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LAS Teaching Academy: Making the Most of Office Hours

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The flow of students attending formal office hours can range from zero (early in the semester) to a number beyond what can be accommodated in one day (around exams). While faculty are busy researching, writing and giving lectures, most faculty find spending one-on-one time with students extremely rewarding. Faculty can schedule office hours in a variety of ways. For example, if you are on campus most days, you may opt to hold multiple, short-term office hours, for example from 8:30a-9:00a or from 3:00p-3:30p Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Otherwise, you might opt for longer office hours twice a week, such as on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:00-3:00p. Office hours immediately following class are often most likely to generate student response, as questions or concerns can be addressed immediately and students do not have to make a special trip to meet with a faculty member.

Face-to-Face Office Hours

In general, there are three main reasons to hold face-to-face office hours.

Faculty help students by:

  1. Facilitating deeper learning for students who are excelling by sharing advanced resources and engaging in critical dialogue with them.
  2. Coaching students, before they have performance problems, who are having difficulty grasping key concepts or who need help clarifying the demands of an assignment.
  3. Spending individual time with a student who is performing poorly in class to learn how you can assist and guide him/her.

When students visit you for individual appointments, they are able to ask very pointed questions, tied directly to their learning. This one-to-one interaction can augment student learning a great deal. Although students have the opportunity to ask questions in class, they may be reticent to do so, because they fear looking silly in front of their peers or ill-informed. In the privacy of your office, their comfort level may increase as they are not concerned about their peers’ reactions. Also, as an instructor, during office hours you do not feel your own internal pressure to adhere to the day’s lecture plan, so you can offer more reflective responses to student questions.

Virtual Office Hours and Cyber-Communication

While there are thoughtful reasons to offer face-to-face office hours, an argument can also be made for supplementing face-to-face office hours with virtual office hours and cyber-communication. For faculty that opt to use technology, LASTA encourages faculty to offer both face-to-face office hours and, when possible, supplemental virtual office hours as a way to fully meet student needs.

Email, Chats and Discussion Boards and Instant Messaging (IM)

Email, chats/discussion boards and IM offer convenient and quick means for you to communicate with your students. In general, these cyber tools are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer “easy answers to easy questions.” Easy questions, prompting easy answers, might include: “By what time is the assignment due?”, “How should I display how I solved the math problems?”, “I was unable to complete my lab experiment. When is my next opportunity?”, and “How many references do I need for this assignment?” Having said this, be aware that some situations are best handled face-to-face. Some examples are as follows: If you and your student are sending lots of messages back and forth around a key course concept, you may both decide that a brief in-person conversation is warranted to save time and energy and to minimize confusion; when addressing performance issues and giving feedback to a student, a face-to-face meeting is more conducive to learning; and lastly, discussions around idea-formation make the most sense when handled in person.

Marketing Office Hours

Given your status, students may feel intimated to come and meet with you individually or believe that they must visit a teaching assistant associated with a course before visiting the instructor. As with many academic resources, students need to hear about them frequently and via different means. Here are a few ways to “plug” your office hours and make them appealing to students.

  • Be sure that your office hours are prominently listed on your syllabus and course website.
  • Clearly post your office hours on your office door. Please ask your department to leave a note on your door when you need to cancel office hours due to emergencies, such as illness. One can inadvertently ‘teach’ students NOT to attend office hours if they are frequently cancelled.
  • During class, encourage students to utilize office hours and cyber-communication. Highlight how a brief face-to-face meeting with the professor or a quick email can save a student significant time and frustration concerning an exam or assignment.

Note: When using cyber-communication and virtual office hours, be sure to give students guidelines on how and when to utilize cyber-communication most effectively. For example, inform students of your turn-around time for emails to avoid situations such as a student emailing you Monday night for advice on a paper due Tuesday! You might be in bed for the night, and the student is just starting his work.

Working with Students in your Office

Generally, students participate in office hours because they have a specific question, request or concern to raise. Most students, especially first year students, can benefit from a few ground rules on how to prepare for a meeting with a professor. Through your syllabus and in your class, remind students how to prepare for your office hours. If they have problems or questions regarding an assignment or test, they should bring these materials to the meeting. If they need to review a key concept, they should bring their notes and textbook to your office. By laying these types of ground rules, you will help students learn how to make the most of these one-to-one sessions with you.

Typical Problems Encountered During Office Hours

Student is having performance problems in your class, and the root cause is unclear.
Reflect on the role that you can play in students’ lives. Some professors have more competency in helping students through difficulties than others. As a professor, you may have honed your skills in active listening and problem-solving. Listening to your student discuss his/her problem areas, you offer some suggestions as to which campus resources may be most helpful. Be mindful that your dialogue and guidance should be aimed at helping your student make the most of your class by maximizing learning. For example, a student who has trouble completing a written assignment can benefit from a variety of resources: the writing center can help with the mechanics of writing, the counseling center can assist with study skills and time management, or additional office hours with you might be warranted, as you and the student decide that s/he needs to more fully comprehend the demands of the assignment.

There are certain instances where you definitely need to refer a student to university resources. As you determine that the student needs help beyond your expertise, remember to listen empathically as you talk with the student. When a student opens up and then feels heard by you, s/he is much more likely to accept a suggestion to seek additional help. A sure-fire response that will make a student retreat from seeking help is for the professor to abruptly say “I can’t help you; go to XYZ campus resource.” Some examples for a campus referral include suspected symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g., student cries often in your office, is frequently moody, is consistently very tired, puts excessive pressure on him/herself to have ‘perfect’ grades, etc.) and suspected substance abuse (e.g., student smells of alcohol, eyes are bloodshot, etc.). Above all, familiarize yourself with university resources to appropriately advise students.
Student comes in to ‘visit’ and chit-chat, but does not discuss class content.
This situation can be tricky to handle, as it may be very unclear just what the student is seeking. On the one hand, the student may be trying to build rapport, so that s/he feels comfortable approaching the professor when a question does arise. Students may be much more likely to seek out assistance from professors if they have already established a sense of rapport. When there is a line of students waiting to see you, you will need to alert your student to this matter and act accordingly, so that you can maximize your office hours for all students.
Student comes in and wants help, but has done little to prepare for the meeting.
In writing on your syllabus, and verbally in class, give students clear instruction on how to prepare for an office hour visit and clarify your expectations of them once in your office. If a professor feels that the student is unprepared, the faculty member may opt to spend some time dialoguing with the student to determine the source of the problem. For example, here are two reasons for being unprepared: One student may need remedial help to even prepare for a productive office hour visit; while another student may have the ability to prepare, but did not do so. After a brief dialogue, the professor may ultimately ask each of these students to return for office hours on another day when the student is prepared to make the most of the professor’s assistance and maximize her/his learning.

As with any resource that you design for students, check-in with them to solicit feedback on the utility of what you are offering. It will be very rewarding to learn that your planned efforts are fruitful, and when you receive constructive feedback from students, you can only make what you offer to them even better!

Some parts adapted from