What are office hours for?


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:

  1. You asked them to come see you (“see me.”)
  2. Learn why they didn’t get full points on something
  3. Supplemental instruction about class material
  4. Complain about a higher grade
  5. Give a reason for not doing something
  6. Make up a quiz or test (if that’s how you roll)
  7. Getting tips on studying for the class
  8. Discussing content extending beyond the scope the course
  9. Academic advising — what classes to take
  10. Career counseling and bigger life plans
  11. Asking for a letter of recommendation
  12. Chatting to get to know one another
  13. Mentorship and coaching of a member of the lab
  14. Seeking advice about research opportunities or internships
  15. Asking to get into a class that is already full
  16. Say thank you and maybe give you a little token of gratitude
  17. 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.

9 thoughts on “What are office hours for?

  1. With respect to the 6-foot wall in your first footnote, Terry: I will admit that this last year, I experimented with “by appointment” office hours. (With frequent pleading for students to make those appointments!) Here’s why. First, when I have scheduled drop-in hours, the majority of students who do come (and the total is startlingly low), don’t come during those hours; they either catch me after class or email me for an appointment. That is, there is strong empirical evidence that students actually prefer to make an appointment. Second, I was teaching 3 courses to students in 2 different years in 3 different degree programs, and there just wasn’t a set of 2-3 hours/week that I could have scheduled that would accommodate all students. Here, scheduling office hours runs afoul of your (admirable) reluctance to disadvantage some students – in this case, those that couldn’t make my scheduled hours and would then be reluctant to ask for “extra” hours. Third, and this is where I expect people would push back hardest, scheduling 3 hours/week to wait in an empty office is just not a reasonable use of my time. The total (semester-long) attendance to my office hours for a course with 100 students is often not far out of the single digits. I do not know why this is, although I’d love to. I don’t think my students are afraid of me, although just like you, I find them reluctant to “disturb” me – even in scheduled hours!

    Moving to by-appointment did not reduce attendance. (Unfortunately, it didn’t increase it either.) I’m a small sample size, but I’m not ready to jump off your recommended 6-foot wall just yet!

  2. Having just finished a visit from two very competent students who come to me with their questions about content on my previous week’s powerpoints, religiously every Monday at 9 am, I was puzzling why these students couldn’t find the answers to their questions in their book, notes or even on google. The students who are not doing well in my course do not ask questions in any situation.
    Then I read your post about “what Office hours are for?”
    I admire their regular review of the previous week’s lecture and their list of questions. I am sorry that they can’t find the answers on their own. They think only I have the right answer.
    Curiously most of their questions are about comparing and contrasting data on living organisms (physiology) They are not confident they can do this on their and need to hear from “the guru” the answer I want, even though working out the problems on their own would help them.
    IN our state with the emphasis of education on teaching for the test…I guess that is the culture they expect in college.

  3. I really appreciate the point about underentitlement. I am also at a CSU, and so much of your post resonates with my experience. While there are always a few students who love to stop by and chat, so many of our students wouldn’t think about coming to office hours or asking for extra help. (This is another reason I think our huge mandatory advising load, although frustrating, is so important for our students.)

    I am experimenting with two activities this semester with my general bio class in an effort to reach those students who feel underentitled. First, I am holding a “study session”‘each week outside of class to review concepts from the past few classes. At the start of the semester I asked academic records for a list of students on my roster who had previously not passed general bio. I then contacted each of these students and told them about the additional study session and encouraged them to “sign up” for it for the duration of the semester. Not as many signed up as I hoped (probably for a multitude of reasons, e.g. work, caring for family), but for the first time I have some confidence that the students who most need help are the ones I am serving.

    Second, I told the class they will receive extra credit the first time they come to office hous. I specifically told them they can talk about anything they want, and ask questions about the course, about academic or career issues, etc. I surveyed my students to find their availability, and contacted students who were not available during my normal OH to find alternate times to meet.

    Neither of these approaches are perfect, but so far I am feeling good about their efficacy in bridging the divide so many of our students who most need help feel with regards to meeting their professors outside of class.

  4. I find it helps to have labs where you can chat with the students on a more casual level. While the students are working I wander around the lab room and ask open questions like “how’s it going” or pointing out how what we’re doing relates to lecture (or, better yet, ask them to tell ME how the lab relates to lecture).

    But I do have one reason students come to office hours that’s not on your list and for these students I DO often “reteach” the lecture. These are students for whom English is not a native language. I find these are generally very hard working, highly motivated students who often need a “push” to come to office hours but once they start coming they really benefit from one-on-one time.

    The “extra credit” for coming to office hours is intriguing. I wonder if I could tweak that into letting them drop a quiz grade or something…

  5. Here at Calgary it’s very rare for students to come see me in my office, despite me encouraging them to do so. Maybe a couple will in advance of a big exam. The numbers don’t seem to be much affected by whether or not I have official office hours. I used to have them, then just said “by appointment” because no one was coming to my office hours, then went back to having them this year in the hope that listing office hours on the syllabus would signal my willingness to meet with students (even if they had to make appointments outside the specified hours). No dice.

    Re: the unfairness of teaching material outside of regular class hours because not everyone is equally able to take advantage of that opportunity, hmm. Students surely vary in their ability to email you or use an online discussion system like Piazza (somebody raising a family and holding down a job while juggling classes might well struggle to carve out the time to do anything besides the bare essentials). Heck, they surely vary in their ability to make it to class. Further, even if you don’t “tutor” them during office hours, students who come to your office hours surely benefit from your guidance on how to master the material. They also benefit (in life, if not in your course) from friendly chats about books they’ve read or the major they chose or whatever. So insofar as office hours are “unfair” because only some students can attend (and I’m not convinced they are), it seems to me that they’re unfair no matter whether you tutor the students or not. So I’m not sure I see the clear bright line you seem to see between fair obligations and opportunities that all students are equally able to meet or take advantage of (attend class, ask questions right after class, attend office hours to get advice on study skills, etc.), and unfair opportunities that only some students can take advantage of (attend office hours to be “tutored”).

  6. Well, WordPress just ate my comment. Let’s try that again.

    As a TA, I’m required to hold three hours of office hours per week (and for the class I’m TAing this semester, the prof requires that I hold them as a single bloc). Whether students use them, and how, depends a lot on the class. This class seems to get more than most I’ve had (an average of maybe a student per hour).

    It’s a mostly readings-and-presentations-based class that also has three substantial programming assignments. Programming is not taught as part of the class (the intro computer science class is a prereq and that is supposed to prepare them to do the assignments). Most of the students who come to my office hours are running into problems with getting their code to work properly, or at all. I’m happy to help them with that because debugging, despite its importance, is rarely actually taught, and I was an awful debugger as an undergrad too. But that means showing them some basic techniques and skills, so that the next time they run into problems with their code they’ll be better able to troubleshoot on their own.

    This is a primarily residential campus, and we also have a ton of office hours (the prof has a three-hour bloc and each of the three TAs have three-hour blocs) so I feel like the benefits of office hours are pretty accessible in this case. I understand what you’re getting at, though, and I certainly had a couple of classes as an undergrad where the people who could go to a particular one-hour or two-hour period each week had a huge leg up over the people who didn’t.

  7. Terry, you didn’t address it in this post, but I’m curious if anyone has problems with students showing up extensively outside of their office hours? At my school, students do not feel like they’re interrupting your work by stopping by whenever is most convenient for them. I do have office hours (5 hrs/wk this term), but students rarely stop by during my posted hours. Even when my door is closed (which is not the department culture), they will knock on my door and expect an answer (and I have a window to the hallway so they can see when I’m in my office). For example, yesterday I had 3 students stop by for about 15 minutes each, outside of my office hours. My door was closed at the time. I suppose the answer is to tell them to come back during my office hours (which are posted on my website and on my door), but I feel like other faculty (with their doors open) would frown upon this. Advice?

    • If you don’t have time, ask them to come in office hours, and if they don’t work for them, to schedule an appointment. Say you’re busy.

  8. I have found that strategically scheduled office hours work well. (I am in a physical science field, so we have HW sets due every week; they include calculations and some coding).
    First, I schedule HW to be due in the middle of the week or late (typically Wed, Thu, or Fri); if they are due on Monday or Tuesday, then students can’t come to office hours and bug me too much via email over the weekend.

    I have a discussion two days before the HW due date. I have office hours the morning before the HW Is due and the day before.

    This semester, between me and the TA, we have some office hours 4 days of the week (2 hrs on Mon with TA, 1 hr after class plus 0.5 before discussion plus 1 hr of discussion with me on Tue, 2.5 hrs on Wed morning, and the HW is due Wed evening by electronic upload, and 1 hr on Thu after class).

    I also have all-day open office the day before each exam, which the students really appreciate, and I have hordes in my office all day; but then it’s a no-bother rule the day of the exam and they usually don’t bug me.

    That’s plenty of opportunity for help, if people want it. (I am at a large research university.)

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