Office hours: An underutilized teaching time

Sometimes it seems that no matter when I hold office hours, the majority of my students are otherwise occupied. Even when I hold office hours in the evening, although more do show up in the evening. Even when I poll the students and take a class vote on office hours. What’s with that? Why do students come to office hours? Why don’t they?

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Why students come to office hours:

  1. To get forms signed during registration or during the add/drop period. Often these are just drive-by encounters.
  2. To ask for a letter of recommendation or to get career advice.
  3. To discuss a (disappointing) grade received on an assignment. I think in my 20+ years of teaching I’ve never had a student come to office hour and say, “Wow! I’m so happy I did well on that assignment! Can we look at this together?”  In contrast, many students have visited and have said, “I thought I did well on that assignment. Clearly, I just don’t know what you expected. It wasn’t clear. Will you tell me why I didn’t get full credit here? Can we go over the assignment?”
  4. To ask questions about material the week of an exam or assignment. Along the lines of….”Do we need to know x for the exam? Or, can you go over y again?”
  5. To ask for an extension on an upcoming assignment. More often these days, though, students send email rather than have a face-to-face on this.
  6. To discuss making up missed work because of illness or athletic events or other, less reasonable, reasons.
  7. Once in a blue moon a student comes to office hours to talk about the course material or to bring in an article that extends the course material. (Wo, an intellectual reason.)

Why most students don’t come to office hours:

  1. They are not required to.
  2. They are satisfied with their grade in the course.
  3. They are intimidated or don’t want to be the center of your attention.
  4. They are embarrassed by how they are doing in your course.
  5. They feel helpless about improving their performance in your course.
  6. They hate your course and so, by extension, you.
  7. They really are busy all the times you offer them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about office hours lately. They are a great opportunity to get to know your students and to talk with them about their progress in your course or to learn more about their connections (or lack thereof) with the course material. I think it’s particularly important to encourage those students who don’t attend office hours to do so (don’t you find the second list a little worrisome?). Many of us don’t really regulate our office hours. We post a schedule, we announce them in class. It’s up to them to show up. Most will only show up under duress. And maybe, sometimes, we secretly hope no one shows up so we can get some work done…

I’m thinking that maybe I will require my next batch of intro students to attend at least one office hour during the first half of the term. This way, the office hour is incorporated into the course. There can be a set agenda…students would come in prepared with a question relating to the course material. (Not of the, “Do we need to know this?” type.) Or maybe a question relating to the field of study, or careers in that field, or connections to that field. Or maybe require a student conference after the first exam or assignment, for every student, to discuss study strategies that worked and didn’t work. The conferences could be 15 minutes each. You could even bring in a sign up sheet to distribute the students across a couple of weeks.

What about those students who can’t make your office hours? One idea I’ve been mulling around lately is holding online office hours, using Skype or even Facetime. Of course, there’s always the individual appointment. Most of the time, there’s some time when a face to face meeting is possible.

By encouraging your first year students to come see you outside of class, you might just lower the barrier for them to seek you out as the semester gets more challenging for them.

Here at Vassar, faculty are expected to offer two hours’ worth of office hours each week. If you are teaching two or three courses, for a total of about 60 students, along with about 20 or more advisees, two hours just doesn’t cut it, particularly if you want to encourage your students to come in for a face to face with you. You might want to incorporate some course-specific office hours into the class meeting time once or twice during the term. I once used a lab period in the spring term, which is longer than the fall term by about a week, to schedule in “conference” times to meet with students about their lab projects. These short individual sessions were very helpful to the students- well worth the lab time.

Cornell University’s Learning Strategies Center has an information sheet advising students about the importance and benefits of office hours: