February 18th, 2015

Office Hours Redux

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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 get 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 »


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  • I think having a combination of face-to-face and virtual meeting hours or options is ideal. For traditional face-to-face and blended academic programs, this gives students more options to connect with their instructors. However, in many true fully online programs, the face-to-face meetings/office hours, although desirable, is not feasible. So in these cases virtual synchronous and asynchronous options are ideal. This has been the case for me, at least, based on almost 13 years of teaching in higher education (face-to-face, blended, and fully online).

  • Maryellen,
    Just wanted to say that I appreciate these sorts of digests of the commentary from your blog: interesting and helpful.
    Neil

  • Polling the class using a list of possible dates/times for office hours, virtual office hours, or time to schedule review sessions, after-hours activities, etc. works very well and students appreciate it.

    Also, although nothing beats meeting in person, face-to-face, i have been advocating for almost fifteen years that we run virtual office hours along traditional office hours, to provide additional options, and often much better/convenient options. Telephone consultations work, but so do virtual office hours via Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, etc.

    I used to launch AOL Instant Messenger years ago to give students a convenient option to reach me. It was quite popular with shy students, during cold days, with students with disabilities or very busy schedules. These days, I do virtual office hours with Blackboard Collaborate, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp, and on occasion, i have used Skype and other tools, when requested by students. The benefits remain the same: Student engagement, providing them with quality contact time, assistance, and making it most convenient to them.

    One advantage of today's Web conferencing tools is the ability to jump on a shared application/desktop screen and see exactly what the students are having problems with, or show them things. I also tend to record the sessions, and share them with the rest of the class for on)demand playback. As long as the recording does not contain any student privacy FERPA-protected discussion it is alright. Students like the recordings, and my course stats who they watch some of the virtual office hours recordings especially prior to exams and prior to major class projects deadlines.

  • Kathleen

    First, thank you for this very helpful Office Hours follow-up compilation of responses. With it, I’m able to go through the list for commentary.

    Under the section titled, “Schedule office hours when they’re convenient,” I see this suggestion: a calendar with possible times and having students initial those that don’t work for them. Wouldn’t it be easier and clearer to have students initial those that DO work for them? Negative notations are too difficult to work with and should be avoided.

    I must note here that adjunct instructors (who comprise at least 50% of most faculties) are lucky to have one office hour per week allotted to them, or two at most, during which they might have to share a desk if they could find one free. Completely useless, and inconvenient for students to get to that building. To overcome this problem, I have always scheduled conference days during class time instead. Alerting my students to when a conference day was coming, I would give my class a lengthy exercise or test, or set them to working on a group project, then I quickly set up two student chair-desks in the hallway, calling on individuals with whom to have a ten minute conference. That doesn’t seem like much time, but you’d be surprised by how much you can cover, and every student loved having that head-to-head private session during which I could address their individual concerns and offer praise and advice. It always broke the ice and gave them a boost. I could usually see five students during that period, still have time for lecture or group work review, and would schedule another conference day the following week. In the end, I got to share personal time with every last student in the class, a great motivator for all of them.

    This method eliminated any need for all of the other suggestions such as requiring a visit, awarding points, keeping records of same, etc. In addition, I constantly reminded my students they could reach me at any time via campus e-mail since I practically lived at my computer anyway, even on weekends. Many did make use of that opportunity.

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