6 Ways to Find the Best Professors for You

"Target shopping carts" by Matthew Romack (Creative Commons) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcodeIn my last post, I discussed why sites like RateMyProfessors.com are inaccurate and not the most useful tools in picking classes. Luckily, there are several options that may require a bit more effort but yield much better results. Instead of using a questionable website, consider the following 6 tried and true tips for picking professors.

1. Talk to your adviser.
Advisers are professionals specifically trained to help you achieve your academic goals. They will not only help you choose your schedule, but they can help you pick your major, find internships, and sometimes even scholarships. Develop a relationship with your adviser. Be honest about what you’re looking for and your specific needs. Because you’ll work with this person until you transfer or graduate, consider requesting another adviser if the one you’re assigned isn’t a good fit.

2. Ask other students.
Find other students whose opinions you feel you can trust. Ask them which professors they’ve had. Then, ask the following about each professor:

  • How did you do in the class? (Ideally, the student passed.)
  • Were lectures clear and easy to follow?
  • Did the professor encourage questions and answer them clearly?
  • Did you feel like you could approach the professor easily?
  • Was the professor helpful?
  • Did the professor or the teaching assistant offer office hours or review (tutoring) sessions?
  • Were instructions and expectations clear?
  • Did you feel that you really learned the material by the end of the semester?
  • Who is your favorite professor? Why?
  • Which professor do you wish you hadn’t taken? Why?

Also, include questions regarding the professor’s teaching style to see if they teach in a way that you learn best. For example, if you’re a visual learner, ask if the professor uses visual aids with lecture. Inquire if the professor is just a talking-head, inflicts death by PowerPoint, or utilizes multi-media in a helpful way. Ask several students about the same professors. Avoid hearsay and gossip; make sure the people you ask have actually taken classes from the professors they tell you about. And remember, just because a professor wasn’t a good fit for one student doesn’t mean that teacher isn’t a good fit for you.

3. Google professors.
A good old Google search of the professor’s name can yield all kinds of useful information, such as the instructor’s Facebook page, class website, Twitter account, blog, curriculum vitae, as well as publications. Sometimes you can develop a picture of what the person is like as well as his or her interests. Getting a feel for potential professors’ passions and areas of expertise may help you decide if you’d enjoy spending three or more hours a week for an entire semester with them. Just remember to skip the links for Rate My Professors at the top of the first results page. See my last post, “How Not to Pick Professors” to understand why.

4. Review the college’s student evaluations of the professor (if available).
Some schools make reports of the student evaluations of faculty members available to the student body. Find out if your institution does this and how to access the information. Generally, the registrar’s office is a good place to start.

5. Interview professors.
Yes, you can interview potential professors, and don’t be scared to do it! Contact the professors of the classes you’re interested in taking. An email is okay, however, you may not hear back. A phone call is better, but in person is best. You can find out the professor’s contact information and office hours via the school’s website or by contacting his or her department directly. Tell the instructor what class you’re thinking of taking and that you aren’t sure which class is right for you. Caution: This tactic may not work for your very first semester at college because many instructors are unavailable during the summer when you’ll need to register. Also, avoid having an “impress me” attitude or asking questions like “So why should I take you?”, which gives a bad first impression. You’re the pursuer here, not the prize. Be sincere, inquisitive, enthusiastic, and humble.

6. Sit in on classes.
Although it takes some effort and time on your part, this is probably the best way to see if a professor is a good fit for you. Be sure you get permission first, however. Crashing a class will not go over well. This is a good follow-up to tip 5 above, and like option 5, this tactic works best after you’ve already started your first semester.

You may be advised by others to register for one extra class that you can drop if you don’t like the professor. You can do this, but there are a few reasons why you shouldn’t. First, some states and institutions have rules about how many classes you can drop over the course of your academic career. Also, some colleges will increase the cost per credit hour for courses that a student repeats more than a certain number of times. Finally, if the section is full, you may be keeping someone who really wants or needs that class from taking when you’re just trying it out. In other words, save your drops for when you really need them.

You may not always be able to follow these steps. Sometimes, due to circumstances beyond your control, you will simply have to register blindly, and that’s okay. Remember that one of the most important lessons you’ll learn is adaptability, an essential part of the college experience.

Picking professors can be a lot like a blind date. Even when you learn all you can about the person beforehand, you just can’t know if there’s a connection until you meet him or her in person. Don’t be scared to take a chance. You may just find the professor of your dreams.

Ponder this: What are some ways you found the best professors you’ve ever taken? Are there other ways to find professors that aren’t included here?



How Not to Pick Professors, or Why Rate My Professors Doesn’t Work

Rate My Professors LogoI admit it. I rely on the advice of strangers. But most likely, you do, too. Consumer reports and customer ratings are big business. For example, websites like Yelp, Citysearch, and Urbanspoon were created to help consumers find and make decisions about businesses and services prior to buying based on ratings from existing customers. We use these services to save money, time, and avoid buyer’s remorse. So why not use similar sites, such as Rate My Professors, when choosing professors and classes?

 What It Is

Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times explains how RateMyProfessors.com works:

Real-life students take real-life classes and hand down judgments of real-life professors in a virtual forum. The site invites reviewers — whose identities as students are never given or verified — to give numerical rankings, from 1 to 5, in four categories: easiness, helpfulness, clarity and the reviewers’ interest in the subject matter before they took the class. You can also assign professors chili-pepper icons if you think they’re good-looking.

Started in 1999, the site is owned and run by mtvU and continues to grow. In an article by Memet Walker with USA Today College, Corporate Communications Manager for the company, Jake Urbanski, reports that RateMyProfessors.com “gets nearly 5 million visitors every month and [that’s] increasing.” Clearly, that many visitors and its longevity indicate that people use the site, but not all of those users are students posting reviews or searching for potential professors.

Why It Doesn’t Work

Although reviews are not as lengthy as many encountered on sites such as Amazon.com, the structure is practically the same. Anyone who has an Amazon account can write a customer review. This doesn’t guarantee that the reviewer has bought or even used the product, however. Just as some product reviews on Amazon are bogus, bought, or simply posted by trolls, which causes the product’s overall ranking to inaccurately rise or fall, reviews on RateMyProfessors.com can be posted by literally anyone who has registered with the site. The majority of the reviews come from students who have taken the teacher they’re ranking but many don’t. Some professors, or the professor’s friends and family members in some cases, anonymously rate themselves and their colleagues. As Gabriela Montell with The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “Professors like to dismiss the site as flawed and frivolous at best, and untrustworthy and malicious at worst.” In fact, some instructors, she continues, “take great sport in posting remarks about themselves and each other on the site—so much so it has become a medium for their inside jokes.” This phenomenon is not uncommon. For example, I personally know two professors who have written overly-positive reviews of themselves as jokes. And although they admit having done so to their students and colleagues, the effects are the same: their overall rankings improved. Students not in on the joke “shopping” for professors on the site at registration time have no way of knowing if the rankings for these professors, or any on the site for that matter, are accurate or which reviews are real.

It’s become commonplace for colleges and universities to utilize anonymous student surveys every semester to evaluate faculty performance. Usually, surveys of the same questions are given to every student in each class taught by an instructor. RateMyProfessors.com is similar in that it provides a means for students to anonymously provide feedback. However, users can rate professors multiple times on the site. Also, overall ratings are skewed because some instructors may have only two or three reviews while others might have twenty or more; not every student a professor has taught over a semester is polled and only five questions are asked. Also, let’s not forget that, generally, satisfied customers whose expectations were merely met are less likely to post reviews than people with axes to grind or enamored fans. In other words, it’s possible that professors may have many satisfied students who simply aren’t motivated enough to sign up and post. The feedback from these middle-of-the-road students, on the other hand, does show up on the surveys administered by the school because all students are asked to fill out the questionnaires. In short, quality control is lacking at Rate My Professors, and there’s no way to verify the accuracy of an already poorly structured survey tool.

What does a high or low rating at RateMyProfessors.com really amount to in the real world anyway? As Montell says, “A very low rating can mean the professor is either a bad teacher or extremely demanding; a very high rating can mean the professor is a good teacher or too easy.” Ultimately, it begs the question: Are you looking for an easy A or to be challenged and really learn something? Only you can answer that question, but regardless of your answer, there are several other ways to use Rate My Professors. As Heffernan concludes, “Read it like a novel, watch like MTV, study it like sociology. Just don’t base any real decisions on it.”

Is utilizing customer reviews wrong? Absolutely not. In fact, I will continue to read reviews before making purchases. But remember that choosing a professor is not the same as shopping for a new laptop or picking the best Thai restaurant in town, even if certain websites present it that way. Avoid thinking like a customer shopping for a service or an experience. Instead, think like a private detective searching for the professor who is the best person to enable you to learn the most.

Many students do still sign up for classes without doing their (ahem) homework first. However, although they may create class schedules that work well for them, they end up stuck with professors who don’t. In my next post, “6 Ways to Find the Best Professors for You”, I discuss some of the best ways to find the professors who will fit your schedule and your personality or learning style. Stay tuned!

Read “Mother, Poems – Hush Now”

Read “Mother, Poems – Hush Now”

Trigger Warnings for Students: What and Why You Should Know

Trigger Happy by smkybear. Creative Commons.If you encounter the word “trigger” or the phrase “trigger warning” and, instead of conjuring an image of a gun or Roy Roger’s palomino, you imagine retreating within yourself or white-knuckles and a cold sweat, you’ve probably experienced some sort of traumatic event in your life and already watch for such warnings. Even if that is not the case for you, all students should know what being “triggered” means and how to handle trigger warnings in the classroom.

Trigger Warnings Defined
Trigger warnings go beyond the ratings system we experience at movies or on television. Roxane Gay, author of “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion”, defines trigger warnings as “a signal that the content following the warning may be upsetting, may trigger bad memories or reminders of traumatic or sensitive experiences. Trigger warnings allow readers to have a choice—steel yourself and continue reading or protect yourself and look away.” In other words, these statements are meant to alert the student or participant that the material may create a “significantly mood-altering experience of anxiety” as feminist blogger Melissa McEwan explains. They are not meant to provide an excuse to bow out of an assignment because the content makes you feel uncomfortable or challenges your opinions. This isn’t about hurt feelings; rather, it’s about reliving serious trauma.

The Debate
Many in higher education are asking if such warnings are going overboard or absolutely necessary. Recently, Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at DePaul University,
blogged about trigger warnings and summarized a bit of the debate among institutions and professors about the use of such warnings in the classroom. There are arguments on both sides. Some, such as Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at Emory University, would argue that mandatory or institution-wide trigger warnings stifle learning by reinforcing a student-customer model and nurturing an environment of emotional sterility that really amounts to censorship and blocks attempts to rock the proverbial boat or upset the student-customer. In the end, opponents argue, instead of promoting learning by creating a safe environment, these warnings actually stifle learning by preventing true expression or challenging established systems and institutionalized ideals. On the other hand, proponents believe that such warnings are in place to empower students and create a safe environment in which learning can flourish because feeling threatened can cause victims of trauma to shut down and withdraw.

As a student, here’s what you should know. Whether you’ve been victimized in the past or not, you should expect to have what you believe or feel challenged, your comfort zone rocked, you’re safe places shaken, and sometimes aggressively. You should hope that happens. Not for the sake of being upset, but so that you can experience a worldview to which you would not otherwise be exposed. That’s what you sign up for when you want an education. Otherwise, how do we learn? How do we grow? How do we deepen our understanding of our neighbors and the world without challenging what we think we know? Frequently, staying safe really means staying comfortable, and that kind of comfort can stunt growth and kill learning. Embrace exploration and the adventure of learning. Learn how to cope with the uncomfortable feelings that being challenged evokes. Trigger warnings are not intended to protect your feelings and viewpoints or keep “offensive” material out of the classroom or your purview. Such warnings exist for those who have experienced some sort of real trauma in their lives.

How to Handle Trigger Warnings
Whether or not you feel the recent adoption of trigger warnings is over-sensitivity or political correctness to the extreme, as a college student, you should:

Look for trigger warnings in syllabi and on assignments, especially if you’ve experienced some sort of trauma in the past.
This will give you an opportunity to begin a dialogue with the professor and either excuse yourself from triggering situations or request an alternative assignment. When reviewing the syllabus, remember that trigger warnings may be labeled as something else like content warnings, disclaimers, or ratings alerts.

Review the calendar of assignments and readings early in the semester to anticipate potential trigger material.
Again, this doesn’t mean things that you may find offensive or that will hurt your feelings. Rather, look for assignments that might send you back to the moment of your trauma or prevent you from learning at all. You are the best judge of what will trigger you. It’s up to you to discover what that material might be.

Expect to have to discuss why the material triggers you and a plan of action.
The lecturer may or may not be sympathetic to your situation, especially if he or she is not aware that you have an issue. As I mentioned before, college is meant to challenge you, and the professor has chosen the assignments and planned the syllabus in order to teach and highlight specific learning outcomes for the course. Avoid coming across as an unhappy customer just trying to get out of work or avoid viewpoints you disagree with. Rather, be willing to discuss your situation and explain why you need an alternative assignment. You do not have to provide a detailed play-by-play of what happened to you; that is not expected. A brief explanation is generally enough. If the professor sees that you’re willing to work, you want to learn, and you’re not trying to avoid content just because it makes you uncomfortable, she will be more likely to work with you. If such a conversation is impossible for you, contact counseling services at your institution. The people there are trained to help you and may be able to act as mediators on your behalf.

Know what you signed up for.
If you sign up for a class about the Holocaust, for example, you should expect graphic and disturbing content about the genocide of Jews during World War II. It’s only fair of the professor to believe that the students have read the course description before signing up and are on board with the material pertaining to the focus of the course.

Avoid using trigger warnings as an excuse to get out of assignments.
It won’t work, at least not for long. Trying to get out of work not only hurts you but the integrity of the class your instructor has designed. Save requests for alternative assignments and excusing yourself from class for content and situations that truly trigger you.

Gay explains, “This is the uncomfortable truth—everything is a trigger for someone … Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need them, who need that safety.” Only you can decide what you can handle and what you can’t, how much you can and should endure to move past the hurt or work through the pain of your past, and whether or not you can learn more from the class and about yourself by skipping the material or powering through. As the old saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.” Whether or not a written or verbal trigger warning is provided, if you are the victim of a trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, prepare yourself by becoming informed about the class as early as possible. And, if you’re able, let your professor know so that she can plan accordingly as well.

Review of Uncle Ernest by Larry D. Thomas

Uncle Ernest by Larry D. Thomas coverCheck out my review of Uncle Ernest, a book of poetry by Larry D. Thomas set in the deep woods. Thomas reveals how, when separated from “normal” society, the human psyche can become warped by love to commit atrocities, but he also shows how we’re all capable of darkness to some degree. It’s terrible and moving, strange and powerful by turns. Pick up a copy here.

What’s in a name? A lot! Why You Should Know All of Your Professors’ Names

What's in a Name? By Jack Dorsey. Creative Commons. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackdorsey/170257936/My husband and I were blessed two years ago with a son. I have been fortunate enough to stay home with him, but I continued to teach online and tutor part-time for a while. At the college’s writing center where I tutored, I couldn’t tell you the number of students who came in asking for help with their essays who couldn’t answer the question: “What is your professor’s name?”.

When they said they didn’t know, I was always shocked. Not knowing your instructors’ names suggests that the class and the person who teaches it are not important enough to earn a spot in your long term memory, which can be an indicator of your level of success at the end of the semester. Why should you remember your professors’ names?

1. Only Four to Six Names
Remember that, every semester, your professor may have hundreds of new students whose names she must remember whereas you have only four to six instructors’ names to recall. Regardless of whether or not the professor knows your name on sight, it helps you to be more successful if you know hers. Here are just a few reasons why it’s a good idea to learn your instructors’ names and why you want them to learn yours:

2. Make a Good Impression
If you ever run into the teacher outside of class, you will know how to address him or her directly. In fact, you should, at the very least, cordially say hello because establishing a professional relationship outside of class helps you stand out to that professor in a positive way. This can be helpful at the end of the semester when the professor is calculating your final grade. You want the professor to remember you and have a positive reaction when he reads your name in his gradebook rather than none at all, which can help turn a 79.49 (C) into an 80 (B).

3. Better Tutoring
Sometimes, instructors have standing orders, particular preferences, or even reputations for wanting things a certain way that the on-campus tutoring services and librarians at your school will be familiar with. If you know your professor’s name and tell the person assisting you at a tutoring lab up front, they may change how they help you to better fit your professor’s requirements.

4. Better Help From Other Faculty and Staff
If you have to ask for help from another faculty or staff member, you can answer the question, “Who’s your professor?”. There are too many examples of why this might happen to list here, but just know that it will happen and you will be happy that you know it because the faculty or staff member will be better able to help you.

In short, it doesn’t take smarts to learn your professors’ names, but it is smart to do so. Take the time and discipline to learn their names before the first day of class, and always use it respectfully when speaking to the professor or when you mention him to anyone else who works with the school. It will only help you.

“You can’t be stupid and read a lot.” Five Habits of Great Students

Here is an interesting article written by two teachers from the top ranked STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) high school in the nation. The five habits the students of this high school practice are the same habits I’ve seen most of my top-performing college students use. Regardless of age, race, background, or socioeconomic status, these habits have proven to make students successful and smart.

Sarah Mulhern and Jonathan Olsen claim:

“The qualities many label as smart are actually learned habits, fostered by the parents, faculty, and administration who value them. How can schools and parents ensure that their own students are smart? We’ve noticed our students possess five habits that all children should be encouraged to pursue.”

But my favorite claim is, “Smart is more than numbers and letters on a report card — it’s a way of life. All students can be smart.”

Yes! These habits are just five ways they can be.


  1. Read often.
  2. Write daily.
  3. Be prepared.
  4. Collaborate.
  5. Question teachers.


Read Five habits of great students: Lessons from top-ranked STEM school for a detailed discussion of each of these habits.

First Year Experience Important Enough to Rank

Graduation Caps
Photo by j.o.h.n walker

You may have heard the term “first year experience,” or FYE, mentioned on campus or in some colleges’ promotional materials,  but it doesn’t mean “for your entertainment,” I’m afraid.

FYE’s are transition-from-high-school-to-college programs created to help students “bridge the gap” between high school and college and learn skills to be more successful at college. Both two-year colleges and  four-year universities are starting to catch on to the fact that students  just aren’t graduating high school college-ready. Requiring freshmen to take seminars during their first semester designed to teach them the difference between high school and college as well as habits and skills to be successful in class is a new trend among some institutions that are concerned about retention and attrition of their students. In fact, it has become common enough that U. S.  News and World Report has recently created a list ranking schools with the top FYE programs. See the list of the top ranked FYE programs here.

U.S. News & World ReportWhat does this suggest? It’s no secret that colleges are very concerned about keeping students in the classroom once they get there. Also, academic institutions concerned with their reputations not only want students to finish with degrees, but schools want them to do so within a reasonable amount of time. And, let’s be honest, colleges and universities need the tuition and fees of their students to stay open. When a student flunks, mom and dad don’t write checks to the college anymore. In fact, one family member failing could keep other members of the family attending said institution also.

Clearly, there is a problem with our secondary school system when graduating from high school does not guarantee college readiness. I can’t tell you how many former straight-A high school students I’ve known who had a rude awakening once they attended college because what worked for many of them in high school does not always work so well in college. (I’ve seen this so often, in fact, that I’m working on a book to help those students now.) Sadly, this problem isn’t allocated to a particular state or part of the country; it’s nation-wide. Otherwise, so many schools across the nation wouldn’t find such programs a necessary, and for many mandatory, part of the first semester curriculum.

The sad news is that these programs are needed at all. The good news is that many institutions are providing solutions for their students before the students find out they need such programs the hard way.

If the institution you’re interested in attending offers a First Year Experience or Study Skills seminar or program, regardless of the structure, sign up for it. The old student orientation tour of the food court is not enough.