January 20, 2012

Enhancing Out-of-Class Communication: Students’ Top 10 Suggestions

By: in Philosophy of Teaching

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Out-of-class communication makes student-teacher relationships more personal and contributes to student learning. It is also the wellspring for continued academic exchange and mentoring. Unfortunately, electronic consultations via email have diminished the use of in-person office hours. Although students and faculty favor email contact because it’s so efficient, interpersonal exchanges still play an important role in the learning process—much research verifies this. As teachers we have a responsibility to encourage, indeed entice, our students to meet with us face-to-face.

In a previous issue of The Teaching Professor (March 2010), Kirin Dosanjh Zucker provided a number of helpful suggestions for “Keeping Office Hours ‘Real’ in the Facebook Age.” In a similar vein, we wanted to share ideas culled from our research on students’ perspectives on out-of-class communication. We’ve done in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 33 students. The finding that has most impressed us we already knew, but our data has provided an important reminder: in-class communication sets the stage for out-of-class communication. If you are knowledgeable, convey caring for students, and announce your availability to assist, then students are more likely to approach you outside of class. Conversely, if you appear unprofessional in the classroom, convey apathy or disdain for students, and do not encourage interpersonal contact, students are more likely to avoid you outside of class.

Following are 10 specific strategies that the students we interviewed identified as being particularly effective for encouraging out-of-class contact with professors.

  1. Be there for office hours, keep scheduled appointments, and make time for students when they need additional help.
  2. Arrive at class early and stay after class (even if it’s in the hallway) to accommodate easy contact. This is the time when students with questions are most likely to ask them.
  3. Include an invitation in the syllabus to visit during office hours. Give students a “by appointment” option, since your set office hours may conflict with their class or work schedules.
  4. Tell students on the first day of class and regularly thereafter that you are available for extra help during office hours or at a time convenient for them. Explain that you enjoy talking with students, particularly about the course, current research, and your discipline.
  5. Use email to connect socially and academically. In addition to prompt, brief responses, include a friendly opening and closing. Send periodic emails to the class to offer assistance on projects as they progress through the semester.
  6. Write your email and office hours on the board regularly, maybe even every class session at the beginning of the course. Say more times than you think necessary that you welcome questions, comments, and the chance to interact with students.
  7. Work to learn students’ names—sooner rather than later. Recognize and greet students when you see them in the hallways or around campus. Smiles and waves are also appreciated.
  8. Provide specific feedback on course projects, and allow opportunities for revisions prior to assigning a final grade on major projects. Offer tutorials during office hours and encourage small groups of students to attend.
  9. Schedule midterm consultations with each student (maybe even make them mandatory) if not many students are taking advantage of your office hours. Use these meetings to review the students’ progress in the course, provide assistance as needed, and help with goal setting for the rest of the course.
  10. Provide your home phone number or cell phone number in case students run into “emergencies.” Although students most likely will never call you, they appreciate this caring gesture and invitation to accessibility.

In sum, students do pay attention to those classroom behaviors that convey we care. If we vigilantly maintain our office hours and employ the strategies recommended by these students, then we can more actively engage students in academic discourse, facilitate a deeper understanding of our fields and their associated professions, and serve as better advisors and mentors. Given what positive interpersonal communication does for students and for us, it is certainly worth the effort.

Dr. Bonnie Farley-Lucas is professor in the communications department at Southern Connecticut State University. Dr. Margaret Sargent is an associate chair and associate professor in the communications department at Southern Connecticut State University.

Reprinted from “Enhancing Out-of-Class Communication: Students’ Top 10 Suggestions.” The Teaching Professor, 24.10 (2010): 7.

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