Imagine this…you’re really stuck on this biochemistry homework question and you can’t figure it out to save your life. Unfortunately, the tutoring center doesn’t have anyone who is proficient in biochemistry and Google is little help. What do you do now? Do you dare to compose an email to your biochem professor asking for help on the homework? Most professors won’t respond to that email, especially when you’re asking for the answer. However, I have figured out what tends to work (these tips even got my physics professor to help me study for an exam).
- Use the proper introduction.
It’s all well and good to say “Hey,” when you’re emailing a pal. However, that will not impress your professor. I have found that addressing the emails, “Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening, Dr. Last Name,” gets their attention far better than just saying “hey” at the beginning. As you progress through the semester and you get to know each other better, it can go to a “Hi Dr. Last Name,”. Whatever you do, don’t call them by their first name. Remember that your professors worked hard to earn their doctorate degree. If you treat them with respect, they’re more likely to treat you with respect, too.
- Paste the question you’re having trouble with directly in the email.
Do you know how many homework assignments and tests they write per semester? Just saying you’re having a problem with question number three is not going to help your case any. Now your professor will need to go and look up what exactly they put down for question 3 (and if it’s online, your question may be slightly different than the original). Save them some work.
- Don’t ask for an answer.
But that’s what you want, right? If you’re just looking for an answer and not wanting to learn, then you might as well skip asking your professor. They’re not going to hand it to you. Explain that you don’t understand it, but don’t stop there. Describe your process of thought for the question. If this means that you need to write out 20 lines of calculus, then do it. Show them as much work as possible, that way they know you’re not just trying to get an answer out of them. Always explain why you did what you did.
- Suggest a solution to your problem.
We’ve already determined that you don’t know the answer. But you should always include what you would do next. It may not be the right answer (and that’s fine), but you’re showing that you’re actually putting effort into figuring out this problem. When you finish suggesting your next steps, add “am I on the right track with this?”. See, you’re not asking for an answer, but you’re asking for guidance on figuring out a tough problem.
- Be available.
Offer to meet them in person, over the phone (or Skype/Zoom/whatever) if it would be easier for them to describe the problem in that format than writing it down in an email. Being considerate to what would be easier for them always helps.
- Conclude the email appropriately.
Once again, don’t just include a “thanks, Your Name”. Show as much effort in concluding your email as you did working on that problem. Instead, include, “I know you are extremely busy, so I completely understand if you are unable to answer. Thank you in advance for any help you can give me. I hope you have a fantastic day/week/weekend. Respectfully, Your Name”. Make sure to include your first and last name. While I might be the only Reagan in the class, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be more than one David or Sarah.
With this kind of email, you should get a reply from your professor. It may agree with your suggestion on how to figure out the problem or it may say something like “I would tend to think about this instead…”. As always, respond to this email with a huge thank you and include any more questions that you may have. Sometimes, you can even send them your work before you submit your homework after you have followed their suggestions to ensure that you did it correctly. It’s not that hard to get your professors to help you when you ask them respectfully and make it very clear that you’re not just after an answer, but after a method to get to the answer.
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