This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
In October 1990, I finished my first in-class essay exam for a medieval European history course at Oberlin College. I had studied for a week beforehand and created elaborate timelines of historical events in my notes, and I hoped that my responses to the open-ended questions were thoughtful reflections about medieval European monasticism.
My professor’s feedback on the graded exam stunned me: “This essay is marginal. It is not clear to me whether the problem lies in your preparation and study methods or in the way you wrote this essay. Please come see me.” She scrawled a C- grade below those comments.
I recently discovered this old exam in a box of mementos. Although I took this course more than 20 years ago, the shame that I felt on that early October day in 1990 still stings.
When High School Study Methods Aren’t Enough
I always loved history classes in high school and eagerly enrolled in them when I began my undergraduate studies. It soon became apparent that I was woefully unprepared for historical studies at a rigorous college. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t realize that history would be taught differently at the college level. As harsh as it sounds, my high school history classes were lightweight. We used rote memorization to study for tests and I don’t recall any class discussion. It never occurred to me that history could be analyzed, and historical research methods were totally unknown to me.
College introduced me to a completely different pedagogical approach. My Oberlin history professors taught classes from an analytical perspective that required us to independently argue original hypotheses. I spent many late nights in the college library, rereading the textbooks and taking copious notes, using my old study methods that would prove to be ineffective.
I tried to visit my history professor, and even made it as far as her open office door, but turned around at the last minute. Even though my parents always encouraged me to ask questions, I was too embarrassed to approach her. My identity was that of a successful, conscientious student. Why was I suddenly not getting it?
My experience is not uncommon among first-generation college students. First-generation students usually have survival skills and a strong work ethic that enable them to reach their goal of attending college. However, studies indicate that first-generation students frequently struggle to adapt to college-level work. Asking for help can be frightening if a student is accustomed to achieving high grades, and suddenly requiring help can induce shame and anxiety.
Effectively Asking for Help
As a college professor, one of my greatest joys is establishing a classroom environment in which students feel comfortable approaching me with questions. Despite the professor’s best intentions, however, it can be intimidating for students to approach their professors with questions. Here are some tips that I offer students about how to effectively ask their instructors for help.
Although inadequate performance in a class can be difficult to confront, do not wait until the last part of the semester to approach the professor if you are struggling. By then, it will likely be too late to salvage a low course grade. You should take action as soon as you realize that you have difficulty with readings, assignments, tests and/or class participation.
I greatly respect students who proactively seek help early in a course. A student who thoughtfully asks questions and is willing to seek additional assistance from me or through our college’s academic support services demonstrates to me that he or she is serious about both the course and their academic progress.
It should be noted that you might feel more comfortable first contacting the campus office that assists first-generation students. I also encourage you to reach out to your school’s student support services or tutoring services office. In addition to direct support, that office can give you further encouragement to approach your professor.
Make an Appointment
Before scheduling an appointment, keep in mind that professors often indicate their preferred mode of contact in the syllabus or share this information on the first day of class. Contact your professor before or after class, or via e-mail or phone, according to your professor’s preference. You might also stop by your professor’s office during office hours, but don’t assume that he or she will be available. Also, since professors have many responsibilities in addition to teaching, don’t expect your professor to meet you outside of his or her office hours.
Make the Most of a Meeting
Preparation is key for your appointment. Make sure that you have reread the syllabus and understand the course and grading policies. Write down any questions so that you don’t forget to ask them.
Arrive punctually to the appointment, bringing the syllabus and any tests, readings, assignments or graded items that you want to discuss. Take notes during your conversation and schedule a follow-up appointment if necessary. At the appointment’s conclusion, expressing thanks for the professor’s time will help to establish good rapport and leave the door open for future assistance.
Seeking Assistance: A Sign of Strength
Although you may feel embarrassed to ask for help, always remember that seeking assistance from those who know more than you is an essential part of the learning process. College should be about intellectual growth, self-exploration and inquiry. Not only will your professors appreciate your initiative, but future employers will respect that you aren’t afraid to seek out the resources you need to do the job well.
When I rediscovered my history exam, I questioned why I had kept that test with its critical feedback. I suspect that one reason is that the test would always reminder me that I, too, was once afraid to ask for help. It took courage, but I eventually sought assistance, became a history minor and am now contemplating a post-graduate degree in history out of sheer love for the subject. Go ahead: ask questions, and remember that asking for help is a sign of strength.