Office Hours Redux
By Maryellen Weimer, PhD
In the final post of 2014, I shared some comments about blog “conversations,” wondering what else we might do to take our exchanges to the next level. The comments made in response to a post are typically shared across a period of time. If you’re one of the first to comment, do you return later to read what other folks had to say? I’m doubtful that many us of have that sort of time.
The January 21 post about students not making use of office hours generated a nice collection of suggestions to remedy the problem. From the roughly 30 comments, a few themes emerged. Here’s a compilation of those themes, along with some questions and thoughts that I’m hoping will take the conversation further. Please let me know if they do or don’t and whether you find these types of posts helpful.
Schedule office hours when they’re convenient. That is, at times convenient for the teacher and for the students. One commenter described circulating a calendar with possible times and having students initial those that don’t work for them. Or, you can solicit data from students about best times via a program like Doodle poll. Don’t schedule office hours during times when lots of classes are offered. Seems like this should go without saying, but sometimes student convenience takes second place. Let students schedule appointments electronically: https://ga.youcanbook.me/ was recommended. It’s free and you can link to it from your course website.
Require a visit, preferably early in the course. If the visit is to discuss some course issue, say possible term paper topics, that conversation can show students the value of meeting with the prof. They receive good feedback on the topic they’re considering, get ideas about other options, and can ask questions about assignment details. I have to admit I’m troubled by making it a course assignment. Does requiring students to do things teach them why they should do those things, or does the act of requiring make that learning less likely? One reader shared that she invites each student with a personal note (staggering the notes so she’s not overwhelmed). Those who don’t show for a meeting get a “missed you” note. Students make the choice albeit under conditions that make it harder to not show up.
Reward those who come with points. Make the visit worth something; those who use this approach recommend just a small amount of points. You also could reward with food—fruit, protein bars, or a less nutritious, but likely more popular, option like candy. We give our beagle a treat if, at bedtime, she goes outside and does her business in a timely manner. Does she need a treat to hurry her back inside when it’s 10 degrees? Probably not. It’s not quite the same, but do points reinforce the belief that every educational activity must include them?
Meet someplace other than the office. Suggestions included “student spaces” like the student center or the campus cafeteria. One commenter reported that after a late afternoon class, she proceeds to the cafeteria for dinner, inviting students to join her for a “chat and chew.” That reminded me of the four years I had my office in a student resident hall (off one of the study lounges). I scheduled some evening office hours and I was always surprised by how many students showed up. Or, as someone else suggested, meet with students in a shared space, say the classroom, and call that time a review session. Invite students to drop by individually or in groups. You could even designate a review session topic. “I’ll be in our classroom between 4:30 and 5:00 doing more cost differential estimates.” If meeting someplace else isn’t a viable option, consider this suggestion: turn your office into something that resembles a student lounge. Stock it with chocolate and stress reducing toys.
There was a comment about how much student interaction occurs electronically. Maybe we should just forget office hours and meet them digitally. But as the commenter noted, it’s important to be able to talk with people face-to-face. Finding the office and feeling some discomfort about having to talk with their professor is great practice for other conversations students will need to have in the future.
For yet another approach to office hours, I encourage you to take a look at a 2006 issue of College Teaching. In it two professors report on their experiences with a reformatted kind of office hours: something they call “course centers.” Read a synopsis here >>