resources at Ryerson you can tap into for academic support. If your class has a Teaching Assistant, then you can try arranging an appointment with them as well. Some more resources can be found through Student Learning Support. You can even book an appointment with an academic advisor if you need additional guidance.

  1. Showcase appropriate etiquette while meeting virtually with your professors.

It’s not all smooth sailing just because you secured an appointment! You still need to prepare sufficiently in order to stimulate an intellectual conversation that will truly make a difference in your understanding of the course content.

You should start by reviewing your materials beforehand, so that you know exactly what questions or concerns you would like to raise in the meeting. 

It is important to note that if you send your professor an invitation via Zoom, then you may be able to share your screen with them. This is helpful if you want to showcase your work for feedback. However, if your professor is the meeting host or they prefer an alternative platform, you should consider sending them a copy of your work prior to the meeting.

On the day of the meeting, sign in a few minutes early to allow for potentially slow loading times. Greet your professor before diving into an academic discussion. While your professor is speaking, listen and take notes to show strong engagement. Wait until they have finished their point fully before moving on to further questions. Finally, close the meeting by thanking your professor. You should also say goodbye before signing off, and you may even choose to wish them a great day.