4 Tips for Addressing Tough Topics With Online Professors

portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
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Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., has 15 years of experience in online education as an instructional designer, curriculum manager, and adjunct professor. She is also a certified career coach. Her work in higher education began in career services working wit...
Updated on January 21, 2022
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  • Despite offering flexibility, online classes can pose unique challenges to students.
  • Emailing your professor is one way you can get support for a personal struggle.
  • Virtual office hours allow you to get to know your instructor better.
  • Remember that you only need to share what you're comfortable sharing with your professor.

Learning online may offer flexibility, convenience, and a degree of safety during the COVID-19 outbreak, but that doesn't mean completing classes will be easy. It also doesn't mean the rest of your life will suddenly stop to accommodate your academic goals.

According to BestColleges' annual survey of online students, one of the top roadblocks to completing a degree online is managing unexpected circumstances and life events. Every year, this report finds that students struggle with not only balancing life and work commitments, but also reacting to situations they didn't anticipate.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

According to BestColleges’ annual survey, one of the top roadblocks to completing a degree online is managing unexpected circumstances and life events.

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In the online classes I teach, students experience a huge variety of challenges while trying to complete their coursework. These include things like providing eldercare, surviving natural disasters, getting married, childbirth, family deaths, starting new jobs, getting laid off, relocating with the military, managing a chronic illness, and undergoing emergency surgery.

No matter how well prepared you might be, there are many ways your school schedule can be derailed. And with the current pandemic, life feels more complicated than ever.

But your instructors are your allies through it all and want you to succeed. As an online student this term, you may never meet your professors in person. This makes online communication essential, especially for difficult conversations.

A middle aged man in a gray collared shirt answers emails on his laptop in an academic library.
Wavebreakmedia / iStock / Getty images Plus

How to Address Personal Issues With Your Online Instructor

1. Introduce Yourself and Why You Are Writing

Start by checking your course syllabus to find your professor's expectations for communication. Email is usually a great place to start. Basic email etiquette calls for a brief introduction.

Depending on the size of your class and how many classes your professor is teaching, it's helpful to quickly identify who you are and which course you're enrolled in. This doesn't have to be lengthy:

Hello Professor [Last Name], my name is _____ and I am a student in your _____ class offered online this fall.

Consider sharing a little bit about your situation. You don't have to provide a lot of detail at first, but it can be helpful to explain why you're writing. An introductory message might include the following:

I am writing to tell you about something I am struggling with this semester that might affect my work in the class. Are you available to talk about this?

2. Get to Know Your Professors

Taking the time to get to know your online instructors can lead to easier conversations. One way you can do this is by attending virtual office hours. Such sessions are typically offered through web conferencing software, such as Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate.

Office hours are often scheduled weekly but could happen less frequently or by appointment only. Check your syllabus or class schedule for details. While some professors use office hours for open Q&A, others plan formal presentations or lectures. You'll likely find that your professors have worked with many students in the past, including some facing challenges similar to yours.

Oftentimes, multiple students will show up to an instructor's office hours, making these sessions a great way to get to know your online classmates, too. Building strong relationships with your instructors and peers can lead to other positive outcomes, such as professional networking and career advice.

3. Don't Wait to Take Action

You should always assume your professors don't know you're dealing with personal challenges or unexpected life events unless you share these with them directly. If it seems like you're going to miss a deadline or be unable to complete an assignment on time, contact your instructor.

Before you email them, though, take some time to think through possible solutions you could propose to your problem or request. You might, for example, ask for a deadline extension or to complete an assignment in an alternative format. Don't be afraid to share your ideas for making the situation work.

Your email to your professor might look something like this:

Is it possible to get an extension on the paper due later this week? I'm dealing with an unexpected personal issue but would be able to submit it on _____. I realize there is a deduction in points for late assignments but appreciate your consideration.

You can also reach out in advance if you anticipate a problem might come up. An initial email could take the following form:

Dear Professor [Last Name],

I am enrolled in your _____ class, which starts next month. This year I am struggling with _____ [e.g., loss of my full-time job, a sleep disorder, health issues related to stress, a chronic illness]. My concern is that this may affect my ability to stay on track in your class.

I am committed to meeting the requirements of this course. Could we meet to discuss possible strategies and resources available to help me move forward?

Thank you for your time.


[Your Name]

4. Provide Updates

After connecting with your professor to share your challenges and brainstorm potential options to support your success, let them know how it's going. Have the resources you used been helpful? Do you need further assistance? Would it help to meet or talk about your status in the course?

Here's an example of how your check-in email might look:

Dear Professor [Last Name],

I am writing to follow up on our previous conversation about _____. I've been [working with _____ office / on my late assignments].

Share any details you can on your progress in the course and whether you need additional support.

What Should You Share With Your Online Professors?

The short answer to this question is anything that affects your academic progress in a course — including any personal issues. Even though "professors aren't counselors," they do need to know when you're struggling with class assignments.

Sometimes a live conversation is more effective than email.

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Email isn't your only option; sometimes a live conversation is more effective. Consider contacting your professors by phone or during their virtual office hours. Don't hesitate to ask for an appointment to discuss an uncomfortable topic, especially if you want to keep it private.

Mental Health America (MHA), a nonprofit committed to the early identification and intervention of wellness needs, recommends "shar[ing] what you are comfortable disclosing." In other words, you don't have to provide a detailed history of your situation.

Here are MHA's tips for speaking with your professor about personal matters:

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    Focus on the details that are relevant to your ability to participate in and complete course requirements.
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    Avoid excuses and be honest about what you're facing and what you can accomplish.
  • Check Circle
    Acknowledge your role in finding a solution and working with available support resources to succeed in your classes.

Keep in mind that some colleges require faculty members to report incidents of sexual violence and other criminal activity. Each institution maintains its own policies on this. If you're unsure how to proceed with a conversation, ask your professor about confidentiality.

Don't Wait Until You Feel Overwhelmed

The relationships you establish as a college student while working with professors and classmates are professional. This is why it's so important you demonstrate your ability to communicate professionally during times of stress, even when you need to address a personal topic.

Although the technologies we use to connect with one another online continue to improve, they don't recreate the same experience as meeting in person. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take to bridge that virtual distance between you and your instructors.

Your academic success is important to your professors, and there may be more flexibility than you realize. This flexibility decreases as you reach the end of the semester, though. What's possible will vary based on the class and the instructor, but you'll never know what your options are unless you ask.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.

Feature Image: PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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