Four Habits of Excellent Professors

I’m almost a Cornell senior, so it’s safe to say that I’ve taken plenty of courses–large lectures, small seminars, and everything in between. Looking back over the classes I’ve taken, and the professors I’ve had, I’ve realized that there are some core things that I really appreciate in a professor. Let me highlight them by giving examples and anecdotes from my ~3 years here.

1. Be an engaging lecturer! There are many ways to accomplish this, depending on the field.

  • I’ll never forget in COMM 2450Communication and Technology when my Professor pulled up Omegle (a website which pairs you with random people to chat with, like ChatRoulette), and had a complete conversation with a stranger in front of a lecture hall…to illustrate the psychological dimensions of online conversations. I’m not sure the anonymous person we were chatting with on the other end believed the professor when he said he was talking to about ~150 people…
  • In my entomology class freshman year, the professor took us on a “field trip” across campus to a beehive, where he proceeded to grab a bee, and taste its bottom to determine its genus. That is how you know someone is an expert in their field.
  • Every time we finished a section in AEM statistics, the professor would blast loud music through the lecture hall speakers and make all 200 students in the room do the wave, like at large sporting events. You’d be surprised; for a group of students learning about hypothesis testing at 9:30 in the morning, people sure swung their arms nicely.
  • Last year, my management professor jumped on a table and made the entire audience chant the fundamental accounting equation repeatedly: “assets = liabilities + owners equity.”
  • In 3 different courses now, I’ve seen the Coke vs. Pepsi challenge taste be performed on students to illustrate the importance of product differentiation in business.

2. Put all the PowerPoint slides on BlackBoard. This is a minor point, but it rings true–it makes the difference between a frenzied lecture where you’re trying to copy everything down, and one where you can just relax and enjoy the professor’s lecture, knowing that the material is available online.

3. Show you care about students, and see them as more than a 7 digit ID number:

  • I had a professor last year that opened up class one day by saying that anyone who didn’t have plans for a Thanksgiving feast was more than welcome to join him and his family at their home.
  • I wrote to a professor regarding a concern and he wrote me back a 15 paragraph email, timestamped at 2:30am. Now that’s devotion.
4. Make it relevant. Maybe this one is personal to me, but I consider myself an applied person who likes to learn the “real-world” applications of what I’m doing. Here’re a few examples:
  • I didn’t fully appreciate what we were learning in ASTRO 1101 about stars, until the professor held a night gathering at Fuertes Observatory and explained to me in the darkness what I was looking at in the sky.
  • My business law professor, a practicing lawyer during the day, always tells us about the real world application to the cases we study, and gives us anecdotes from his daily life at work.
  • Learning marketing theory was fun, but it wasn’t until Marketing Plan Development–when we had to spend an entire semester forming a real life marketing plan for an organization that needed revitalization–that I was able to put what I learned into action. Plus, I now know more about the New York State floriculture industry than you can imagine.
Some of you might read this list and think that I’ve just had extraordinarily positive academic experiences. My response: damn right–because I don’t settle for less! Luckily, most of the Dyson School faculty is fantastic, my major gives me enough flexibility to choose different courses for requirements, and I have no problem switching my courses around after a week, if I find the professor or the material to be less than optimal. I urge you to do the same if you can!

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