One of the first life-altering and costly decisions a student is faced with is the choice to pursue higher education after high school.
While going to college is often a rewarding experience in the end, it challenges incoming first-year students with many trials they may have never faced before, fostering moments of exceptional growth and self-reflection along the way.
College professors are pivotal in shaping that critical first impression of college for many.
They can not only cultivate an environment of comfort and acceptance for newcomers, but they are tasked with shaping the minds of the next generation: a generation who will invent what they deem to be a better version of society.
As a student who finished her first year of college this past spring, I have thought extensively about what qualities make the perfect professor. I have pondered what I want to see more of through my college career and what I hope the graduating classes who come after me will get to experience for themselves.
Through this contemplation, my mission is to compile multiple real-world examples of positive and negative qualities or experiences that I or other college students have recounted—providing valuable feedback for professors looking to better the course experience for their students.
Connecting with Your Students
While having expertise in your subject field is an essential factor, this means little when a professor cannot keep a stable attendance in their classroom.
I found that the classes with the most consistent attendance always aligned with the most personable professor who made efforts to form a connection with the class.
When I asked a friend about her own positive experience with a college professor, she shared with me an inspiring encounter:
“Keep in mind, this class was at 8 a.m., but I still went to every single class because he made it really engaging.”
Bringing a welcoming, relaxed, fun spirit into a classroom makes a world of a difference, and that energy means so much to students who may feel stiff and isolated.
In smaller, discussion-based classes, we want to feel like our professors have a presence in the room. Class discussions with no commentary from the professor typically don’t resonate well.
It may be hard to find a voice in a room full of strangers, so opening the floor by making students feel like their opinion matters is of utmost importance.
One student mentioned to me that her professor would use the first 10 minutes of class for students to openly discuss current events or even simply ask how their day has been going so far.
This time alleviated her nerves for the actual discussion, improving her performance and confidence when making points related to the lesson. Do not be afraid to allot time for casual conversation; eventually, it will translate to increased discussion engagement when it counts.
Not many of my professors knew me by name, but I wish they had taken more time to learn. There was a teacher’s assistant—not even the professor himself—in a fall semester class of mine who knew every student in his teaching group by name.
When I’d raise my hand, he was the only educator I can recall who could look at my face and know who I was. I was not just another student to him.
I had a face, a name, and it was clear that he cared much more about my thoughts, opinions, and voice just from that one detail.
Learning your students’ faces and names may feel like an extra burden, but it makes a significant difference to many.
As a student who moved to college with no hometown friends, hearing my name in the first semester was a glimmer of hope I had not realized I needed. That TA who knew me by name remains so memorable, despite being someone who I only saw once a week. It may seem like a small, meaningless token, but you have the chance to make people like me feel seen and known for possibly the first time since moving from home.
Listening and Adjusting to Student Needs
As for larger lecture halls, this level of closeness may be less practical, but there are still methods of forming a positive relationship with students in this setting. One of my spring semester professors used a tactic I’ve seen done many times, but never successfully like this.
Halfway through the semester, we were given an open-ended prompt asking what our professor could do to improve the class for us specifically —not for future classes, not for himself, but for us. After submitting our recommendations, we came into class the next day with all our responses projected onto a large screen. He went through our suggestions one by one and actively changed things accordingly.
I’ll provide an example for context:
In the first half of the semester, he projected a large wheel onto the screen that would randomly call on a specific table to answer a question regardless of whether they knew the answer.
Students suggested that he eliminate this method and rely on volunteer participation instead.
His willingness to listen to suggestions and come to meaningful compromises genuinely shocked and impressed us. We felt like our voices were being heard.
He promised us that if enough participation was given, he would never use the wheel again after receiving feedback that it gave many students anxiety to come to his class.
Many of my past educators have used this tactic at the end of the year, asking what can be done to improve the course for future students. The fact that our professor cared enough to allow us to experience our own improvement recommendations by asking for them in the middle of the course was so refreshing. In a lecture hall with hundreds of people, it is unlikely that every student’s needs will be vocalized; however, asking for anonymous feedback allows you to recognize patterns in your students’ concerns, so important changes that work in everyone’s favor can be made.
Boosting Classroom Engagement
I noticed that staying focused in my larger, lecture-based classes was much more challenging than my smaller, discussion-based classes.
A helpful tool I saw my professors in lecture halls use was throwing personal anecdotes into the lessons to keep things interesting.
Speaking in a monotone voice about the same subject for an hour is bound to create disinterest over time. Instead, a fall semester professor I had would tell us the occasional story or joke about her life or her experience in the workforce. They served as providing meaningful context to the lesson, but also drew students back into her words.
Projecting videos was also helpful in maintaining interest. In the middle of a presentation, my professors sometimes included a 2–5-minute video that boomed through the room with bright, vibrant colors. Switching up the method that students are consuming knowledge is so critical because not every student effectively learns in the same way. Providing multiple types of projects and lectures can reduce boredom and improve the overall retention of the subject.
Optimizing Classroom Support
If you are excited and interested in what you are teaching, even the most disengaged students can find a genuine curiosity for learning.
The difference between lecturing out of obligation and lecturing out of passion is quite noticeable. Of course, being an expert at a subject is a notable quality in a great professor; your knowledge should ideally expand past a textbook and venture into real-world application.
That being said, multiple students I have spoken to have experienced professors who prioritized breadth over depth of knowledge.
In other words, cramming as much information into a semester as possible seemed a larger priority than the quality and time devoted to each lesson. This would often make exams harder because it seemed that the content presented in graded assignments was only briefly taught, or it caught students off guard.
A great and easy way to correct this is simply by reviewing the general topics that will be presented on the exam beforehand, allowing students to study what is essential.
Another effective method of improving test scores is making yourself available to your students by maintaining weekly office hours and keeping up with emails.
It is crucial to write office hours down in an easily accessible place that every student can locate, such as the syllabus.
Office hours and emails give students a chance to ask questions one-on-one who may feel uncomfortable asking the same in the classroom.
One of my professors even offered bonus points to students who visited him during office hours at least once during the semester, encouraging the class to check in with him about how the course was going so far.
If your students feel they can easily approach you with questions and advice, you can serve as more than just a professor: you become a mentor and a guide to the future.
Tapping Into Emotional Intelligence
As we near the end of this blog, one of the most essential pieces of advice I can grant to you is to look inward and reflect on your emotional intelligence. This may sound strange because IQ is what we are told makes a great professor, but I would argue that EQ is equally significant.
Understanding your shortcomings and accepting criticism is the key to going from a good professor to a phenomenal professor.
In fact, being an emotionally intelligent person allows for any change in your classroom to be a smooth, easy adjustment. If you know that participation in your class is minimal, or test scores report a low performance, it is your responsibility to evaluate, discuss, and adjust.
Being able to navigate conflicts with empathy, respond to feedback constructively, and build strong relationships with students all come from your level of emotional intelligence.
While I actively search for all good qualities presented in this blog, the most prominent factor I seek in a college professor is the compassion and kindness to understand that we are all human beings who are working hard.
Even when mistakes are made, or changes are needed, the dignity to remain a sturdy handle that guides and teaches is an exemplary attribute of someone who aims to create a classroom legacy.