Getting the Most Out of Your Professors and TA’s

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

08 October 2017

The first of any 12 step program is to admit that we have a problem.

The second is to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore our sanity.

So when your assignments look like hieroglyphics, knowing when to admit you have a problem and when to seek your all-knowing, all-mighty professors and TA’s are the first steps to recovery.

Now, while coursework is the opposite of an addiction, we shouldn’t struggle cold and alone.

Since freshman year you’ve probably been told over and over to get help when you’re struggling, and maybe you’ve actually gone to office hours a few times.

My guess, though, is that you’re probably not utilizing these amazing resources to their fullest potential.

Here’s some rapid fire tips to get the most out of your professors and TA’s.

Don’t Be Shy.

Office hours are meant to be used.

It’s literally your professors and TA’s jobs to make sure you understand the course material. I’ve found that even the scariest and least-approachable profs are (generally) happy to help out.

I know a lot of people (myself included) who wouldn’t ask questions in class out of fear of asking a silly question, who wouldn’t ask the prof after class out of fear of pestering them, and wouldn’t email the prof out of fear of wasting their time.

Don’t let this be you.

If you have a good question, the worst thing that can happen is that you don’t ask it, and it bites you on a final. Think long term here. A few seconds of social discomfort for potentially hours of searching for the answer on your own.

As a side note, if you still don’t understand after it was explained once, ASK THEM TO REPEAT.

Too many times I’ve gone to my professor with a question and left feeling stupid that I still have no idea what they were talking about. Ask them to slow down, explain it a different way, repeat a step.


Asking GOOD questions:

If you don’t want your profs and TA’s to hate you, make sure you ask GOOD questions.

What’s a good question? Good question! To ask good questions, go through this checklist:

-Have I struggled for more than 20 minutes?

-What have I tried?

-Did I search through all my notes, textbook and online?

-Have I asked a friend?

-Did I pinpoint exactly the concept/part I don’t understand?

They don’t want to think for you. Asking lazy questions is a great way to get on your professor’s naughty-list, and they most likely won’t want to help you.

But! If you’ve shown that you gave it your best effort, and really care about learning the material, they’ll be more than happy to give you a hand.


Couldn’t find a royalty-free photo I liked that was relevant, so here’s a seal..


When it comes to office hours, timing is critical.

Timing can be the difference between reaching a wizardly level of understanding in a matter of minutes, and wasting what could have been productive hours.

I’ve been taking this approach to all my assignments this semester: As soon as I get them, I attempt as many of the questions as I can, to see where I get stuck, and might need help.

Think of it as a “diagnostic”

You now have all the time in the world to go get help. Too many times I’ve seen people leave their assignments until AFTER office hours have passed. What use are those now?

This can also allow you to get help during non-peak office hours.

Say your assignment is due on Friday, and office hours are Tuesday and Thursday. Everyone and their dogs will be packed into office hours on Thursday, frantically trying to figure out that hard problem nobody can get.

Instead, you’ll have figured out which questions you need help on EARLY, and be able to make it to the Tuesday one, where you’ll get far more out of the time you’re there.

Along the same vein, if you can’t make it to ANY of the office hours for some reason, don’t be afraid to ask to schedule an appointment! Most TA’s and profs are more than willing to dedicate some time to helping you out!


Use Email Sparingly:

Nobody likes spam. Nobody likes essay-length emails.

What makes you think your professor wants to answer your (way too technical) question at 1:30am on a Sunday night? They probably don’t want to answer your five, one line questions (all in separate emails, five minutes apart). Nor do they want to read your life story.

When it comes to asking questions via email, pretend you’re on the receiving end. Can you answer the question in plain text? (Math doesn’t go well over email) Would you want to answer 20 of these? (Profs get a lot of email).

Try to ask “one liners”, things that can be read and answered in roughly one line each.

And for the love of god don’t just email them with questions that are probably on the syllabus or will be announced in a few days.


Good questions to ask over email are things like:

“Can we make an appointment this week?”

“I can’t make it to class today, could I hand in my assignment as a pdf?”

“I noticed an error in the lecture slides….”

“I’m not sure what you meant by ___ in today’s lecture, could you clarify?”


Bad questions to ask over email:

“Could you explain your index swap in the sigma notation of matrix multiplication?”

“When is the midterm?”

“Are grades up yet?”

“I’m stuck; can I have a hint?”

“Could you explain how to do question 2.3b) on page 69 of the textbook?”



Showing up with one quick question probably isn’t the best use of an entire hour.

I’d strongly recommend keeping a running list of all the questions you need help with (assignments, problem sets, extra practice). Then, every week or a few weeks before an exam, just making an appointment or going to a non-peak office hours.

This will minimize the amount of time you waste bashing your head against the wall, and show your profs and TA’s that you’re prepared and actually care about learning the material.

If you only show up the day before a midterm, or show up only for help on assignments, they’ll notice.

Trust me, you’re not getting a letter of recommendation.


Closing Notes:

Seriously, get help when you need it.

Those gaps will only get worse as the semester goes on, and you don’t want to be crying over your text book at 3am the night before a final because you don’t understand anything.

I know you’ve probably heard all of this before, and nothing here was really that ground-breaking.

But how many of these are you actually doing? How much are you really getting out of your professors and TA’s?

If you have any questions, or anything to add, drop a comment or send me an email! I’d love to hear from you!


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