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Partners with the Professor
Discover 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 mystique."

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.

Mentoring Partners
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 so dedicated."

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.

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