What do they mean? How to translate your professor

by Brooke Engel

              I’ve never been more frustrated than when I emailed my professor for the FOURTH time because I still didn’t understand what they were asking for. I had tried everything— and I knew that I understood the material. I just couldn’t figure out what question they wanted me to answer, and nothing I was doing seemed to help. I was at a loss, and I ended up falling short on the assignment.

We’ve all had teachers who use words that are highly academic and often a little too confusing to understand. Sometimes, it can feel like your professor is speaking in a foreign language (maybe they actually are!). So what do you do when you have no idea what their assignments are asking for?

              Whether it’s a quick reflection paragraph or an end-of-term paper, knowing how to dissect prompts can be helpful so that you can show what you’ve learned. Here are a couple tips that might help:

  1. Find someone who’s familiar with your professor. There’s bound to be a student in the major (maybe even in your class) who has taken multiple classes with your prof and has succeeded—reach out to them and ask if they have any ideas or understand what the prompt is asking. Sometimes it helps to find someone who has already done the translating.


  1. Email your professor, or drop by during their office hours for a meeting. Professors are often well aware that their prompts can be confusing and will be happy to re-word their assignments or give you some insight as to what they’re asking for. If you still don’t understand after just one conversation, DON’T GIVE UP! Keep asking questions. Professors want you to succeed in their courses, but they can’t help you if they don’t know you’re still struggling.


  1. Come see a writing tutor! We can help you read through the assignment and highlight key ideas and questions that your professor is asking. We’re students, too! So we’ve been there, and thankfully we’re trained to help bring a fresh set of ideas and eyes to help you work through the prompt (but you have to get to the tutor station first!). We can even read through your responses to the assignment specifically to look and see if you’ve met the prompt requirements. It’s super helpful to you, and we love to do it.

Don’t let a pesky prompt stop you from doing well on an assignment or in a class. There are plenty of resources to turn to, but it’s on YOU to ask for help. We’ll see you at the tutor station!


Brooke is a sophomore studio art major who was part of the Slovenia Abroad this past summer. She likes taking long walks on the beach and singing songs to dogs to make them smile.

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