Office hours: 10 tips for instructors

office hours visit

Office hours enable you to develop a better rapport with individual students, which carries over into the classroom.

Office hours are part of the college instructor’s teaching assignment and can be an important contribution to your teaching effectiveness.

If you teach a class of new-to-college students, you’ll need to explain what office hours are – time set aside every week by the instructor to be available to meet with students. Departments or colleges typically have a policy on a recommended number of office hours that should be scheduled.

Office hours can be a powerful part of a college student’s educational experience. Students can get the extra help they may need to be more effective students. Especially in large classes, students can develop a rapport with their instructor during office hours. That kind of personal connection not only helps the student be more engaged in the class but can provide the foundation for the student to ask for a reference for an internship, job or graduate school.

Office hours also can be a powerful tool for you as an instructor. In office hours you can hear the questions students have but didn’t ask in class – because they were shy or because asking questions didn’t fit into the flow of the class on a particular day. Based on the questions or comments from the students in office hours, you can realize you need to better explain a concept or assignment.

You also can ask the students questions during office hours that help you check their perceptions of the course. You may find out about a problem students are having with a team project or a reading assignment.

In office hours, you also can get to know students in a way that goes beyond how you may know them from class. You can hear about their aspirations, other courses and activities they are involved with, etc. All of that can help you better understand “your audience,” which helps in selecting examples to use in class, for example.

So how do you get students to take advantage of coming in for office hours? 

Tip #1 – Select a good time for office hours – for your students and for you.

I’ve know a few instructors who intentionally schedule office hours at times when students are likely not to attend – early in the morning or Friday afternoons. The objective for those instructors seems to be to fulfill the departmental expectation of having office hours but to have the time to do other work but not talk with students. Certainly, instructors always have lots of work to be done (such as grading), but office hours should be scheduled at times when students might take advantage of them.

From my experience with my own classes and working with teaching assistants and their office hours, good office hours can be before or after the class. If you make office hours before class, be sure that you are prepared for class ahead of time. Also, be aware that an upset student could arrive at office hours to argue about a grade or share some personal dilemma. You don’t want to let that kind of conversation throw you off for class. If you have office hours after class, you want to be sure you have an energy level to do that.

Tip #2 – Publicize your office hours and location.

Put your office hours and location in the syllabus, on your office door, and in the course management system or website for the course. Remind your students about office hours in class and through other communication, such as an email or announcement through the course management system. I’ve used Twitter as a way to reminding students of office hours.

If you have to miss office hours due to a meeting or illness, let your students know in advance. You can post an announcement on the course management system or send an email to the class listserv. You don’t want to have students make the effort to come for office hours only to discover you aren’t there.

Tip #3 – Provide some alternative times for those who are unavailable during your office hours.

Sometimes the amount of time involved in coming to your office is much greater than the time the student would talk with you. The student has to catch the bus, ride a bike or drive and find a parking place. Provide students with the option of calling or Skyping for office hours.

You may need to have some alternative meeting times to accommodate the students’ schedules. They may have other classes or a job during the time you have scheduled for office hours. You’re trying to find a balance between being available to talk with students and not having your own work time because you are adjusting your schedule to meet with them at other times.

Most students and instructors are comfortable in having “virtual” office hours. You can answer questions via email or a discussion board in your course management system or through social media. Again, you’re striving for a balance. You want to be available but not 24/7.

Be sure to talk in class – and in your syllabus – about the best ways to talk with you and explain why you can’t immediately answer every email or direct tweet.

Tip #4 – Give students a reason to attend office hours — and help them be prepared.

Even though you may be able to think of dozens of reasons why students should take advantage of office hours, they may not know what they would talk with you about. I’ve found a good strategy is to give a couple of topics for office hours.

For example: “As always, I’m having office hours this week [give time and place]. This would be a good time bring the homework problems to go over with me before they are due next week.”

Check Emily Schiller’s blog post on “Taking Advantage of Office Hours” for tips to give students about maximizing office hours.

Tip #5 – Think what your office says about you.

A ready-to-use chair, your books, your photos and awards are all part of the office experience for your students. As students settle in for the meeting, they often comment on my photographs from hikes in the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I can see them scan titles on the bookshelves. Sometimes students are surprised to see birds arriving at the birdfeeder attached to my office window. Some students from urban areas tell me that they’ve never seen birds like these (cardinals, house finches and chickadees).

Tip #6 – Schedule group office hours.

You may have an upcoming test or a project deadline and know that many students may be planning to see you during office hours. Seeing each one individually can take a lot of time, and you many be going over the same issues multiple times.

A strategy I’ve used is to announce we’re having a “workshop” during office hours. Instead of meeting in my office, we meet at the student union. I arrive early and find several tables next to each other that are unoccupied. As students arrive, I put them with a partner or in groups of three. I give overall directions and then have them work with their classmates. I move around the groups to answer questions.

Students enjoy the workshop approach because they don’t feel like they are the only one who has questions, and they like the opportunity of getting to work with classmates. Often this kind of experience helps them realize the potential of study groups and to identify study group members.

Tip #7 – Determine if you need to schedule appointments for individual meetings.

Typically office hours are more of a drop-by situation. You set aside a block of time, such as Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., and students come by during that time. You don’t know who is going to arrive to talk with you until they arrive.

Having scheduled appointments can be a better approach for two situations.

The first situation is when you know many students are going to need to see you. You may have an assignment that requires one-on-one coaching. You want to be available for many students but must limit the time with each student in order to see as many as possible.

A strategy I’ve used is to have students sign up in class for a 10- or 15-minute timeslot. That way, the students know going into the meeting that they have limited time. If they are coming to see me to go over the draft of a paper that is due in a few days, I’ll tell them in class that I won’t have time to read the entire paper in the individual meeting, so arrive with selected sections for me to critique.

The second situation is when you know you are going to have a difficult conversation with a student. The student may be upset about a grade or some other class issue. You want to have the meeting with the student to hear the student’s side of the situation and see how the issue can be resolved. But you also know that after a certain point of discussion that the meeting won’t be productive.

In setting up the meeting, you can tell the student: “I want us to have the opportunity to discuss your questions about your grade on the project. Let’s plan on meeting for 15 minutes. To help you prepare, I’d like you to write the issues you have about the assignment and bring those with you for the meeting.” That way the student has to get beyond being upset and write what the issues are. Sometimes, I’ve had students email me to say that after they started writing their response that they realized we didn’t need to meet. More often, we did meet, but the student is more facts-based rather than just emotion. 

Tip # 8 – Be attuned to whether other students are waiting to see you.

You may have a productive conversation with a student and end up talking 30+ minutes. Then as the student leaves and you look outside your door, you see three other students are waiting, and you only have 20 minutes remaining in your office hours time. Oops.

I remind students in class that if they come for office hours and someone is already talking with me to tap on the door and let me know they are waiting. “Just so you’ll know, three of us are waiting for you.” That helps you and the student you are talking with move along.

Tip # 9 – Be prepared for a few emotional meetings.

Some students and some situations can create emotional meetings in your office hours.

Students can be angry. The student may be angry because the grade the student is earning in class may be lowering the student’s GPA and jeopardizing the student’s scholarship – or visa, for international students. The student is angry because you require a team project, and she doesn’t like working in groups. The student is angry because he wants to take a test at a different time so he to attend an out-of-town concert, and you won’t let him.

In those angry situations, you want to avoid becoming angry yourself. If you know in advance that the conversation might become confrontational, you may want to have a colleague/supervisor join the meeting. If you realize that you aren’t making any progress in the conversation, then end the meeting. Stand up and say something to end the meeting: “I appreciate you talking with me about your concern, but I’ve explained the situation. I think we need to end our meeting.” [I’d advise making a few notes about the meeting just in case you need to remember the specifics of the meeting.]

A student may become emotional – and break down in tears — in telling you about a personal situation that is impacting the student’s performance in class. I’ve had students tell me about some incredibly difficult situations – from a roommate’s suicide to their parents’ divorce. Sometimes you are the only adult at the university they know well enough to talk to about the situation and to seek advice from. Remember that there are many situations that are beyond your ability to deal with. I always have at hand the names, phone numbers and other contact information for support services on campus that they help the student.

And just in case — I always keep a box of tissues in a desk drawer.

#10 – Develop a positive outlook on office hours.

If you look at office hours as a way of getting to develop a better rapport with your students and a means of helping them be more effective learners in your course, you’ll be more positive in your interactions. And your approach impacts the students’ outlook about office hours – and your interest in them.

I’d say that most of us as instructors can think of several experiences every semester where some of our most successful teaching happened during office hours – helping a student understand a concept, recognizing from student questions something that could be better explained in class, or helping a student prepare a graduate school application.

For additional advice, see Margaret Walsh’s “Seven Ways to Make Office Hours Better for Students.” Instructors, I’d be interested in your tips. Students, I’d be interested in what advice you’d offer to instructors about office hours.

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