Partners with the Professor
a little known secret of academic success
by Donna E. Rickerd
Ryan Sawyer is a Rhodes Scholar, but he says he owes
it all to his professors.
Ryan, 28, a graduate of Seattle
University, was able to attend Oxford due to a Rhodes
Scholarship. He credits receiving the Rhodes to
his relationship to several Seattle University professors,
a university that believes that students relations with
faculty are as important as what they learn in the classroom.
But just how important is knowing your professor?
It is no accident that many of the keys to success
in college are well known. For example, keep a regular
study schedule. Take good
notes. Don't emphasize the social scene over long
term goals. But one of the best kept secrets is the
importance of the student/professor relationship. Why?
Because research clearly shows that faculty have a strong
impact on the students that they teach, and such relationships
are closely linked to learning.
More Effective Learning
When a student enters college, he or she finds that
learning is different from what they were used to in
high school. College stresses critical thinking skills
and complex problem solving. Success is related to effective
communication across the curriculum: reading, writing,
speaking, listening. Students are encouraged to question
(not just memorize and recite) and engage in divergent
thinking. They need to form their own analysis of material,
involving discussion, debate, developing opinions and
supporting them. Such a transition can be challenging,
especially to an older student who hasn't been in a
classroom for many years.
In spite of this difficulty, many students never come
to know their professors. They shrink from initiating
contact because of a felt status difference. Others
feel faculty don't have time for them, or would be inconvenienced
by questions. Some believe that seeing a professor means
weakness, or that it's a way of "earning points." Still
others shy away because of a perceived "professorial
Depending on the type of university and professor,
faculty may be more or less involved in research, scholarship,
publication, or academic specialties pursued outside
of the classroom. They have busy, diverse schedules.
Yet the most effective learning comes about when a student
partners with a professor. Independent study, field
research, and laboratory studies all lead to such collaborative
learning relationships. And many of these partnerships
are a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.
For example, at Birmingham-Southern College,
Dr. Dan Holliman, Professor of Biology, worked closely
with student Anne
DelBene, who was confined to a wheelchair and had
to drop his class. Her condition, viral induced neuropathy,
was getting progressively worse and had made her an
incomplete quadriplegic. But Dr. Holliman designed an
independent course of study for her in ornithology,
enabling her to continue her education. Now Anne works
at home gathering scientific research about Alabama
bird life. Anne, an interdisciplinary biology/psychology
major, is actively pursuing a doctorate. Her professor,
Dr. Holliman, who has worked closely with many students,
feels that these relationships are among the best of
his teaching experiences. "Too often we convince ourselves
that the closely guarded cell that we call the classroom
is the only place where learning can happen," he said.
"One of the most stimulating experiences for me during
my thirty-three years as a field biology teacher here
at Birmingham-Southern has been a one-on-one relationship
with my students."
In another example, at the University of Alabama, undergraduate
Karen Murphy worked with Dr.
Marian Lewis, a cell biologist, on a bone cell experiment
slated to fly on the Space Shuttle. The experiment was
designed to provide clues to combat osteoporosis and
other common health problems. The cells simulated growth
was to be compared to an earth-based experiment using
similar conditions. Karen, who had teamed with Lewis
on three other projects, was truly affected by the experience.
"The atmosphere was so intense," she said. "It was great
to be around people who truly love their work and are
These student/professor partnerships may result in
a special mentoring relationship which lasts far beyond
graduation. Such was the situation for Howard Segal.
By his second year at Franklin & Marshall, Segal knew
that he wanted to go to graduate school for history.
He was introduced to Solomon
Wank, now professor emeritus of history. "He was
extremely bright and interesting," Segal said. "Despite
my predisposition toward the study of history, he opened
my eyes to a broader perspective." Segal feels he chose
American utopianism as the topic for his doctoral thesis
because of Wank's influence. "It had a connection to
Wank's implanting in me the idea of looking at alternatives--in
the past and in the present," he said.