Some ideas for better office hours

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Welcome back to a new semester! I don’t know about you, but I am often generally unpleased with how office hours go. Either there’s the crickets/deluge dynamic, or the students who really think would most benefit from coming in don’t. I don’t have any magical cures, but I have heard a variety of suggestions about switching up office hours to make them more accessible. Maybe some of these are new to you, eh?

-Don’t hold office hours in your office. Hold them in a more public location, such as a campus coffeeshop, or a non-quiet part of the library, or (when the weather improves), outside. Why do this? Because professors’ offices are intimidating and they’re our territory. Also, because some students have had bad experience interacting privately with professors, meeting in public is kinder to them.

-In class, pass around a signup sheet for students to schedule time during hour office hours. Of course they can just walk in without an appointment (which is the whole point of office hours), but creating this avenue might bring students in who might otherwise not show up.

-Hold office hours online. Let students know particular times when you’ll just be logged into the, chat room in the LMS. If your class uses the LMS regularly, you must might intercept folks who are there anyway. Perhaps, if this is how you roll, you could do it during an evening.

-Don’t call them office hours — call them “student hours.” Which is a more accurate name, and a lot of students don’t know what office hours are anyway, which is when we specifically carve time out of our schedule to talk with our students.

-Take brief minutes of your office hours and post them, so that everybody can get a recap of what was discussed. (Another blogger discussed how it worked out when they recorded their office hours to share with the class, and if you have hundreds of students, I get how this might be a thing.)

-Take a poll of your students and find out what times in the week might be most useful for the greatest number of students, and heck, it might even fit your schedule.

Have snacks, all the time.

-Once, a while ago, when I was teaching some lower-division students new to college and interacting with their professors seemed particularly embarrassing, I brought a yo-yo to class. I did a few quick tricks as class was starting up (the flying trapeze is the best I’ve got), and then mentioned if anybody wanted to learn a bit of yo-yo, I’d be glad to do that in office hours. I did get one taker! If you take pleasure of teaching folks to yo, or juggle, or I dunno, yodel or something, it’s not so wrong to do this in office hours insofar as it doesn’t interrupt the learning environment for the courses you’re teaching.

These aren’t here as advice or as a prescription for you. It’s just some ideas that you might draw from. Have there been ways you’ve changed up your office hours that made them more helpful for students? Or something you’ve wanted to try? Please do share!

13 thoughts on “Some ideas for better office hours

  1. What would you think of offering a small grade-based incentive for students to come to office hours (or come by at another time if the office hours don’t match their schedule)? Something like a few participation points or equivalent to a question on an exam. It seems like it would help get students over that initial intimidation factor, but I could also see it being harder for some students to do than others.

    • That was a thing I was thinking about adding to the post, that you could add to your syllabus having a visit could be built as a part of the point structure of the class. I think it’s fine for those who choose to do so, though I think if it’s not done well, it could be coercive, and also the majority of my students are commuters who are also working 20-40 hours per week and also are likely to have family obligations, so I wouldn’t want to this as a requirement. I think if students show up because they want to be there (to discuss the class, science in general, or anything else), then that’s a plus, but to ask students to show up without having any real purpose might not be the use of either of our time? I suppose it could be a “let me get to know you and have a ten minute chat about yourself,” but if that’s a conversation that I would try to initiate, I fear it’d come off like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

      • I very much want to echo what Terry said here. In most schools, many of your students will be working part-time [even big R1 Universities and Ivy League Universities]. These are the students who are often already disadvantaged. Grade-based rewards for office hour attendance can accentuate this advantage. However, perhaps an online version [like rewarding every student who asks at least one question on a message board or physically attends office hours] might be less exclusionary.

    • I’ve heard of required office hours (for a grade) described as an inclusive teaching practice* (if anyone knows of pedagogical research to support or refute this claim please send it my way!), but the last three semesters I have struggled to implement it effectively: Typically it seems that the students who show up are the ones who would anyway. Thus, at the end of the semester I have a list of students who aren’t doing well in the class, and now are doubly penalized for not meeting with me– first because they didnt seek out assistance, and then again because they didn’t follow my directions. (Cue a larger debate about how much grading should be based on student learning, objective benchmarks, vs. following directions in the syllabus). And what about students who send me questions via email, or will ask me about a lecture topic during worktime in lab? I’ve tried tweaking the point values (typically around 0.5% of their course grade), giving more clear reminders to students, describing what “office hours” are, dropping hints during lecture, assigning it in the first few weeks of the semester, etc.

      This semester my newest variation it allow them to come to either office hours or one of the unstructured pre-exam review sessions (led by me or an undergrad TA), but if this doesn’t work I am considering dropping it moving forward. I like Henry’s comment (below) to have students sign up for a time to drop off their “get to know you” sheet.

      To Terry’s point, I’ve only had one student show up with the “Well, I guess I have to do this” attitude, but even if they didn’t want my help, I could still ask what they found interesting about the course, etc. For context, I am at a residential SLAC.

      I also offer “lunchtime” office hours, where students can come meet me in the cafeteria on Fridays, but so far I have only had two takers. Maybe that’s even more intimidating? But I guess the more variety of opportunities I make available, the more likely that one of them will work for student X.

      *Example: https://diversity.humboldt.edu/sites/default/files/creating_inclusive_college_classrooms-university_of_michigan.pdf

  2. These are some great ideas, thank you!

    I have had good success with polling students for what office hours work the best based on their schedules (I have used tools like Doodle to facilitate the polling). I have smallish classes (20-30 students per class…what I am about to say is of course intractable for a large class) so I am able to add the stipulation that I ensure that for anyone who takes the poll I will guarantee that for every student there is at least one office hour during a time when they have marked they are available. This way, for anyone that takes the poll they can make it to at least one office hour a week. This may sound difficult, but surprisingly it is rare to have a time marked free only by one student, so it is not like I am holding 20 hours of office hours a week, and most students end up being available for most of the office hours. This helps avoid scheduling office hours that never get attended, and it also communicates to students my effort to be as available as possible and that I respect and value their time and out of class commitments.

  3. I also teach at a commuter college, and we actually have cell phones issued by our institution and are expected to talk/text/email with students in lieu of office hours. I hate talking on the phone, but so do most of my students, so we communicate by texting pretty much all the time.

    I can understand not wanting to use your personal mobile number for this, but many of us also find that students really like What’s App, GroupMe, Slack, or other apps as their primary form of communication. Some of those also have a computer version, for faculty who don’t like cellphones. Students are so much more likely to communicate in a medium with which they’re comfortable.

  4. This post is reminding me that I need to restock my snack supply for my students. :)

    My office is notoriously hard to find, so I make a point of having some way for students to find my office during the first week of class. Sometimes when I’m teaching in the same building as my office, I’ll take small groups on a “tour” during the first class, while the rest of the class works on an activity, so that they can find my office from the classroom. This term, I gave each student an index card (different colors for each course so I could keep them straight), told them to write their name and a question about anything CS-related, and deliver it to my office anytime that week. I promised to answer most of the questions throughout the term. Students found my office, and I learned something about each of my students from the questions they asked.

  5. On the first day, I have them sign up for a 15-minute slot during my office hours during the first week (with 3-5 students per slot). They come, turn in a get-to-know-you Q&A which counts as their first homework, and we chat for a few minutes about get-to-know-you stuff (hometown, major, etc.). I find it helps “break the seal” on office hour attendance as they now know where my office is and that I am not so intimidating one-on-one. It doesn’t turn it into a flood of students, but I think it makes it easier for them to stop by the next time.

    Henry

  6. Best way to make students want to come to office hours: bring my dog to the office and let the students know he’ll be there.

  7. Most of my “office hours” are by email these days. Could be by text (if I wanted to give students my cell number… which I don’t).

    I also set no specific office hours because if I do, invariably students class/work/personal schedules conflict so some students with more free time can benefit more than others. Instead I set an open office policy at the start. I tell students that I will meet with them any time they want if my door is open (which it is most of the time). And I tell them if they want to make sure I’m around, to set up an appointment with me.

    The idea of having a set hour or two a week is great, but really seems to harken back to the 70s (or sometime way back when) when “traditional students” were at least though to exist. There was probably no such thing back then, and there certainly isn’t now.

  8. Holding office hours someplace that isn’t quiet is tough on students with disabilities that make it difficult to focus in a noisy or busy environment.

  9. I used to have an open door policy. Then I was attacked by an aggressive male student after 4 pm when other faculty weren’t in their offices. I was able to run to the Dean’s office the next building over so I could have witnesses. It really shook me up. Now I only hold open office around midday when I know my office neighbors will be nearby. And I won’t see students outside of my office hours unless they have an advance appointment. Things to think about, especially if you are a woman (or not a cis male)

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