Does Your Prof Care More than You Do? Will Your Boss?

Posted by on Mar 26, 2013 in Communicating with Professors, General, Interpersonal Communication | 48 comments

Turned in a polar bear in a snowstorm (blank page ;-) ) for your last assignment? Did your prof contact you with feedback or a second chance? What level of care did you show in return?

(No major intro on this one. Student questions will be back soon. In the meantime, here is what I’m thinking about right now…)

In my Interpersonal Communication course, my students submit a question-prompted journal fairly early in the term.

The first question? “Analyze your communication strengths and weaknesses, based on communication competencies in the textbook.”

If other questions go awry, (they usually don’t–interpersonal communication may be hard as hell in real life, but it isn’t rocket science), I can typically count on students answering this one question.

Until now.

Student’s journal literally had a polar bear in a snowstorm on page one.

I was grading at night, so I e-mailed Student and said, “I just reviewed your journal. Am I looking at the correct version? The first question has no response. Is it missing?”

Student responded fairly quickly: “I didn’t understand the question. I don’t have an excuse. I figured I’d just get a zero.”

Student was honest, at least.

I replied, “The question asks you to think about ways you communicate with others, what is going well and what you would like to improve. There are a list of communication competencies in Chapter 1 that you can draw from. Why don’t you take another look and turn this back in? You’ll be analyzing your progress at the end of the term, so it’s an important question. I’ve seen you contribute in class. I feel confident that you know this material.”

Now Student, “I just didn’t understand the question.”

Now me, “I think I just explained it (?). Would you like to come in and we can talk about it further? Like I said, this is a pretty important question for the rest of the term. This is also your first major graded assignment. I’d like to see you get more points and I’m giving you an opportunity to do that.”

And Student again, “I’ll just take whatever you give me.”

At this point, I’m dumbfounded. And, to be quite honest, feeling just plain dumb for obviously caring way, way more than the student.

My final reply, “I disagree with your decision, but it is yours. We could get you up to speed and raise your grade. If you are confused, ask for help, rather than just submit work knowing you will get a zero. You wouldn’t do this in the workplace and then take the fallout, which could have serious consequences, right? There is another journal due in a few weeks. Let’s take a look at that one early and make sure you are on the right track.”

I’d love to say that this situation rarely happens. Another student submitted a required draft paper to the class dropbox a week early. It was almost too early–I suspected something was amiss–so I took a look. I e-mailed the student:

“Student, I noticed that you submitted your paper early, which is great. I see that it is missing sources and a thesis statement. If I grade this now, I’m going to spend time dealing with those issues that you can fix. Not only will your draft grade be affected, but my taking time on required items that are missing reduces the time I can spend on content. You’ll want my feedback for the final paper, which is worth four times as much. Since you are so early, why not add the thesis and sources and resubmit?”

I never heard from Student. The draft was not resubmitted. The grade was as anticipated, not only on the draft, but also on the final paper. These issues lingered until the last journal, which earned an equally low grade. Then I finally heard from the student: “Why did I get that grade?”

My reply? “There were no cited sources for your journal, the same as your paper. I e-mailed you to call your attention to this problem in the hopes that it would be fixed for the draft. I never received a response. Every paper this term has been missing sources and it has made a huge impact on your grade.”

Student didn’t argue that my e-mails weren’t received, and often, that will happen. I’ll stop with examples, but my question is this: Since when do professors care more than students? What kind of work ethic does this show? Where do students believe it will lead?

So what’s the communication lesson here?

Fabulous students, nothing in your verbal or nonverbal messaging should ever, ever give your professor the impression that you give less of a damn than they do… especially when any prof enables you to practice being better, stronger, or employable!

Speaking of employability, the first student wanted to “take a zero.” At work, a zero could mean “zero job.” There is no ‘turn in crap work and let the consequences fall.’

In both cases, a boss wouldn’t seek you out after poor work is submitted, steadily manage your process as you fix it, then cheerlead you to the finish. A boss would find someone competent enough to get it right the first time, or, at the least, savvy/proactive/assertive enough to seek out resources for help.

Of course, my recommendation is to be on top of your assignments so you know what is expected. I recognize that sometimes, this doesn’t happen. So if your professor ever contacts you about submitted work and allows you to improve it, your response should be, “Thank you very much for calling this to my attention. I must have misunderstood something about the assignment and realize that I should have clarified it with you earlier. I appreciate you giving me feedback and the chance to fix the problem. I can have this back to you in 24-hours (or 48… or whatever, but make it a short turnaround time!). Would that be all right?”

Then do it! Show your prof that you were worthy of him/her taking the time to care. Profs stop giving students chances when they perceive that their concern isn’t shared. Conversely, being able to swiftly apply feedback is a critical skill. Your prof could write about this in a recommendation letter if you keep the relationship amicable.

The interactions that I’m describing are a gift. The gift of a potentially better grade and a huge test of your work ethic.

You’ll want to pass that test to benefit your future career. That’s what college is about, right? (Psst… yes!).

Students, why do you think faculty concern is ignored when that concern can only offer benefits? Embarrassment? Genuine apathy? Disregard for consequences? Colleagues, what are your thoughts?










  1. Thank you for writing this blog. I often wonder why I care so much more than my students and am glad that I’m not alone.

    • Shannon,
      Thank you for writing. It felt good to get that post out there because the thought had been on my mind for a long time. I am glad to know that I am not alone, either! The question that I grapple with: What do we do about it? :-(


  2. Great message for current college students and the college-bound. It is also one that parents can encourage by urging their children to view their studies as a job with their position as student.

    • Wendy,

      I agree with you totally. Students can demonstrate these proactive, high work ethic behaviors before college. Professors love to have students who genuinely care.

      I appreciate you commenting!

  3. This message could not have come at a better time for me, as I am wondering, like you, why I care so much more than some of my students. It is nice to know that I am not the only one to notice this.

    • Katy,

      I am feeling very validated in these concerns, between the comments here and on Twitter. I hope that some students may read this post and consider how they come across. Maybe since they separate college and the workforce, they just don’t realize the correlation?

      Thank you so much for commenting!


  4. It took me a long time (been teaching 33 years) but I finally realized that there are a few students that are in college for all the wrong reasons-because their parents insisted or because their friends were going or because it was either that or get a job, etc. College is not for everyone and it does take a certain level of maturity. Thanks for addressing this issue.

    • Hi, Delaney,

      I wish this sentiment applied to just a few students. Also, the students that I mentioned, believe it or not, weren’t your traditional students. I am seeing this trend across different populations of students, not those that I would generally expect. With the first student, I questioned whether it was a self-esteem issue. Did the student feel that they didn’t deserve the second chance, even though I was giving it? The second student issue lingered all term, as I mentioned. I don’t believe this student fell into the “traditional” category either. I wonder what it is? We know that maturity can be an issue, regardless of age. Maybe that is it… Sigh.

      Thank you so much for commenting!

  5. Wow, Ellen, I can really empathize with this post, thanks for sharing. Often I have spent times reading student work laboring over whether I had explained something clearly enough because the work isn’t complete or incorrect. When I confront students about it, they look at me surprised or blankly, their apathy apparent.

    The advice you give for the real work and how they should answer when a teacher is trying to help them out is spot on. I’ve been trying to get my students to come for help earlier than the deadline, so it can come to me correctly. I am firm about not giving help the night before an assignment is due when they’ve had 3 weeks to complete it.

    At what point do us teacher types have to say it’s their choice and let them experience the sting of failure? And what do we do when it doesn’t sink in after the first couple of assignments? I’ve called parents (of course I’m secondary, not college), I’ve had conferences with the kids, but sometimes I just can’t get them to care. Advice?

    • Starr,
      You bring up a great point about how much time we spend with student feedback. I was taught in grad school that anything less than an A requires an explicit explanation. There are times that I wonder (many of us do) how much students read the comments. I know many do because I do a lot of guided practice draft work and the changes are evident. But there are times when I feel like I’m commenting and those words fall on deaf ears. I feel like I need to cover my tracks for those “Why did I get that grade?” conversations.

      I think we do need to let students feel the sting of failure, but, of course, I try to use it as a teachable moment (that doesn’t always work). In each of the cases I wrote about, both were non-traditional students. Both of the instances seemed justified for me to call attention. In my syllabus, I have a statement about my right to discuss unprofessional or disrespectful behavior that would not make a student employable. So, when I have to have those hard discussions, I try very hard to tie the bigger lesson in. I’m just as stumped about ideas, though!

      Thank you for writing :-) .


      • Totally agree, Ellen and struggle with the same stuff. To be honest, the kids I know value the feedback, always get an abundance of it. Next year I’m going to have students keep a long of feedback and when then submit their reflections, they will have to account for how they are working on specific issues they got feedback on. Need to make them more accountable. We learn as we go.

        • I really like the idea of having students loop back to the feedback, interpreting it and then applying it. That is reflective! I agree that many students do appreciate the feedback. Others never get to the point of having the strongest feedback because their instructor is so busy calling out the basics that they could have caught themselves–like my second example.

          It is good to discuss these things and process them with others who get it. Often, I have had non-teaching friends/family say, “Just fail them!” I do think there is a big place for learning from failure, but arbitrary zeroes without those teachable moments will never remedy students’ behavioral pattern (and the teachable moment might not either, but often I feel I have to try).


          • We always have to try, if we don’t, what’s the point? I still feel like I’m failing students if I don’t go the extra mile to help them see the light, but that is my own neurosis, lol

          • I’m totally with you. I wonder if there are studies on faculty who “slap the zero” and move on versus those who give more chances. Are students better impacted when the ramification is cut and dried? I wonder…

  6. Too many students continue to use the excuse they’ll do better when they’re getting paid for it. Of course, they don’t believe they ARE getting paid…through grades. Worse, they’re developing bad habits and attitudes that will follow them into the workplace. It would never occur to them they’re also wasting tuition dollars by not wringing the most from every class, assignment and interaction with faculty.

    • Valerie, I 1000% agree with you. In #STNT, I wrote a chapter about how students communicate work ethic because one student literally once said to me, “I’ll be different when I’m working.” My response? “Your work ethic in college IS your work ethic. It’s not necessarily going to change with a paycheck. Correct it here.”

      You brought up an excellent point about students needing to see the bigger picture of what the tuition is paying for.
      Thank you for commenting!

  7. Sad, really. I teach language arts at the IB level and see this attitude all too frequently. The apathy is astounding and the woe of many a teacher. These students will find out all too quickly what the “real world” expects. I tell them the vetting process in college and career will be a far harsher teacher than I have ever been. Most don’t “get it” no matter how many real life scenarios I share.

    • Hello,

      I am definitely seeing that my feelings are more universal than I anticipated. I was just telling someone the other day that some would say it is my audience i.e., community college. However, I’ve been hearing from educators who teach at all levels. This seems like a societal problem. And I agree about the big picture message–I face the same thing quite frequently. I am seeing so many articles on soft skills because that’s a huge topic for the workplace-higher ed gap. Maybe I need to start bringing more of those into the classroom to make the connection, rather than just saying the words (?).

      I appreciate you commenting!


  8. Ellen, first of all, thanks for this post. Like others said, I also empathize as a secondary teacher.

    I am going to approach your question about why students care less than teachers in college by commenting on the ineffective educational paradigm and “feeder program” that is our K-12 public, compulsory, Common Corified system. My seniors don’t have a CLUE why they are going to college other than that’s what everyone tells them to do. Everyone, thanks to RTTT, including the government, teachers, and guidance counselors, as well as the traditional pressure from parents and peers. No one seems to view college as a means to a greater end: either knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or job training. What you are seeing is a result, I think, of pushing all students to be “college and career ready” rather than all individuals, families, and communities to decide what one’s immediate post-HS plans will be. Yung people’s lives, from the time they are in 7th grade, is aimed at college admission. Once they get there… mission accomplished! College’s purpose is lost on many young people, and the testing environment in K-12 schools places a heightened value on a grade; when college admission is so key to success, and “colleges like” AP coursework, sports participation, leadership, etc. our teens are pulled too thin to do any one thing well: they are taught, if nothing else in secondary schools, to cut corners, to seek the easiest and quickest way out, and above all else, to do what they are told.

    I fear that until the K-12 system built on the Prussian paradigm is dismantled, your job as a college professor won’t get any easier.

    • Hi, Markette,

      Your comment really resonated with me. It reminded me of this piece from the Washington Post that a colleague of mine posted a while back, and I found it haunting: A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher ( I could certainly understand this feeling and I totally empathize with it because college profs get blamed by employers for students’ lack of preparedness.

      The issue for me is that the students I’m seeing with these behaviors are not just fresh out of high school students. The problem seems to be widespread, regardless of age, and that’s what is truly scary.

      I appreciate your thoughts!

  9. Ellen,

    I am not sure why students would have such a low regard for themselves or their professor. When I was in college, I know that I would try to take the time to ask questions, answer questions and would consider a professor as a person of authority.

    I wonder if it has to do with the students maturity level. I know that when I completed my college degree I was older (like yourself).

    The first time I went to school I treated the professors with respect, but I didn’t consider myself in the same respect as I did a professor. My lack of maturity allowed me to forget that I mattered when it came to my abilities.

    The students who answered you with such indifference to personal feelings might change their mind as they get older.

    Aaron Brinker aka DadBlunders

    • Aaron,

      Hi! I responded to your post in my head… did you receive that? Seriously, I thought I responded and didn’t! I apologize. What I thought I said was that you’d be surprised to know that in both these situations, they were not *young* students. What I wonder about that is the level of “deserving”–did these students feel that they didn’t deserve the second chance, even though I was offering it? Of course, maturity has little to do with age. We know that to be true. I’ve met young students who were extremely proactive and professional and older students who could not pull themselves together, regardless of how hard they tried.

      It’s a conundrum. I’m still trying to figure it out!

      Thank you for commenting. I’ll make sure next time when I’m responding in my head, I get my fingers on the keyboard :-) .


  10. It’s so good to know that I am not alone. Thanks for this important post. I hope lots and lots of students read it. Like you, I use the “if you were at work” rationale with students often. This works with attendance issues as well. They seem to understand the analogy. As always, thanks for raising this issue and helping students think about how their attitude can affect their future.

    • Hi, Vicki,

      I agree with you about the attendance issues. I wrote a post about this regarding missing the first day of work a while ago, likening it to missing the first day of class. I couldn’t believe how many students e-mailed me one term advising that they wouldn’t be coming. Shocking!

      I hope something shifts this trend. There is another comment in the string about what makes students not responsive to our teaching at that moment. I will have to ponder that question, too.

      Thank you for writing, as always!!!

  11. Ellen,

    I am waist-deep in this topic at the moment, as I write about these sorts of students as well. Because I teach middle school, I actually tend to write about the angry phone calls I get at the end of the trimester from their parents who are unwilling to see that the low grade could POSSIBLY have anything to do with their child’s failure to own up to expectations or responsibility for their own education. Thanks for this post; I will be reading your blog in order to catch up and will be subscribing to future posts!

    Thanks again,

    Jessica Lahey

    • Hi, Jessica,

      Thank you so much for writing! I have an almost middle-schooler and I can definitely see how the tendency starts early. I constantly have to reframe my daughter from placing blame outward and thinking about her role in outcomes. Kids at this age are not helped when their parents feed into the mindset that they can do no wrong. This perspective absolutely carries forth into later grades.

      Interestingly, my post contained a scenario of students who were not particularly ‘young’, which made the apathy a little more disconcerting. I wanted these students to want to save themselves!

      I look forward to connecting with you again!

  12. I think we’re asking the wrong question here. It’s not “why do students care less?” or “why are students inadequate in X or Y way?” The more informative and less polarizing question is, “what made those particular students in that particular moment feel so resistant to our great teaching?”

    Seen from that perspective, I think we can all imagine explanations, from quotidian to Shakespearian – a breakup, a hangover, the recent death of a loved one, a major depression, poor upbringing, bad attitude, a bad decision… some transient, some permanent, most unknowable in the moment to teachers.

    I accept as a teacher, because I remember what it was like to be a student, that sometimes my students are ready and able to learn, and sometimes they are not. I hope they will show up ready to play, and the very best do, but I accept that on most days of the week most students prioritize something else higher than the lesson I am trying to teach them on that day. The trick is to be there for them on those magical moments when they show up, wide awake and ready to learn.

    By contrast if we bemoan our students inadequacies and pretend that they are somehow inferior to the students that came before I fear we will be the ones who aren’t there, ready to engage, when the students show up with open eyes and open minds.

    • Hi, Tim,
      Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I actually had to think about it for a day. In this blog and in my overall tone of teaching, a key goal for me is to always come across as respectful toward students–despite how disrespectful they are to me, at times (and, believe me, I have had my uncomfortable share!). I had too many professors who used their power to denigrate students, and I never wanted to be “one of those.”

      I feel that the question of who cares more is a very honest and real question and I do not feel it is polarizing. When I look at this from an interpersonal communication vantage point: professors and students are interdependent… they need each other to succeed. They have to care at a fairly equal level. It is a relationship, a partnership. They each have to give 100% of their 50%. An unbalanced percentage just doesn’t work and harms the student.

      I 100% agree with you that we need to consider what made both of these students resistant to accepting my assistance. I received a message on Twitter asking me to consider that some students take zeroes due to family obligations or job responsibilities. I also have to ponder that lack of self-esteem or a feeling of “deserving” might have hindered these students from taking help.

      I think students need to know very pointedly that a class is a finite period of time. They signed up for it. They need to show up ready to play, and even if they aren’t, then “act as if.” And if that is still not possible, if the prof throws out a bone, for goodness sakes, engage enough to recognize the gift and take it.

      I really appreciate the discussion.

      • Completely agree with you Ellen: both teacher and student need to invest in the interaction or else it will be less fruitful for the student. As teachers we might be able to diagnose reasons why the student isn’t able to engage ideally (which can include things outside of the students’ control e.g. troubles at home), but I completely agree that student engagement with teaching is at least partially an act of will, and a key part of the contract of teaching for students to uphold if they can. Thanks for stimulating the conversation.

        • Thank you, Tim! I appreciate the conversation, too. Maybe you feel like solving the next challenging student issue that I just posted about this morning? A tale of two students, the same study guide, two different class sections, two wildly different tests… two wildly different grades. A tough one!


  13. Hi Ellen, I am an older student (43) that finally, after raising my family was able to come back to school. You will be happy to know that I care very deeply about what my professors think about my work and how I carry myself. I put 100% effort into my work. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that every single student in college is not appreciative of the fact that they have this opportunity and that our professors care very deeply about our success. I imagine watching your students learn, flourish, graduate and leave the nest of college is equal to my watching my children grow up and successfully move into adulthood in their lives. Please know that I appreciate every single word, idea, lesson and the time my professors invest in me and my success. Thank you! :)

    • Ellie,

      I’m 43 also :-) . I have many students who care quite a bit. But I also have a lot of students who simply give the impression that they do not. I’m not saying that this is the reality, but their communication–both verbal and nonverbal–gives that message. I am also a parent, but I’ve always been a nurturing soul (I was not raised in a nurturing family, so this is obviously my outlet!) even before that. Certainly, I love watching my students grow and I want to do every single thing to support them. There is a “sting” and a “hurt” when they do not match me in that care. It is not on a personal level, like in an interpersonal relationship, but I always wonder what could be different. Now I question whether this is a far more fundamental problem, or a societal one (?).

      Thank you for your comment. And abundant congrats to you and wishes on your educational journey!

  14. I wonder about this every day. Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you, Carrie. I am right there with you :-) .

  15. Hi Ellen and all thoughtful commentators.

    I’m a fourth year combined Honours student, and I maintain very respectable grades. I’m sure my take on this article likely won’t be new information to you (as you have also been in my shoes!), but my experience is as follows:

    Often the expectations that I set for myself – or that I feel others have of me – can be overwhelming. Depending on your course load and the classes you have in any one term, often one course becomes the one that is overshadowed by all the others. I think can explain a lot of your experience.

    You mention that your course is Interpersonal Communications, and makes use of journal entries; you also mention that this particular entry was early in the semester. Jut curious: what year is this course? What is the faculty? And is it a required course for any program? I think many students take these things into account when deciding whether or not to throw an assignment to the (polar) bears.

    • Hi, Adam,

      I am sorry for the delay in my response. I appreciate you writing.

      First of all, congratulations on your achievements! To answer your questions: My course is a 200-level, I am the only one who teaches this particular course right now. It is a Humanities or elective fulfillment.

      I agree with you that some students make strategic decisions about what to do or not do academically based on their course load and whether they perceive the course as “important.” In both of these cases (and many others), I didn’t get that students were making those types of decisions. It just seemed like they gave up even though I was clearly offering help. This is when I become confounded by such a decision. If a prof is directly offering help or giving a second chance, why wouldn’t someone capitalize on that? The gesture only stands to improve every possible situation.

      Again, thank you for your insights. It is important for me to hear students’ perspectives and maybe I can ask more direct questions of my students now based on your feedback.


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  17. Ellen, I’m a student and there are a lot of my friends who do that all these kids that do that that I know are kids who still live with their parents and have a lot of money but in my experience I think that teachers really care about a student grade because when a teacher sees a student that has a bad grade or misses something, I think that the teacher gets disappointed that a student gets something wrong on an assignment she will start feeling bad for the student for throwing his life away but in my opinion I respect a teacher who actually cares about a students grade more than the student

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  19. I am a college student. I am also a 30 year old combat veteran with extensive work experience before and after the military. I also have more obligations than just school. I also most likely have more work experience than most of my professors. I recently sold a business that I owned and decided to adjust my career focus to better align with my interests, so I’m attending a university as an undergraduate. I really don’t need my professor’s career advise though. I sometimes don’t finish assignments or don’t complete an assignment to standard because I have to choose what I need to do based on opportunity cost analysis and priority of my other obligations. I’m not saying this to be mean or discourage you from caring about your students success, as my situation is a little different. Either way though, the reality of it is that students pay to attend the university. That being the case, it really isn’t the concern of the professor to ensure employability of students or how they will do in their careers. Also, considering that students pay for school, and in turn their professor’s salary, that would really make me the professor’s boss as I am their employer. With that in mind, I would council the professor to do what I am paying them to do and teach me the information that I am paying to learn. If I need career advise or a pep talk I will hire a staffing expert and a personal trainer. I do appreciate that you care so much though. That is a great personal trait and it truly does make you a good person.

    • Thanks for your insights, Josh. Certainly, every student is different and has different motivations. You are correct–if you choose not to complete an assignment based on competing priorities, that’s your choice. However, you are also a non-traditional student (in other words, adult student, returning, etc.). You know full well that you are making those decisions. I believe a lot of students make the decisions to not complete work on much lesser criteria.

      I appreciate your thoughts that students are the “boss” because they pay tuition that pays my salary. In theory, I suppose that would be true. However, given the fact that there is evaluation involved i.e., grades, the dynamic is similar to the work environment. And, you and I both know that at work, your superior can’t care more about performance than the employee. That won’t go anywhere positive.

      What’s interesting is that you said I’m a good person with a great personal trait because I do care about students. I appreciate that, but I’m not anything special with that quality. I feel that caring about students is my job. If I’m not going to care, then I shouldn’t be in this business.

      Not surprisingly, many professors/teachers, after teaching for a while, can become hardened and disillusioned by enough excuses, unfinished work, and that idea of “caring more.” Then, students with legitimate issues can’t catch a break because the professor/teacher is just “done.” I’m not saying that this is right, but very true.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective and I wish you well in your academic journey.

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  1. Apathy – Does Your Prof Care More than You Do? Will Your Boss? | JE Baugh - [...] Bremen has written a powerful indictment of the entitlement culture rampant among youth.  As a high school teacher, I ...

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