Over in Dwinelle Hall a few years ago, as part of a series on creating conditions for student success, there was a student panel addressing a group of faculty about their experiences thus far at Berkeley. The students talked about their favorite classes, what made them so valuable, and what their professors had done to engage them so effectively in learning. When one faculty member brought up the topic of office hours, the students became relatively silent. When asked how many on the panel had gone to office hours, none raised their hand. It was surprising in some ways to hear about so many transformative experiences that all centered around student-faculty interaction, yet an opportunity like office hours was not being capitalized upon. Why not?
When asked, one student gave an eye-opening answer that illustrated both the negative perception of office hours and the confusion that surrounds it on the part of students. She recalled a class from the semester prior she thoroughly enjoyed. The professor delivered riveting lectures, facilitated dynamic discussions, chose provocative readings, and seemed to genuinely care about the course and the students. Despite this, the student never once went to office hours. Reason #1: “I think office hours is for students who are struggling with the material and need extra help. I wouldn’t want my professor to know I’m struggling, even if I was.” Reason #2: “I was fascinated by the Professor, the discipline, and research in the field beyond what we were focusing on in class. I would have loved to drop into office hours and just talk with my professor about her own research, but figured there’s no way she’d want to take the time to do that with me.” When this second reason came to light, every faculty member in the audience exclaimed almost in unison, “Do you know how much we would enjoy it if a student came to office hours curious to hear more about our own research?!” The misplaced expectations and false judgments about office hours permeate our students’ perceptions of it as a useful avenue for increased student-faculty interaction. Heading into a new semester is a good time to give some consideration to how you can increase the use and effectiveness of your office hours - for your students, and for you.
Student-Faculty interaction is a cornerstone of any effective pedagogy. While numerous studies have shown this to be the case, I was recently reading one study in particular that focuses on how office hours have a real and substantial effect on a student’s academic performance (Guerrero & Rod, 2013). So, I started thinking about ways to encourage students to attend office hours and how to use that time with their professor. Here are a few things to try if you would like to increase student attendance at office hours, and help all students find opportunities to take advantage of the unique interactions that can take place in office hours versus the classroom:
Make it an assignment. Whether there are a few points attached to it, or it’s simply listed along with the other assignments in the course syllabus, “require” students to attend an office hour sometime early in the course. Most often, those that usually would not attend office hours realize the options and benefits after experiencing it first-hand. They can be given a specific purpose for attending (e.g., bring your most recent homework and the single biggest question you have about any concepts covered), or options (e.g., bring one class-related question, tell me why you’re interested in this course topic, or ask about the research in the field). Either way, the point is to get students over any trepidation about office hours and expose them to its value.
Tell students how to use office hours. Office hours do not serve just one single purpose. They can be used by students to ask questions about the course material, and those questions can be at any level. Office hours are NOT just for students who are performing poorly in a course. They can be used by students to get feedback on their learning (e.g., “Am I getting/doing this right?). They can be used to discuss their research interests, your research, or just the discipline as a whole. Students need to be made explicitly aware of the many ways to use office hours, since it’s a topic rarely discussed beyond noting the days/times on the syllabus.
Tell students how to start a conversation in office hours. Once they have a purpose for attending, many students are still hesitant because they don’t know where to start. Sitting with you, their professor, can be very intimidating. Once they can get into the conversation nerves tend to settle, but some help getting started can be crucial. Encourage students to bring just one question to start the conversation, or a line from lecture that caught their attention, or a story about themselves that is relevant to the class. Whatever may work best in your mind to help students gain some comfort in the prospect of coming to talk with their professor.
Stagger office hour days and times to enable students with varied schedules to attend. It is prohibitive if a student has another class or obligation during office hours. While many students today carry full credit loads, plus many other outside obligations like family or work, staggering office hours can be a simple way to encourage more attendance. Some faculty hold virtual office hours online through bCourses to make it even more feasible for students to attend.
Talk about office hours throughout the course, and how to use them (e.g., after just returning a mid-term exam, talk about how to use office hours depending on score and expectation for grade in the course). One mention of office hours on the first day of class is nice, but will quickly fade out of memory. Revisit office hours, their benefits and uses, at key points in the course when you know students need them most.
Follow some of these tips and you just might find yourself visited in office hours by a student who is so interested that they just want to hear more about your work because, as the student on the panel relayed, “I thought my professor was just so cool. I wanted to talk with her more.” Who doesn’t like the sound of that?
Guerrero, M., & Rod, A. B. (2013). Engaging in Office Hours: A Study of Student-Faculty Interaction and Academic Performance. Journal of Political Science Education, 9(4), 403-416.