The importance of office hours

The Doctor is IN.

The Doctor … is … IN!!!Ph.D defense is complete, and you can now refer to me as Dr. Joe!! Thanks everyone for your encouragement and kind words along the way. If you’ll excuse me, I have some celebrating to do.

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Most of us have a few hours a week we set aside for students to drop in and ask questions. At my institution, we are required to have at least two hours each week that are posted somehow. I tend to post them on my office door, on my course syllabi and on my course Moodle sites.

Students use these hours to get forms signed by their advisers or to ask questions about a grade they received on a test or paper. Sometimes students drop in to office hours to find out about research opportunities or to ask for a letter of recommendation for a summer job or for graduate school. More rarely (usually just before a test), students stop by to ask questions about the course material.

If I had to venture an estimate of how many of my students come to office hours to ask about course material (well before a grade is given or an exam approaches), I would say maybe 10% of the students in a class. [This particular semester, my first year students are surprisingly proactive about office hours. I’ve had visits from half the class! This unusual class got me thinking about the benefits of office hours.]

Okay…so why is it unusual to have a sizable percentage of the class visit your office hours to ask a question about the course material when an exam isn’t looming?

Most often, I think students don’t want to seek out help. Maybe they feel embarrassed or even intimidated. Maybe they haven’t studied the material to even identify specific questions. Then, when they do have specific questions, it’s the night or two before the exam. (I do get a lot of email questions from my students as exams or major assignments come due.)

It’s a shame more students don’t come to office hours to ask questions about course material. Those students who do are often surprised by how helpful it is to ask a couple of questions and get that one-on-one help. A mini-tutoring session just for them. These students tend to find they are better prepared for the exam when it does arrive.

Another benefit, perhaps one a student might find to be a bit unfortunate, is that once you develop a more personal relationship with your professor, you are less likely to skip class.

AND, we professors get more of a sense of where our students might be struggling.

Office hours are an underutilized time for teaching. How can we help our students take advantage of the face-time that characterizes office hours?

What if we had an early class assignment for our freshman students that required them to come to an office hour during the first three weeks of the semester? They could come in small groups so you don’t need to set aside your entire week. Let’s say a group of three or four students come armed with a question or two from the course material. This can even be an early homework grade.

Or, later in the semester, you can offer bonus points or an opportunity for test corrections for students earning below a particular grade on the first exam if they come visit your office hours.

You know, I think I’m going to try one of these ideas out! It’s never too late to help our students see the benefits of office hours. I hope I don’t find that I suddenly have no time during the week!