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I'm aware of very similar questions previously asked - all with good answers. These usually pertain to following up with a professor after a recommendation. My question is specifically about sending a thank you letter to a professor at the end of a semester.

My current semester is ending in three weeks and it has been my favorite semester by far. My professors taught their material really well and I was engaged non stop from the beginning of the semester. Among my professors, some assigned great homework questions, or lectured really well, or were very accessible during office hours. Overall, I had a great learning experience this semester and I want to express my appreciation because I haven't had a semester like this in the three years I've attended school.

I understand it may seem silly to question what is just a polite and appreciative gesture (I think it's silly myself), but I'm a little intimidated about the impression it will leave on my professors. I want to avoid the stigma of "teachers pet." For this reason, I've considered writing anonymous notes, but that seems creepy.

Kind of a light dilemma but I'd like some input because after thinking about it for a while I think it's an interesting topic. Thank you!

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    I think the vast majority of professors (and all teachers of all kinds) would appreciate a short, thoughtful note like this. No need to overdo it though. Even better, stop by their office hours and thank them in person! – Roger Fan Nov 24 '15 at 2:54
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    @StudentT Do you ever say "thank you" to a waiter? Flight attendant? Doctor? Salesperson? – ff524 Nov 24 '15 at 3:05
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    The professor was paid for doing it. @StudentT this may surprise you, but not everyone is driven by monetary rewards. Some of us find personal gestures very gratifying and they give us motivation to continue doing a good job in the future. (By the same logic, to answer your "why would you want to do it?", some students, and more generally some people, enjoy thanking people who helped them, regardless of whether that was done voluntarily or as part of a paid duty.) – Dan Romik Nov 24 '15 at 3:09
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    Such emails, when heartfelt and specific, make my day. If you're worried your message being misinterpreted (and I don't think you need to be), just wait until grades are submitted. – Corvus Nov 24 '15 at 4:14
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    @StudentT Good thinking. Last Veterans' Day, I was going to thank my wife's grandfather for his service during WWII, but then I realized that my grandfather's tax dollars paid his wages -- so f*** him. – Corvus Nov 24 '15 at 4:17

10 Answers 10

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In the academic culture I am familiar with, this is a perfectly appropriate and appreciated thing to do after grades have been released. (A letter at the end of the semester but before grades are finalized can look like an attempt to influence the grading process.)

I have received some emails like this, and I was very happy to receive them. They left me with the impression that the student is a mature, appreciative, and thoughtful person, not that he/she is somehow trying to be a "teacher's pet."

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    thank you! I hadn't thought about the timing of grades, but I think that was the source of my uneasiness. It's such a simple solution! – Adam Pollack Nov 24 '15 at 4:22
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    I have received emails like these, and even written thank-you notes. They are among my prized professional possessions! I am grateful for every single one. – D.Salo Nov 25 '15 at 0:21
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    @D.Salo written ones are by far the best. I actually hold on to those – user0721090601 Nov 25 '15 at 10:52
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    It may also be good to point out which things made the course so enjoyable for you: this reduces the teachers-pet appearance, and it helps the teacher to realize what he did well (this is not always obvious from the first person perspective). – Peter Nov 25 '15 at 21:00
  • Just to echo Peter's point: "I really appreciated the way you...." – GreenAsJade Nov 27 '15 at 7:07
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Professors are people too -- they appreciate if they are told "job well done, thank you!" emails. Most of us try to be good teachers, make the material and the way we present it, interesting to our students. It is nice to know that sometimes it works. So go ahead!

(The only caveat I would add is to wait until grades have been posted, so as to come over as sincere, and not as a backdoor way to curry favor in hopes of getting a better grade.)

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    I would personally go one step beyond 'they are human'. They are human and work in an environment where there is often very little in the way of positive feedback. – Jessica B Nov 29 '15 at 8:07
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As a student (many years ago), in the US I had a similar experience with a professor who really inspired me.

After the semester was over, I went over to his office to have a chat with him to tell him how much I enjoyed his class; even though it was the most challenging course I had taken.

At that time, I thought writing an email or a note would would not be enough to express my gratitude for what he had done for me as a student and furthered the interest in the subject.

We ended up chatting for a while in his office where I learned a bit more about his background as well.

It is one of those moments that defined the rest of my career as I always continued to be inspired by the way he was able to distill his considerable wealth of knowledge on a very dry and difficult subject into engaging course material.


The reason I mention the above is that he and I were from very different backgrounds (culturally and socially) and I believe if you approach the issue with sincerity; the words in your note/email will not appear as those of a "fawning teacher's pet" but rather that of genuine thanks and gratitude; as I sense the hesitation that prompted your question may have to do with making sure your intentions are conveyed correctly to your professor.

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As another alternative available at some universities, use the "regular" way of thanking: Thank the professor by submitting a favourable judgement in the semester-wise teaching evaluation. This has several advantages:

  • It will give the professor the same feeling of praise.
  • There is little chance this will seem over the top, or as an attempt at currying favour, as praising (or criticizing) where appropriate is the very point of the evaluation (plus it is anonymous, while still somewhat verified if the evaluation is normally only accessible to students at that university, possibly in that course).
  • The praise will also be visible among the professor's colleagues, and thus might be considered when looking for "best" (or at least apparently popular) practices.
  • The praise is aggregated, so rather than seeming like a one-off message, if more people voted favourably, that is a convincing indicator of general satisfaction with the teaching. Arguably, this is more useful for the professor to know than that a single student who bothered to write an e-mail is happy.
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    Actually, to do this one to a higher degree, just shoot an email to the department head or dean of students. I've had that happen twice because students felt I had gone out of my way to help them (I didn't think I had, but I digress), and it was very well received by the administration. Probably in large part because they normal field complaints, not praise, but I'd say they stood out in my department head's mind far more than anything said in my anonymous evaluations. – user0721090601 Nov 25 '15 at 11:05
  • @guifa: That might be culture-/organisation-dependent, but I could imagine such an e-mail might either drown in the loads of e-mails the department head gets anyway (as it is not constructive of its own and doesn't require an answer), or the department head will actively suggest to the student to go through the regular channels instead, because positive responses in the evaluation will be treated as a part of the normal process, whereas praise "outside" of the normal channels creates extra work. – O. R. Mapper Nov 25 '15 at 11:09
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    I suggest this might be additional to a thank-you email. The professor may not get full details of individual feedback (though comments should always be passed on). Also a direct email takes a touch more effort and thought than filling in something you're expected to fill in, and so carries more weight. – Chris H Nov 25 '15 at 13:08
  • @ChrisH: I agree it depends on whether comments are indeed passed on, and possibly on how voluntary filling in the evaluation forms is. I'm still not convinced of the e-mail part; as implied in another comment, I'd wonder what is the actual goal of the student by behaving so weirdly (yes, that's what I'd perceive an e-mail simply written to express praise as, if there is a "regular" way to express that praise that is, for some reason, not chosen by the student). At worst, I might become wary of accepting them for any projects because they might be prone to choosing an inefficient path of ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 25 '15 at 13:14
  • ... action (in this case, spending effort on writing an e-mail instead of simply using the evaluation form). – O. R. Mapper Nov 25 '15 at 13:17
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I think this is dependent on the culture you live in. Where I currently live (Germany), I have the feeling that receiving such an email could be seen as an attempt by the student to suck up to the professor.

  • Upvoted; being German myself, I agree I'd have a weird feeling receiving such a mail with respect to any of my teaching - at least if it is an unspecific "thank you" rather than a concrete statement about some particular topic that helped the student achieve a particular goal. – O. R. Mapper Nov 24 '15 at 11:24
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    I am german (and currently in Germany), and I don't really feel this way. If someone bothers to thank me because they want to, they will bother to write a nice reason for why they do it. (Like "I liked how you did this or that.) If they did not do that, then they maybe only wanted to suck up to you. It all depends on the wording (and, if I have more knowledge about the habits of a specific student maybe on that, too). – skymningen Nov 24 '15 at 11:44
  • Maybe my above comment needs to be qualified with some context: I am referring to settings where students are largely anonymous towards lecturers, there usually is no direct contact from students to lecturers within or related to lectures. As such, from the lecturer's PoV, a general thank you mail would essentially be an unsolicited message from a stranger who claims to have attended a given lecture (no way to check this, as there is no registration for lectures) and who starts praising out of nowhere. This is barely distinguishable from certain forms of spam and raises some red flags. – O. R. Mapper Nov 24 '15 at 12:28
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    @skymningen I should have been a bit more careful with the wording of my answer. I didn't mean to say that I think: "students who write thank-you notes are just sucking up to their professors." As a matter of fact, I can easily imagine a situation in which some might quite honestly feel grateful and just want to express that. What I meant was that the receiver of such a message will often not care much about it (at best) or be suspicious of it. And of course, I should further qualify this by saying that I don't think that everyone in Germany will feel that way, but I do think it's common. – Thomas Nov 24 '15 at 14:52
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    Thank you for your insights. I think it's interesting how responses differ culturally! – Adam Pollack Nov 25 '15 at 15:46
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While an email note might be appreciated by many professors, I feel that there are a large number of professors who do not regularly communicate via email. If you have communicated with the professor via email before, then email can be a fine medium. However, sending an email can be quite impersonal and the teacher may have difficulty putting a face to the name if it is a large class or the teacher isn't familiar with you personally.

The best way to thank a teacher is to do it in person (e.g. during office hours). If you want to show an especially appreciative gesture, you could nominate the professor for recognition (e.g. faculty awards). Really, though, professors appreciate seeing their students learn and hearing about what they liked in the class. So, if you could communicate why you especially liked their class, that would be quite welcome!

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    "I feel that there are a large number of professors who do not regularly communicate via email." Really? I don't know a single one below the age of 80 who does not use email daily. – Corvus Nov 25 '15 at 6:21
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    @Corvus I know one--a very famous one in CS, actually. www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/email.html. Since 1/1/1990, at that time he was 51, he has not used Email any more. – gefei Nov 25 '15 at 7:03
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    @Corvus you must not know very many professors. – farrenthorpe Nov 25 '15 at 7:44
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    Gefei, good point; Don Knuth is a famous exception. @farrenthorpe, having been one myself for 15 years, I would have thought I'd know a few by now. – Corvus Nov 27 '15 at 3:35
  • @Corvus yes I've been one as well and worked at 4 universities... and there are many professors out there who do not regularly communicate via email. MANY. Not sure what you stand to gain by posting a sarcastic/snide comment on someone else's experiences. – farrenthorpe Nov 27 '15 at 3:47
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I agree with most of the other answers that it would be appropriate to send a thank you note if you liked the lessons.

Now as a teacher myself, if I receive a thank you note I would also really appreciate to read what it was precisely that made the lessons so good. Knowing what students like in my lessons certainly helps in doing exactly those things again when I have to give the same lesson again next year.

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When asking questions such as these I have learned that the best approach is to BE YOURSELF.

If you want to say something nice - say it. If you want to do something nice - do it. Don't worry about the repercussions of being nice.

I had the same question at work. After my first Christmas bonus from the owners (it's a small company) I wondered if it would look like I was sucking up if I thanked them. I asked HR and she said she thought it would be appreciated. Using the e-mail they sent to tell me of the bonus I replied to all and didn't hear back from any of them. I asked again the next year, replied to all again, and heard nothing back again. So, if they don't respond to my gratitude does it annoy them? I hadn't heard of anyone else doing it and they never said anything to me about it.

The next year I decided that I didn't care if it annoyed them. I wanted to say thanks because I was thankful and I feel it is a good to express those feelings (regardless of the circumstances) - it's who I am. If they don't like it then that is on them. Being (sincerely) nice, in my opinion, is never inappropriate.

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I just today received a very nice set of chocolates for the teaching I did this year. Small tokens of gratitude really go along way in fostering good teacher student relationships and as Maslowe would tell you being appreciated makes you feel good.

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Personal discussions are always more lovely, and I always remember when a student tells me they loved my teaching/class etc in person.

However, in an age where student evaluations of teaching can make or break a new contracts/promotions etc, emails can be quite helpful for lecturers in having written feedback beyond the traditional qualitative student comments.

Any email a student sends me I keep a copy in a feedback folder. That way, if/when I go for a job, or a promotion, I can use it as additional supplementation. That might sound horrible (I know) but it can be really helpful when a lecturer can show qualitative feedback on their teaching from students who took time to say so outside of a mandatory (or not) anonymous survey.

So depending on where you are, an email might be better received, only in that it can then be kept and used down the track as evidence for good teaching.

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