Make an appointment. Your professor could have designated office hours, or may designate office hours “by appointment.” Either way, it’s a good idea to let him know you are planning to attend. This ensures he will be available and will prioritize your questions over other drop-in students. If you have specific questions outside of the course material, mention them ahead of time so he can prepare alternative explanations, if necessary.
Be on time. After you’ve made an appointment, be there when you say you will! You will leave a positive impression and both parties will use their time more efficiently.
Have specific questions. If your course involves problem sets, attempt to answer them independently before bringing them to the professor. This allows her to see where your train of thought may have gone astray. If you don’t understand lecture material, ask specific questions. “I don’t understand the Michaelis-Menton equation” is more specific than “I don’t understand enzyme kinetics” and is an easier place to begin. Branching into broader topics can occur more organically from there.
Don’t be test-oriented. Of course you are worried about your GPA. But if you use office hours simply to ascertain what is going to be covered on the test, your professor will not be impressed. These questions display a lack of intellectual curiosity that many professors, who have spent their lives studying these concepts, resent.
Don’t arrive with a sense of entitlement. In an ideal situation, office hours are an exchange of information between a mentor and a mentee even if it’s true that the professor’s salary may be paid in part by your tuition dollars (it may also be completely separate). Always be courteous and respectful.
Convey enthusiasm. There’s no need to pretend that you want to major in the course that you’re currently taking. However, an enthusiasm for generalized learning will positively benefit your attitude regarding the class and the professor’s attitude regarding you. Try to understand where your current course material may lay the foundation for more advanced coursework, or for on-the-job skills.
Julie Wolf is a postdoctoral researcher studying opportunistic fungal infections at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She is an enthusiast of citizen science and spreading scientific literacy, and she writes for Scientista and Scholastic Science World.