Tips for Effective Office Hours
Contributed by Erin Rentschler (English and CTE)
Many students, especially freshmen, do not realize the value of one-on-one interaction with their instructors. When done well, instruction during office hours benefits both students and instructors.
According to The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy (LASTA) at the University of Illinois, office hours help improve teaching and learning by:
- Facilitating deeper learning for students who are excelling by sharing advanced resources and engaging in critical dialogue with them.
- Coaching students, before they have performance problems, who are having difficulty grasping key concepts or who need help clarifying the demands of an assignment.
- Spending individual time with a student who is performing poorly in class to learn how you can assist and guide him/her.
Additionally, office hours can foster important “critical connections” between student, instructor, and material by providing an opportunity to get to know one another—not for the sake of personal relationships, but to create “a positive and productive working relationship” (Kreizinger 2006).
Get Them There
- Explain what office hours are on the first day of class, but remind students throughout the semester where and when they can find you. Post your hours and location on the course syllabus and consider publicizing office hours on Blackboard and/or in your email’s “signature” so that students see this information regularly.
- Plan office hours carefully. James M. Lang (2003) typecasts faculty by office hour behaviors. The “Early Bird” “has found the best legal means of ensuring” that students won’t visit office hours: hosting hours before most college students have gotten out of bed. Avoid the Early Bird approach (or variations of it) by a) waiting, if you can, until the semester begins and polling your students to see when a majority of them will be free. When teaching in a Learning Community, for example, it doesn’t make sense to schedule office hours during the time slot during one of the other courses. or b) Hold office hours before or after class, so that “questions and concerns can be addressed immediately” (LASTA)
- Consider requiring students to meet with you early in the semester, especially if you have smaller classes. Once they surpass initial anxiety, students are likely to come on their own. While it’s wise to have students schedule these visits around a course assignment, a brief meeting to discuss their personal goals for the class can also be effective. Other required visits may include the following: a) Davis (1993) suggests that writing “see me about this during office hours” gets a 75% response rate. However, you can avoid making office hours punitive by centering the requested visit on both praise and constructive criticism. b) Nilson (2010) suggests having students drop off or pick up assignments during office hours rather than during class time.
- Consider alternative “office spaces:” a) “neutral spaces” may alleviate anxiety, while meeting in a library provides space to model research practices. b) Walk and talk. Requests for general information or clarification can be addressed “on the fly,” as you walk from one class to the next. c) Supplement office hours with technology. Email, discussion boards, twitter or other online spaces “are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer ‘easy answers to easy questions.’” (LASTA).
- Group sessions can ease some pressure, establish rapport between students (increasing the class time collaboration), and streamline providing feedback. Topic-based office hours model productive individual sessions.
- Allow time spent in office hours to count toward the course participation grade.
- Instruct students as to how they should prepare, and ask them to reschedule if they haven’t.
- Segment your office hours and ask students to come during a particular time slot; the new Starfish calendaring tool in Blackboard could be helpful in managing time slots. Set clear guidelines as to what can and cannot be accomplished within the specified time frame.
- If students come to office hours eager to inform you of their latest dormitory exploits, set clear boundaries without dismissing the students entirely. LASTA suggests “reflect[ing] on the role you can play in students’ lives.” Remember that your primary responsibility is to foster learning, but be empathetic. Provide students with additional campus resources (Writing Center, Counseling Center, etc.), but make certain that they understand you aren’t ignoring them or denying a request for help.
- “To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible” and make it clear to students that office hours are not a condensed version of class (Nilson 2003).
Get them to Come Back
- Follow up with students on issues raised during office hours. Send an email with an additional resource that might be of interest or ask about an exam/event mentioned in passing.
- Make students feel welcome and comfortable: “Interact with students with intentional time and depth” (Robertson). Close your books, silence your phone, and turn off the computer.
- Validate the points students make in office hours. In Tools for Teaching Barbara Gross Davis (1993) suggests bringing students outside comments into the classroom: “If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: ‘Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class.’”
Learn from Office Hours
While taking advantage of office hours to work on research or grading may sound appealing, not meeting with students can actually put you at a disadvantage. Once you have students visiting your office hours, you’re likely to learn from them. Use the time to solicit feedback about the course and instructional materials. Ask students what they like about the course and what confuses or challenges them. Students are more likely to be honest if you demonstrate genuine interest in hearing what is working well and what needs improvement.
- Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Also partially available online at https://www.elon.edu/docs/e-web/academics/teaching/Tools%20For%20Teaching.pdf
- Kreizinger, Joe (2006). “Critical Connections for the First Day of Class” The Teaching Professor. 20.5
- Lang, James M. (2003). “Putting in the Hours: You Can Tell a lot about Faculty Members by How They Set Up Their Office Hours.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 49.36
- Linda B. Nilson. “Making the Most of Office Hours” https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/519
- Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at its Best. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Robertson, Douglas (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.