January 21st, 2015

Why Students Don’t Attend Office Hours

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More than 600 students answered 17 survey items about one of their courses in order to help researchers explore factors that influence students’ use of office hours. The research goal was to identify ways instructors could increase the use of office hours because so many students don’t take advantage of this opportunity to interact with faculty. Sixty-six percent of these students reported that they had not attended office hours for the course in question. The remaining third had been to the instructor’s office once. Only 8% reported attending office hours more than once a month. These percentages are consistent with previous findings.

The researchers examined a number of course and instructor characteristics identified elsewhere in the literature as being relevant to student-faculty interaction. Here are some (not all) of the items that ended up being associated with the use of office hours: whether the instructor gave useful feedback during office hours, whether they were held at a convenient time and location, if the course was at the 100 or 400 level, if students perceived the class as small, if the course was required either as general education or as part of a major, and if the student was taking advantage of university-sponsored peer tutoring.

Just as interesting is a sample of those course and instructor characteristics that did not influence the use of office hours for these students: whether the instructor was willing to schedule additional office hours, whether the instructor was available through and responsive to email, whether the course was blended or traditional, whether the instructor was approachable, whether in-class discussions were useful, and whether the material was explained clearly in class.

Study authors claim that those factors influencing student decisions to use office hours are largely beyond the instructor’s control. I see that being true of some of the characteristics, for example course level, class size, whether the course is required, and whether the student has opted for tutoring, but not for others. Instructors set their own office hours. Obviously, on any given day they have other commitments, but still there are discretionary time blocks. And true, instructors usually don’t get to pick their office locations, but just because they’re called office hours doesn’t mean that’s where the meeting has to take place. Lastly, faculty members most certainly control the kind of feedback offered during office hours.

The question not asked here is why students don’t make use of office hours. I wonder if we underestimate the fear factor. Most of us have a hard time imagining how we could provoke fear in a student, but we do. First, we have deep subject matter expertise, and that alone can be intimidating. In addition, we evaluate their work, which they often see as connected to their character. Plus, it’s embarrassing to have to ask for help, especially when the person you’re asking talks about how it’s easy and obvious. And what if the answer leaves you more confused, not less?

The researchers do recommend that faculty “educate” students as to the benefits of office hours. I think it might be more useful if students discovered those benefits for themselves. Perhaps some alternatives would increase the chances of discovery. What about topical office hours? Say there’s something a lot of students are struggling with, schedule some office hour time when you’ll work on that topic with individuals, pairs, or small groups.

These researchers also recommend soliciting feedback from students as to the “convenient” scheduling of office hours. Identify three of four possible times that work with your schedule and see which students prefer. Office hours can occasionally or regularly be convened in other locations, such as a place where students tend to congregate that’s still conducive to conversation.

Although we hold office hours as a way of supporting students, they benefit us as well. That time together helps strengthen our connections with students. We learn of student concerns—about assignments, course content, and their progress in the major. Perhaps those benefits deserve a mention.

If you have good strategies for getting student to take advantage of office hours, please share them. Those of us who aspire to increase the use of office hours would welcome new ideas.

Reference: Griffin, W. et. al., (2014). Starting the conversation: An exploratory study of factors that influence student office hour use. College Teaching, 62 (3), 94-99.

© Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

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  • JLL

    I found a small increase in office hours when I started using the site https://ga.youcanbook.me/. It's free, and you can put a button to make an appointment on a website.

    • Prof.AVjr

      This is a really good idea! thanks I just developed an account, I will try it around Mid-Terms and Pr-Exam days

  • CMI

    For first year classes, I sometimes require that students see me outside of class to discuss their research paper topics and progress. Although many will come to office hours only that once, many others realize that the one-on-one discussion is beneficial–and they will continue to stop in. Another strategy that works for a colleague is changing the location of the meeting: he tells his students that he will be sitting in the food court at certain times, and many will stop in to see him because it's convenient and less intimidating.

    • SGR

      Great idea!

    • WCF

      I go one step further with my first year students. Their day-one assignment is to find my office, make a rubbing from a plaque on my wall and note the picture on my calendar. It forces the student to step out of their comfort zone and across the threshold into my office. Once in my office, I usually make small talk to help them find a personal connection with me. Sometimes that connection is based on where they are from, their personal interest or something in my office. It has greatly increased the visits from students with problems or questions on the course material.

      I usually have around 70+ students in my sections of the first year classes so that first half of the first week each quarter pretty exhausting for me as an introvert, but it is well worth the ROI.

  • Karen

    I used to hold on-line office hours through our Blackboard portal. However, I found that when they were right before an assignment was due – lots of students came on-line and when an assignment wasn't due, no one came on line.

    Eventually I gave up because the students were just asking how to do the assignment rather than asking questions that indicated they were having trouble with the assignment.

  • Phyllis Freeman

    The strategy that worked best for me was to "invite" via personal note, each member of the class to visit me during office hours early in the semester (and I wrote "no appointment necessary" on the note). I staggered the notes inviting 10 students at a time so that I wouldn't be overwhelmed (I never was) and followed up with those who didn't come. This worked particularly well in my large Intro Psych sections and let me see students before the first exam and demonstrated that I was approachable and present.

    • Susan

      We encourage faculty to hold at least one office hour per week in the library. Those who have taken advantage of it find it to be a good way to encounter students in a less formal setting.

      • Marty

        I agree that the office itself can be an intimidating setting. Faculty offices are often tucked down long hallways, away from areas where students are comfortable. Meeting students in the library, cafeteria, outdoor bench, or via Skype situates the student in a comfortable, familiar setting–much more conducive to professional relationship-building and specialized instruction/assistance.

  • Elena

    The interesting fact that "instructor characteristics that did not influence the use of office hours for these students: whether the instructor was willing to schedule additional office hours" tells me that students are not very interested in looking for help.
    I agree, that to some extent the fear factor is influencing their decision. Another trend that I have noticed in students is their imprinted by school confidence in their uniqueness and faultlessness is conflicting with the real life imperfection and responsibility for their own actions.
    As one of my students said yesterday: "I don't have time to read the book or study for the class, it is your job to teach me what each letter of what you are writing on the board is. And not once! Once is not enough. I need to hear it at least 10 times"
    It sounds like they came to the job with expectation that the job will be done by someone else. With this attitude, it is not their worry to seek for help, help should be delivered in a fun and convenient package. And no matter how hard we try, the recipients are not there to get the package…
    When motivated student starts the study group (we do have them, yes we do) and asks a professor to visit the meetings occasionally, students learn that instructor's help could be beneficial. My experience shows though, that even then, most of the students will come to get what is given and not to ask their questions…. Is it connected to the lack of study skills?

  • Prof.AVjr.

    What about trying it with all students most come at least one time to see me and get points for that appointment

  • Jacquie

    I am a new teacher and this fall I observed my first-year students were not using my office hours. So, I provided an alternate option, a weekly 1 1/2 hour block for drop-in located in a meeting room where students could come individually or as a group to discuss any topic of interest. Interestingly, every week I had at least a few and sometimes as many as six to eight students take advantage of this option — often some stayed well beyond the time block offered. I think contributing factors may have been I promoted this one short block in class and perhaps for some of them it was the ability to come as a team, hence reducing any intimidation of coming to the professor's office alone. I have observed the students are juggling a lot and often come to college at a time of great social development so distractions are high. Perhaps the one block option gave them a manageable chunk of time to focus on. I will continue to experiment with this. I like the idea of posting a meeting booking mechanism as JLL suggested. Like all of us perhaps, students seem to respond best when the options are simplified.

  • Dave

    I learned that my GRADUATE students didn't know what office hours were!

    I held an office hour from 11-12 (and other blocks of time during the day). I'd close my office and go to lunch. After a couple visits at 12:02 from one of my students, I asked why he didn't show up during my office hours. He replied, "Because I didn't want to bother you during your office hours."

    Now, in my classes, I spell out in the syllabus what office hours are AND what they are for.

    • Jossie V. de Varona

      Nice recommendation….I will definitely add such an explanation in my syllabus. My office hours are MW from 11 -12 and then from 2-3 and same thing happens!

  • Professor B.

    I have made my office kind of a "student lounge" stocked with chocolate and a number of stress-reducing toys and gadgets. My office hours schedule always includes "whenever my door is open" and students feel welcome to come hang out, which makes it easier for them to discuss important topics. I am also very liberal with appointment times because at my school many students work, and we have many evening classes, which makes daytime office hours inconvenient for some.

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  • Julia

    I teach sociology at a relatively small campus with about 2,500 students. Notwithstanding the fact that I usually have one or two students stop by on a regular day; I decided to make myself more accessible to them, thinking that some students may feel uncomfortable to meet me one on one at my office. This semester, I reserved the classroom that I normally teach for 45 minutes on a Thursday and call it "sociology review session." I told students that they can drop in any time during the session to ask questions. Interestingly, last week was the first week in the semester and I had one student actually showed up to ask me a question. Although I have yet to see whether students will seize the opportunity. Thank you for your article. It validated my decision.

  • David

    I have taught at large Carnegie 1's (Cincinnati, Purdue), mid sized publics (Miami, Oh.) and a host of small private schools at every level from UG to PhD. This is a good article, but, in the current environment I am thinking it is missing a key idea. Student's lack face to face skills: they prefer to IM, Text, I even get questions and comments to my FB page and I am not talking about undergraduates, I am talking about MBA's. We devote significant time and attention – three semesters to "networking" and the importance of connecting with a multiplicity of people. To the considerable annoyance and irritation of many, we find that whether it is coming to see a professor, meeting their mentor, getting in touch with a client, contacting an expert in the field or even forming a study group — students in the 18 – 26 have no conception of how to reach out unless it involves technology. We are finding that they will not even pick the phone or their cell. The other day, I actually learned that sometimes they text each other in class with questions while they are sitting there in class!!!! We are educating a generation of folks with the interpersonal, emotional, social skills of tweens or preteens not young emergent professionals. I fear our obsessive concern with using "smart classrooms" and technology in class only serves to further erode their skills. So, while I do not mean to absolve faculty or setting a tone, implementing practices and doing what they can to facilitate the process,, we may have to accept the fact that even though we are willing, the light is on and the door is open — they just may not come to see us in the way or ways we worked with our faculty. Thus, the question becomes — do we cave in and allow them the luxury of texts, emails, IM's or do we wrtie/call back and with something like,, thank you – great to hear from you — I am freee from 1 – 4 on Tuesday and 2-3 on wednesday — why don't you stop and see me.

    • spatel

      I require face to face discussion, since I teach highly technical courses. Email and text cannot convey accurately what i can fact to face with a chalkboard/whiteboard on which to write and discuss along with

  • Cheryl Spector

    Some excellent points in the article and in these follow-up comments. I direct the college success course at our large campus. This year we began teaching freshmen how to go to office hours by having them perform brief role-play exercises in class. A key part of the role play is giving them entrance and exit lines so they know how to start and end their visit. Faculty teaching this course (like CMI in the comments above) require students to come to office hours to discuss an early low-stakes assignment by way of practicing the skill of conversing face-to-face with an adult. Our spring 2014 focus group with upper-division students who had taken the course in earlier years identified office hours as an area of concern; that's why we added the exercise to the course.

  • This term I shared a Google Doc with my students that contained a table of my available times when I could schedule office hours. I asked students to indicate when they were unavailable by typing their inititals into those blocks I had indicated were available to me. This informed me that I needed to ensure that I didn't use the same time block on the same day. So now I have office hours at 10:30 one day, 11:30 another day and 2:30 pm on Fridays (I guess students don't register for classes and labs meeting on Friday afternoon). Thus far, I am getting way more traffic through my office than in past years. And some students really do come to see me on Friday afternoon!

  • Laura S

    I did have to laugh at the comment above that the student "didn't want to bother you during your office hours."
    I like the idea of being available in the food court/cafeteria. One semester I had a late afternoon class and then had a leisurely dinner in the campus cafeteria. I put in my syllabus that this is a time to "stop by and chat & chew". I had more students come to see me during dinner than during my official "office hours". This past semester I used our final class session as an "optional review session". One student suggested making it a little pot luck type end-of-semester party/review/open discussion session. I was pleased that almost all the regular class attendees came to this "optional" session. I often find that several students stick around after class with questions or issues they need to discuss. If we have somewhere to get to after class, this can turn into a "walk & talk" session. So holding "office hours" in the office does not seem as effective as meeting with students elsewhere. But I do like the suggestion to assign students to find our office and stop long enough to make note of something on display.

  • Jason

    Re: "The researchers do recommend that faculty “educate” students as to the benefits of office hours."

    Freshmen in astronomy at Penn State have an "Office Hours" assignment in their first year seminar class: they must attend at least one office hours for a regular lecture course and answer a series of questions about it in essay form for a grade. Many write that they are surprised that it is both super helpful and totally underutilized.

    I always do a Doodle poll of times to choose my office hours. It signals to my students that 1) I know they can make it, and 2) I care enough about them coming that I'm not just polling, but rearranging my schedule to be sure they com. Still, almost no one comes.

  • Venina

    An interesting article indeed! In the past year, most students came during office hours but the other students who were tired of waiting in-line were the ones who send text messages later, including the weekends. Then I noticed the 'habits' of the students – Tuesday to Thursday they will come in numbers to clarify and verify changes to clinical attachment areas, not on Monday and Friday.

  • Cathy C-C

    I apologize if this idea was already posted, but I offer 2 extra credit points (equivalent of about 2% on an exam) if my students in my Introductory Psychology course come see me during my office hours (or make an appointment if they can't come then) before the midpoint in the semester. They can ask questions, if they have any, but most of the time we just chat for about 10 minutes. It helps to create connections between me and the students. Also, that very minute incentive also helps to give the students an external reason for coming to see the professor (to avoid any possibility of feeling like a "brown noser".) Approximately 75% of my students come by. And as we know, if the student comes to office hours once, they are likely to come again – and that is indeed what I find.

    • djj

      I also offer extra credit – 1 bonus point toward their final grade – and find this is extremely effective! I try to meet with all of my students during the first 2-3 weeks of class. I create a schedule of available appointments and pass it around during class so students can sign up. This is so helpful for both the students and me. It helps them realize that I am approachable and accessible to them, and it helps us develop rapport that significantly impacts the learning that we can do together in the classroom. Taking the time to get to know my students is an opportunity for them to develop trust, and this allows them to feel safe in the classroom and to take more risks. Even though it is time consuming for the few weeks that it is happening, the individual appointments completely change the tenor of the course. I teach on sexual violence, and would highly recommend this for other courses where the topics are emotionally charged or personal – having connection with your students gives you more latitude in facilitating difficult conversations.

  • James

    I teach at an urban community college where a large percentage of students are first generation college students. With this demographic, I found the best thing to do with office hours is to explain why professors hold office hours. Sounds like common sense? Maybe, but maybe not to the students in my service area. To that end, I also give lectures on "how to read" an essay like a college student. For many, if not most of us, we are so accumstomed to the college or university environment that we oftem forget that the obvious is not always obvious to our students.

  • Erin

    I hope to add a different perspective — that of a recent graduate. I was fortunate to attend a small university and build very close and meaningful relationships with my professors. Some of this is due to me being a "people" person in a Human Services program, so it comes naturally, but there are some things the professors/college did that made me even more comfortable with my professors.

    First, throughout my four years, I had many of the same professors more than once. This allowed me to really get to know my professors and build a relationship with them. Second, my professors were GREAT at relating to us (due in part to our major, I'm sure). They would share their personal stories and struggles. They were honest and open in the classroom which made us more eager to interact with them outside of the classroom. One of my favorite professors smoked, as did I, he made it a point to meet me (and other students who smoked) outside the building before and after class. He'd ask our thoughts about assignments, tests, speakers, etc… He really was interested in making the courses better for us. Which leads me to my third observation. All of my professors were great at listening to the students feedback on lectures and courses. I had a textbook I happened to find that was more closely aligned to the material then the one my professor was currently using, so I suggested he check it out. He is now using it in his classes.

    I think the key is to be open with your students and they will be open with you. Remember that many of your students are coming from an environment where their teachers were "above" them, so they have it ingrained to look upon them as unapproachable. It is hard to break them of the habit of looking at professors as intimidating. Office hours are great, but I hardly used them. I was more likely to meet my professors for lunch in the cafeteria or meet them on the quad. The relaxing atmosphere makes it easier to talk.

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  • Brett Reynolds

    Give students a map to the office: paper or electronic, either works.

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  • Dr. Ivan Banks

    I have found that it is not unusual, especially at smaller schools, for faculty office hours to be held at the same time as the most popular class times. At one school, classes were crammed into the time period from 8:00 am until about 2:00 pm, with the typical Mon., Wed, Fri & Tues Thurs scheduling. For these students, they would have to miss class in order to meet faculty during office hours.

  • Dr. BM

    If 66% of students never attended and the remaining third had been to the instructor’s office once, where does the 8% that attended more than once a month fit in?