in: Character, Etiquette, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

How to Be a Gentleman Scholar: Classroom Etiquette for the College Man

Vintage high school college classroom students listening to lecture.

“They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything.” -Alvarus Pelagius

College students often get a lot of flack these days — with seemingly everyone and their grandma saying that this generation of students is lazy, entitled, and disrespectful. Yet, such criticism has in truth been leveled at young scholars pretty much since the dawn of higher education. The quote above? It comes from a French critic…from the 14th century.

Vintage college students in dorm room taking funny goofy picture.

College students were plenty goofy back in the day.

Yet if there is not a difference in kind, there is one in degree, and it is true that the culture of college is quite different than it was even a half century ago, as is students’ attitude about their education. As historian Robert F. Pace documents, while students of all periods have been prone to flippancy and rebelliousness, most still saw college not only as vital preparation for careers, but as necessary for their “transition into adulthood” and “success, both in life and as an honorable gentleman.” Poor academic performance and hijinks that exceeded the level of boyish mischief would sully the honor of a gentleman scholar, garner public humiliation, and bring shame to his family.

Today, with the democratization of higher ed, a college education is sometimes seen as just another consumer good. And because the consumer is always right, students feel freer to act however they please — they’re paying for it, after all.

While I certainly won’t advocate wearing a tailcoat and monocle to class, I think there are very good reasons for adopting some of the manners of the gentleman scholars who have come before you, while adding to them new rules of decorum that deal with our modern advancements, like laptops and smartphones. First, classroom etiquette facilitates a positive and constructive learning environment for everyone — you, your classmates, and your professor. Second, practicing good manners in the classroom is a good way of practicing the manners and social skills necessary to thrive as an adult and as a professional in the working world. In short, good etiquette in college can help you make the most out of your education.

The suggestions below are based on my own time as a student, Kate’s experience as a community college professor, and input from my friend Daniel Brown — a current college professor. Dan is a Graduate Assistant of Middle East Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. Now without further ado, here are some basic suggestions on becoming the consummate gentleman scholar:

Above all else: You’re an adult; act like oneIf you’re in college, you’re likely at least 18 years old — the age at which you’re legally considered an adult. You may not feel like a responsible, grown man yet, but your professors will (or should be able to) assume that you are. So act likewise. The specific advice that follows basically tries to answer the question, “How should a mature, well-adjusted, courteous adult act?” Before you say or do anything in the classroom, ask yourself that question. I promise that doing so will save you from embarrassment and engender the respect of your classmates and professors.

Vintage college students sitting outside talking shooting the breeze.

Dress appropriately. Your clothes should suit the occasion. You wear a t-shirt and gym shorts to work out because you’re going to be sweating, you wear a tux to a fancy wedding because you’re going to be adding to the special atmosphere, and you wear pajama pants to class because you’re going to be…sleeping? Dressing up for class used to be de rigueur because the learning process was thought to have a solemn, almost sacred quality. Dressing sharp shows your respect for the power of education. It also shows respect for your professor, who will be more likely to reciprocate.

Dressing appropriately doesn’t have to mean wearing a 3-piece suit to class — it’s as simple as ditching the sweatpants and making a few easy upgrades to your wardrobe.

Arrive on time. When you arrive late to class, it can create a big distraction for the professor and for your classmates. So practice the manly art of punctuality by arriving a few minutes early. Use that time before class to get your laptop ready (and make sure the volume is on mute) and to review your reading and notes from the previous lecture. If you’re going to be more than ten minutes late, it’s better not to come at all (especially in a small class). The professor has likely gotten into a groove with his lecture, and your barging in will create an unwelcome interruption. If you absolutely must attend the class, try to slip in as quietly as possible, rather than entering the room with Kramer-esque panache.

Address the instructor appropriately. If your professor has their PhD, the appropriate way to address him or her is “Dr. ____.” They probably spent a decade of their life buried in books and living below the poverty line to obtain that degree. Show some respect by addressing them by their earned title.

If your professor doesn’t have his PhD, the appropriate way to address him is “Professor.”

If you’re not sure if the instructor has earned his doctorate or not, then stick with “Professor.”

Unless/until he grants you permission to do so, don’t call your professor by his first name, his last name (“Yo, McKay!”), or “Bro.” “It’s Dr. Bro to you, son.”

Come to class prepared. Besides helping you get the most out of class, coming to a lecture prepared is a matter of showing respect. The professor has likely spent a lot of time preparing to teach, so reciprocate by coming prepared to learn. Do the reading and have your assignments finished before class.

Turn off the smartphone and put it away. By texting, tweeting, and engaging in all other forms of smartphone fondling, you’re basically telling the professor that seeing how many likes your Facebook pic of breakfast (“Check it! IHOP has a pancake with a smiley face on it!”) has gotten is more important than what he has to say.

And don’t think you’re fooling the professor whenever you hold your phone in your lap and under the desk. Staring at your crotch and smiling isn’t normal behavior.

If you need to have your phone on for an emergency (wife’s giving birth, parent’s on deathbed), let the professor know in advance and set your phone to vibrate. Leave the classroom before taking the call.

Take part in the discussion. Many of your classes will rely heavily on discussion. In fact, a part of your grade may depend on your “classroom participation.” Besides helping your grade, taking part in classroom discussion is just good manners. As someone who has been in the role of teacher, nothing is more demoralizing than spending hours preparing thoughtful discussion questions only to face the sound of chirping crickets and blank stares. Do your part to help the professor’s lesson plan along by actively participating in discussion.

And don’t be afraid to disagree with the professor. He’s not God. Besides, he or she will likely want some dissent in the classroom. It’s what makes learning interesting and engaging. Just remember to:

Be respectful during heated discussions. In some of your classes (philosophy, political science, law, history, etc.) controversial topics will come up. Do your best to remain calm, level-headed, and a bit detached during such discussions. This stance serves two purposes. First, it’s a matter of basic civility. There’s no excuse for yelling or resorting to ad hominem attacks during a classroom discussion (or anywhere else for that matter). Second, it makes you a better student. Come term paper or exam time, your professor will expect you to thoroughly analyze controversial issues. This will require you to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular argument. If you’re cemented in your opinion about a topic, you risk not being able to engage all the pertinent issues as thoroughly as your professor expects, and as a consequence, your grade may suffer.

Don’t dominate the discussion or question asking. While you should take part in classroom discussion, don’t dominate it. First, you’re denying your classmates an opportunity to participate. Second, by raising your hand and offering a soliloquy after every question your professor asks, you’ll come off as “gunner,” “know-it-all,” or “teacher’s pet” (or all of the above). No one likes that guy.

The same goes with asking questions. You certainly shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t understand something, but don’t be the guy who’s constantly raising his hand with question after question. Your professor likely has a schedule of topics he needs to hit during the lecture. By asking an inordinate amount of questions, you’re throwing a wrench in that plan. Also, excessive question asking can get on the nerves of your fellow classmates. If you have a lot of questions, respect your professor’s and classmates’ time by taking them up with your prof after class or during his office hours.

Finally, don’t ask questions that are designed less to get an insight from the professor and more to show off your own knowledge of the topic. We know you gleaned a lot of info from the History Channel (before it became the Pawn Stars network), but you don’t need to share it.

If you’re using your laptop to take notes, don’t use it to surf the internet. First, by not paying attention to the professor, you’re showing him disrespect. Second, surfing the web during class can also distract your classmates sitting behind you. It’s hard to pay attention to a lecture about ancient Babylonian kings when the guy in front of you is scrolling through more enticing headlines on Buzzfeed (“10 Kittens That Look Like Hammurabi!”). And for the love of Pete, don’t ever look at porn while in class. A student actually did that when I was in law school. Needless to say, he got suspended. And if those reasons aren’t enough to get you to quit surfing during class, you’ll be a better student for it by focusing only on what’s going on during the lecture.

Vintage college classroom geology class rocks in front.

Asking the following questions might make your professor think you’re as dumb as a….

Things to never say or ask a professor:

  • “I need to get an ‘A’ in this class!” – “This is your responsibility, not mine,” says my buddy Dan. “I am more than willing to help you learn, because it’s my job and I don’t hold office hours for fun. But you have to work for it. This is not gym class — you don’t get an A for being a warm body. There is not necessarily a correlation between how much time you spent writing a paper and the grade you receive on it. In other words, just because you spent six hours writing a paper does not necessarily mean it’s an ‘A’ paper. If I’d said these things to my dissertation supervisor, he’d have spit out his coffee laughing and then flayed me alive. You get an A by doing the work, showing up to class, contributing to your learning environment and others’, and by exceeding my expectations.”
  • “Can I have extra credit?” “Whenever you ask for extra credit, you’re sending a subtle signal to your professor that the syllabus is flexible and that your grade is negotiable,” says Dan. “If there’s extra credit, it will be offered by the instructor. Don’t ask for it.”
  • “Did I miss anything important yesterday?” First, this isn’t a polite question…professors don’t hold some classes just for the heck of it. Every class is important. Second, don’t ask your professor for notes on what you missed. It’s not his responsibility that you couldn’t make it to the lecture. Instead, ask your classmates for their notes. It’s not their responsibility either, but asking your classmates for missed notes actually has some hidden benefits according to Dan. “First, it forces you to access the information from someone else who has probably already translated it from my lecture to their own words and understanding. Second, it forces you to interact with each other — often your greatest study resource. As you talk about the concepts with your classmates, you’ll better be able to synthesize the information.”
  • “Will you grade on a ‘curve?'” This question subtly hints that you’re trying to figure out how hard you’ll need to work in the class. As Dan says: “Spend the time you’d be worrying about this studying instead.”

When in doubt, check the syllabus. Before asking any of the above questions, and any other questions about the class that might come up, check the syllabus first. Most professors carefully craft them. Not only do they map out a schedule for the entire semester, but they also try to include answers to every conceivable question a student might have. It’s like your Bible for the class. Also be sure to take notes in your syllabus. It’s rare that it will go unchanged for the entire semester. It’s your responsibility to remember any changes that get announced regarding the schedule and assignments. You won’t be getting any sympathy if you go crying to your professor that you forgot.

No chatting and snickering during class.  College isn’t high school study hall. Don’t chat or snicker during class. It’s disrespectful to the professor and to your classmates who are actually trying to pay attention. Besides, grown men don’t giggle.

Don’t work on other classwork during class. If you’re in Business Calculus, don’t work on Chemistry 101. If you need to get other classwork done, just skip class to work on it.

Practice good email etiquette. Don’t begin your emails with “Hey.” Spell your professor’s name correctly. Use detailed subject lines. Use spellcheck and check your email for grammatical errors. Try to keep your emails short. You see yourself as just one person with one question, but remember that your prof may have hundreds of others students, all of whom see themselves just as you do. Reading through tons of novel-length emails and coming up with an answer for them is time-consuming and draining. So if you have lots of questions, visit your professor during his office hours instead of asking them all in an email. Answering several, complicated questions is much easier in person than through email. Civil communication ideally requires the same investment of time from each party.

Check your email. Apparently, students not checking email has become a big problem these days. (Which may explain why our laboriously researched and written post about managing your inbox fell completely flat with our largely college-aged audience. Sigh. Forever Alone.). However, your professor will likely communicate class changes or cancellations via email. So make sure to check it regularly. Also, if you emailed him with a question, make sure to check for a response and give a quick “thanks” for his trouble. You wouldn’t believe how far a simple acknowledgment and a little gratitude will get you with someone.

Vintage college students talking to older elderly professor.

Respect your professor’s time. Professors will often linger after class a bit for students to ask questions. If you have a question, feel free to approach your professor, but don’t monopolize his time. This isn’t the place to ask him about his complete thoughts on Plato’s dialogues. He likely has other things he needs to be doing, and there might be other students who’d like to talk to him as well. If you feel like you need to continue the conversation with your professor, visit him during his office hours.

When you do visit your professor during his or her office hours, respect their time by coming prepared with a list of specific questions. Don’t just show up and say, “I need help,” thus forcing the professor to spend 30 minutes figuring out what exactly you need help with. Also be sure to respect your time slot. If you have a 30-minute window, don’t ask another complex question 29 minutes in.

Finally, as just mentioned, don’t email him with tons of questions. And don’t get upset if he doesn’t answer you right away. You’re not the only student who has questions and your professor does have a life outside of class. Answering your desperate 11PM email plea will deprive him of time to sit by the fire smoking a pipe, reading a giant book, gently brushing his tweed jacket, and stroking his goatee. That’s what all professors do at night, right?

Before recording a professor, ask for permission first. This is for two reasons. First, in some states, a classroom lecture could be considered a private conversation. Thus, everyone who would be recorded would need to consent — that includes your professor and your classmates. Second, classroom lectures are often considered intellectual property of the professor. By recording it without the professor’s consent, you are in effect violating his copyright on the lecture. So ask before hitting the record button.

Take care of “business” before class, but if nature calls during the lecture, just get up and go. You’re a grown man. You should be able to plan out your bodily functions ahead of time by visiting the john before class (but if you had Taco Bell for lunch, all bets are off). In the event that you do need to relieve yourself mid-lecture, just get up and go. No need to ask for permission — simply leave the classroom with as little fanfare as possible.

It seems like freshmen feel it’s necessary to ask permission before heading to the loo because the necessity of doing so has been so ingrained in them from their years in elementary and high school. But professors prefer not to be asked because it’s just awkward to grant another adult permission to exercise their bodily functions.

Don’t put your stuff away until class is actually over. No matter how long your class is scheduled for – whether 60 minutes or 90 minutes – that’s how long your class is. Not 55 minutes. Not 85 minutes. So don’t start packing away your stuff five minutes before class. This has become a bit of a plague in classrooms today. It’s a distraction to your classmates and just rude to your professor. Wait until the professor says “see you tomorrow” or “class dismissed” or “klasse entlassen” (German 101, natch).

If you need to leave early, let the instructor know in advance. No explanation here. Just common courtesy.

Don’t let your parents intercede on your behalf. Seems nuts to have to mention this, but it really happened to Kate a few times. Moms would email to say their son was sick and ask about what they missed or inquire about extra credit to boost their daughter’s grade. College is the time to cut the cord and transition into adulthood; it’s a process that can’t happen without your taking full personal responsibility for your work and your life.

Vintage college classroom students viewing slides on screen.

Try not to nod off (or start surfing the internet) when your professor dims the lights.

Try hard not to fall asleep. No professor wants to look out and see rows of comatose students. Honestly, when it’s right after lunch and the classroom is warm, it can feel like someone shot you in the neck with a tranquilizer-dipped blow dart; keeping your eyelids open can seem nigh near impossible. Just do your best.

Skipping class once or twice a semester is okay, but don’t let it become a habit. We’ve mentioned a couple situations already where skipping a class may be necessary – you’re way behind in another class, you’ve overslept by 20 minutes, you’re sick with flu, etc. All of those are fine; life happens. In some cases (the flu), it’s actually much better to not go than to try to be a tough guy. In the midst of late night partying and playing Grand Theft Auto V with your bros, however, skipping class can become a nasty habit. Yes, it’s disrespectful to the professor, but you’re really hurting yourself, and your wallet. Don’t waste thousands of dollars on your education so you can sit in your dorm and play video games. You’re only short-changing yourself and your future.

Having a drink with you is okay (not alcohol – yes, I’ve seen it happen), but avoid food in the classroom. If you have a drink, be extra careful about where you place it. Too many notes have been ruined by spilled beverages in class. As for food, just don’t do it. It will not only stink up the room, but you’re almost guaranteed to make a mess. It will also distract you from paying proper attention to the lecture. If your timing is tight between classes, you’ll just have to plan ahead and get in a quick bite on a bench outside the hall.

What happens if the professor doesn’t have good etiquette? Some of this advice certainly relies on the professor having good etiquette and being respectful themselves. While the majority of professors that I’ve encountered are great, there may be some that don’t adhere to these courtesies. In that event, be the bigger man and follow these tips anyway. You can approach the professor with your concerns, or perhaps your advisor if your issue with them moves beyond the merely annoying into something that’s significantly impacting your comfort-level and performance in the class.

Any other tips on good classroom etiquette? Share them with us in the comments!

Related Posts