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Making the Most of Office Hours

Overview

Student-faculty interaction is an important part of the college learning experience. Office hours serve as one component in the realm of interaction. However, as faculty often note, office hours are underutilized by students. Resolving the issue of underutilization requires that we first understand the reasons why students avoid office hours. A 2017 study by Smith et al. provides some potential answers.

Why Students Do Not Attend Office Hours

One of the main reasons students avoid office hours, according to Smith et al., is a lack of understanding regarding the purpose of office hours. Students may not know what happens during office hours, thus making them hesitant to go. Also, they may believe that office hours are only for asking specific questions, or that they are only meant for students in "emergency" situations (e.g., failing a course). Some students noted that they thought they should only go if they couldn't figure out the answers on their own.

A second reason implies that students see physical (or in-person) office hours as not worth the effort. In Smith et al.'s study, this centered primarily around convenience. For example, for students who noted that a faculty member was easily reached via email or phone, it was more convenient to communicate using those methods. Regarding email, many students in the study noted that they believed email was the preferred mode of communication for their instructors. Largely noted in the study was the inconvenience surrounding office hour times and location. For example, office hours were during times when the student was in another class or working. Additionally, the location of office hours was out of the way or would require a return to campus for commuters.

Finally, instructor approachabilty and awkward interactions are other areas of concern for students. If an instructor is not deemed approachable or appears to actively discourage office hour visits, then students are less likely to go. For example, one respondent in the study quoted a faculty member as saying, "I don't have time to help you. You can't just come to me with questions that take a long time to explain. That's considered private tutoring" (Smith et al., 2017, p. 23). Other student respondents noted that seeing an instructor alone can feel intimidating or they felt like a burden to the instructor. Some of the respondents implied that they felt they were interrupting the faculty member's work.

Tips for Restructuring Office Hours

The following suggestions are intended to address the concerns mentioned by Smith et al. in their study. Each instructor's teaching context is different, however, so consider what works best in your teaching situation.

Explicitly stating what happens during office hours and the potential benefits of attending can help students better understand the purpose and value. Extending the purpose beyond specific course or assignment questions can help students see that office hours can serve as a time to get career advice, mentorship, discuss research opportunities, and so forth. Explain that office hours are times devoted to help them, the students, and not times that you are in your office working on your own work (to help counteract the perception of interrupting the faculty member).

Utilizing online office hours can help balance some of the inconvenient elements noted by students. For example, for commuters, it allows them to avoid another trip to campus (and to avoid parking issues). Furthermore, logging into a Zoom session is less of a physical effort than walking a mile across campus to the instructor's office building. Additionally, using online office hours in a group format helps balance some of the awkwardness students may feel during one-on-one interaction.  

Consider rebranding your office hours to something more inviting. For example, Lowenthal et al. (2017) found a benefit in rebranding office hours as "happy hours." If that is not really your style, more formal names such as "consultations" or "open Q&A" could be used.

Beyond the name, consider how you're utilizing office hours. Instead of one-on-one student-faculty interaction, small group sessions that are focused on particular topics could be beneficial. For example, you could note that Thursday's open office time will address tips for graphing. Having an agenda and providing that to students ahead of time could help ease any uncertainty they may have in what will be addressed during the session.

Incentivizing attendance can help break the ice, essentially getting students "in the door" when they otherwise would not attend. One way to do this is to require students to attend at least one office hour meeting during the course of the semester. Once students attend and realize that it's not so scary, they may be more likely to attend in the future. Tip: make it within the first 5 weeks of the semester so students can recognize the benefit early on and make the most use of office hours. Alternately, you could provide extra credit (a minimal amount) for attending. Regardless, make sure to provide options for those students with scheduling conflicts.

Since not all students are able to attend office hours, an alternative is to record online sessions for students to view at another time. If you're not comfortable with recording the sessions, worry that students won't participate as much, or have students in multiple sections participating in the same session, consider utilizing the live transcript feature in Zoom. It will transcribe the session as it goes on and, at the end, you can save the full transcript. You can edit to remove names or fix typos and then post the transcript to Canvas for all students to access. The transcript is also searchable so students can look for key terms and go directly to that part of the transcript. (Note: If you record and upload the video, the full transcript of the video is also available and can be searched, allowing students to go directly to that section of the video.)

Be mindful of your responses, tone, and body language when you respond to student questions during class. These responses can encourage or discourage students from seeking further interactions with you.  If you know that your demeanor may send an incongruent message with how you actually are, be upfront and transparent with your students. If you're uncertain what behaviors you're exhibiting that may be offputting to students, feel free to reach out to CETL for a teaching observation.