If Your Prof Sends a Cryptic Message, You Deserve a Translation

Posted by on Aug 6, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General | 4 comments

Trying to decode your prof's message? Ask! Photo credit: Eustatiub

(On the heels of the recent grade dispute posts, another e-mail arrived with a student question about a failing grade. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough details yet to adequately present this situation, but one piece concerned me. I’ll focus on that part now and elaborate on the specifics once I have further information).

“I do not plan to fail anyone. That’s all I’ll say.”

This was a response that a student apparently received from a professor, via e-mail, when asked why they failed their course and if there is anything they can do about it.

Haven’t we all been on the giving or receiving end of this type of communication?

When I was a student, I absolutely remember asking a prof a question and receiving some response that made absolutely no sense, or that didn’t answer my question, or that left me with more questions than answers.

Even now, as a non-college student, e-mail comments (or statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) come my way that fall into the “things that make you go ‘hmm’” category (Am I the only one who remembers that song… and liked it?).

And, yes, there are times that I am the sender of those messages, even when I am trying so very hard to be clear.

When I was writing Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, I was very candid in the fact that many profs become frustrated, tired of student excuses, disillusioned by student behavior. And, at times, this comes out in our communication with unclear, cryptic messages, like the one that this student received (and I call it cryptic because the comment could be interpreted in numerous ways). Other profs’ enjoyment of power/status leaks out in their communication; they don’t feel a need to answer to students’ concerns and believe that students should know why they failed. For some profs, the reason for a message like this is completely benign: We send our messages in a hurry. It’s not a good excuse, but when trying to respond quickly, what we’re trying to say can be less clear. Then, of course, it takes more time later to untangle what we attempted to say and get to the real content.

Regardless of what your professor is thinking, you deserve to have your questions answered in a way that makes sense to you.

So what’s the communication lesson here?

As I said in the preface, I am currently in the dark about the situation leading to this student’s failure, and, hence, to this professor’s comment. However, when a student asks me why he/she failed, even if I know that the reason should be abundantly clear to the student (because the gradebook is transparent on BlackBoard), I will still send an e-mail with highlights of what led to the outcome. Prolonging the exchange by sending confusing, veiled messages doesn’t do anyone any good.

What I would recommend to this student is to go back to the professor and say, “I understand that professors do not intend to fail students. (You can say that ‘I take responsibility for the outcome’ or simply say ‘I did fail this class/am failing this class.’) Please explain how this statement pertains to my specific situation. I am trying to understand why I failed/if there is anything I can do (or whatever your exact question is).”

If the exchange happened via e-mail or other electronic means, taking the “richness” up a notch can help tremendously: Schedule an in-person meeting or get on the phone. You’ll have the benefit of body language and tone, which will help tremendously. The meeting may feel uncomfortable if you’re talking about a failing grade, but enduring a series of e-mail exchanges isn’t exactly joyful either.

If you find that you are still perplexed by what you are hearing/reading, keep asking for clarity until you comprehend what you are being told (and, no, this doesn’t mean until you get an answer that you like). You can say, “I’m sorry, I’m not following what you are saying. Can you explain it in a different way?”

You can also try paraphrasing, which is offering up your interpretation of the original message and asking if you are correct in that interpretation: “I think you’re saying that _______________________. Am I understanding you correctly?”

Always remember that your nonverbals, such as your tone, play a huge role in the other person’s reaction and their desire to clear up any misunderstandings. So, if the student sends a response with a biting overtone, i.e., “Yeah, I get that you don’t plan to fail students, but I did fail”, the prof may be less inclined to help. You always have to look at the bigger picture of how to communicate in a professional, assertive way that will get the problem solved, maintain the relationship (in case you need to connect with that person again later–on a college campus, it could happen), and get your needs met.

Wonderful student, I realize that when a prof, or anyone in a position of authority, sends a message with a questionable translation, it can be intimidating to call that person on their communication and find out what they really meant to say.

You have to do it, though. If you don’t, you miss out on critical information you may need regarding an assignment, grades, or other components of your college success. Plus that, your professor needs to realize that clearer, more comprehensible communication is in order.

I’m going to speak for myself when I say that we all need those reminders from time to time.



  1. It’s time to a friendly relation between professors and students

    • Thank you! I totally agree. :-) Ellen

  2. It is challenging to get knowledgeable guys and ladies with this topic, nevertheless, you be understood as there as far more you are preaching about! Thanks

  3. Very interesting subject , thanks for putting up. Everything in the world may be endured except continued prosperity. by Johann von Goethe.

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