What do you think office hours are for?
Office hours are drop-in* hours for students to see their professors. How should you spend this time?
If you don’t have students in your office, then you should probably be writing. Because we always should probably be writing, right? Or analyzing. Or doing a weekly browse of tables of contents. Or something else productive. If you’re me, you should be cleaning your office.
But let’s say students appear** for office hours, how are they supposed to be used? Here are some reasons students visit:
- You asked them to come see you (“see me.”)
- Learn why they didn’t get full points on something
- Supplemental instruction about class material
- Complain about a higher grade
- Give a reason for not doing something
- Make up a quiz or test (if that’s how you roll)
- Getting tips on studying for the class
- Discussing content extending beyond the scope the course
- Academic advising — what classes to take
- Career counseling and bigger life plans
- Asking for a letter of recommendation
- Chatting to get to know one another
- Mentorship and coaching of a member of the lab
- Seeking advice about research opportunities or internships
- Asking to get into a class that is already full
- Say thank you and maybe give you a little token of gratitude
- Tell you about a problem outside the course and see if you can help
…and I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of other things.
So, here’s my repeat of the question that is the title of this post: What do you think office hours are for? All of those things?
Here’s what I think: Office hours are for all of that stuff, and more. But not number 3. Never number 3. (And I’m not big on #12, I’m disinclined to make idle chitchat with the limited number of hours I have in the office, especially with students who are merely cultivating me.)
Why don’t I want to tutor students if they’re eager and willing to learn during my office hours? I’ve got a few reasons.
First, I’m not inclined to reteach something I’ve already taught. Of course, there are lots of things that I’ve already taught in class that the students might not understand. And it is my job that students understand the course material. If a student pops by my office for a quick clarification of something, then of course I’ll be of help! But am I going to tutor students for an extended duration in my office? Heck no. Student learning is my responsibility, but re-teaching something I’ve taught is not an effective use of my time. Of course my lessons aren’t perfect nor wholly comprehensive, but those are the ones that I’ve prepared for the students in the class. It is what it is. That’s the class. I’ve taught it. It’s my job to help the students learn it. And I’ll do that a lot of ways in office hours, but not by tutoring or going into extended explanations of what already happened in class.
I used to do this kind of thing with students. In the private small liberal artsish college that preceded my current gig, faculty offices were routinely packed with students desperately seeking knowledge prior to exams. If my office hours weren’t filled with studying students on occasion, that would have looked bad to the other professors in my office suite. A line out of the door with worried students was seen as a positive sign in that campus culture. Exams were designed to get students to study. Of course, all this meant was that students were freaked out about their grades and were worried about knowing what they need to know to do well on an impending exam. It’s not like they really were there to learn the stuff. Because then they’d be there in office hours when there wasn’t a midterm around the bend. [cue the sound of crickets]
If students want to talk to the professors, then of course they should be able to. Especially if they’re paying for that kind of service! I just looked it up, and the tuition at that my previous gig is now $44,000. (I thought it was actually going to be more than that.) At least 3 out of 10 students pay that full price directly out of pocket, and most are taking loans. If you’re shelling out that kind of dough, then an office hours tutoring session with your professor seems like a very reasonable request.
At the moment, I’m teaching at a place that costs $6274 per year for undergraduates. The cost of the education is about double — the other half comes from the state of California. (That might sound cheap for students, but we have a smaller fraction of full payers than than the $44,000 school where I used to work, and less than 2% of students receive awards that meet their calculated need according to the FAFSA — only 35% of the demonstrated need is met, on average.) My current students might be paying more in relative terms, considering what they can actually afford. But the entitlement problem we tend to have is underentitlement, when students don’t approach us about things that deserve — and often need — our attention and support. If you work at a university that primarily serves low-income students, I bet you know what I’m talking about.
So, I don’t often see mobs of students desperately working to get into office hours anywhere on my campus. It’s hard enough to get students to come to office hours even when they have issues that they need to bring to you. Yes, we have some students who will come see us, but a lot don’t***. Whether or not students feel that they’re entitled to tutoring fro the professor, that’s not how I teach (anymore).
A second reason I don’t teach in office hours is that I think it’s not effective. As I tell my classes every semester, as an effective instructor my role isn’t to explain things well, but instead to set up the circumstances in which students can discover concepts and understand them independently.
All of our students are actually entitled to — as in, actually deserving of — our attention, time and focus. If students don’t understand something, then we should take out the time to help them. But that doesn’t mean we do this by explaining it to them. It’s by helping them genuinely understand it. And genuine understanding rarely comes from someone merely spelling it out for you. It comes from figuring it out. I think part of our job is helping students acquire more effective study practices and skills for learning throughout life — but even if study skills isn’t apart of our job, then just explaining something to someone is rarely effective teaching. If a student doesn’t understand something in class, then by coaching them about how to learn it (do this set of exercises, do this activity with some other students, work on these practice problems) is more effective than just explaining it in your office.
It’s jerky to say, “I won’t explain this to you, I’ve already taught it once in class. Now it’s your job to learn it.” I’d never put it that way, of course. But when I am graced with an occasional student inquiry (e.g., “I don’t get how carbon moves from one part of the carbon cycle to another part”), I don’t break into tutorial mode. I ask a couple questions to diagnose what is not understood, and then advise on what to do to fix the deficiency (e.g., “read this part of the chapter, do this online exercise, talk about it with a friend, do the problems at the back of the chapter and check the answers, and please do come back or email me if you still have questions or don’t get it to your satisfaction”). I’d re-explain it in a sentence or two. But I’m not going to sit down and teach the carbon cycle again.
A third reason that I don’t provide supplemental instruction (=tutoring) in office hours is that’s unfair. I try to set office hours to maximize accessibility without messing up my schedule too much, but still some students won’t be able to make it. Some students are also more inclined to visit office hours than other students. I know some professors end up revealing more information that will help students on the exam in office hours (why else tutor if you’re not?) — and I just couldn’t imagine doing anything like that unless that was in a meeting time when everybody agreed to be there. Just like holding review sessions outside of regular class sessions, this kind of thing will prepare some students more than others and it might have nothing to do with their motivation or effort. If someone asks me a question about content, and I’m answering that question, I’d prefer to answer it for the whole class. We can’t tell the difference between the students who are unable to come to office hours and those who choose to not come to office hours. So we can’t do anything for students in office hours that gives them a leg up. That’s just unfair.
But what if students want to ask you questions about content outside regular class hours? How can you do this in a way that reaches everybody fairly, without requiring you to reteach, and can facilitate learning through discovery? You can take questions near the end of class, at the start of class, in the middle of class, or in an online forum associated with the class.
There are a lot of ways our students can benefit from talking with us in office hours — many which might not have occurred to our students. I often ask things like, “Why did you choose Bio as a major?,” or “Not like you’re supposed to have a grand plan, but do you have ideas about what to do after you graduate?” or “Read any good books lately?” or “Are you applying to go to Costa Rica this summer?” Starting these conversations might be a better use of everybody’s time in office hours.
*There are some professors, typically of the rarely-on-campus variety, who say that appointments are required for office hours. I kindly request that those people jump off a cliff — okay, maybe a six-foot wall that might cause a twisted ankle, that needs to be propped up on a chair in their damn office where they’re supposed to be available to students in their scheduled office hours that they’re getting paid for.
**You might find this crazy, but in my department we kinda sorta don’t have office hours. I mean, we do, because full-time faculty all have four hours per week per our contract. But our department books student academic advising appointments in our office hours in 30-minute time slots. In the middle of the semester, we’re usually booked up. So if a student really does want to see you in your office hours, you’ll be busy advising and you’ll have to squeeze them in. Which is pretty messed up. But then again our department has one full-time admin assistant, about 600 majors, and about eight tenure-track faculty that do advising, and no other academic advisory support in our majors. And our students really truly need advising appointments every semester for the major. And folks wonder why timely graduation rates are so low in public regional universities.
***For example, I had a student come in for an appointment last week, who had a specific question for me about internships and K-12 teaching. I’m the go-to guy for this particular thing in my department. He told me he had this question for several months, but he didn’t come see me because my office hours didn’t work with his class/work schedule last semester. And he didn’t want to bother me by emailing. And when he walked by my office when my door was open he didn’t want to bother me without an appointment. Several. Months. And this is not a rarity. Students just don’t want to bother us because they feel it’s not their position to ask stuff of us, and that includes other professors who have a reputation for being friendly and welcoming and open. It’s really annoying when students take liberties and aren’t even vaguely deferential or respectful, but it’s also maddening when they are so deferential that they don’t bring things to you that really need to to be brought to you for their own sakes.