Our “office hours off campus” idea transpired from a speech given by Dr. Iain Campbell at a publisher’s workshop we attended. Dr. Campbell teaches large biology lecture courses at the University of Pittsburgh and few students came to his office to discuss problems they were having with his course. However, when he was sitting on the steps in front of the library reading the newspaper, students stopped to ask questions about that day’s lecture. He decided he would regularly read his newspaper there and when the weather turned colder, he moved to a coffee shop frequented by students. Before long, he was regularly meeting students off campus and never in his office.
Dr. Campbell’s lecture got us talking. When we were undergraduate students, how comfortable did we feel going into our professors’ offices? Did we feel confident enough to walk into book-lined offices where professors were working and admit to such knowledgeable people that we didn’t know or understand something? How often had we sought help from professors during their office hours when we were undergraduates?
Answers to these queries motivated us to try “office hours off campus” starting in the fall of 2004. We put the location (a nearby coffee shop) and time (Wednesdays between 7 and 9 p.m.) in our syllabi. On the first day of class we let students know that this would be a relaxed atmosphere where they could come and see us about problems they were having in class, reading the textbook or studying. If they just wanted to talk and tell us what was going on in their lives, that was fine, too. And here’s some of what’s happened since that first fall.
Impromptu Study Groups
Initially our hope was that we would be helping students who were struggling in our courses. What we have found, however, is that the majority of students who show up are the conscientious students who want to make sure they on the right track with their projects and study approaches. We both teach multiple sections in our disciplines and so the students who show up are not always from the same section.
At first, students find this awkward, but soon they hear us answering the same questions they have and this motivates interaction between students. They begin talking, exchanging information, and before you know it they have formed a study group. Then the group begins to send a “spokesperson” to ask a question so they can report back, or we walk around from table to table, sitting with a group and answering their questions. Often, there is not a lot of studying going on in the groups but intense discussions about other courses or individual issues. At that point it begins to alternate between a study group and a support group. This scenario repeats itself every semester.
Something else happens every semester in these informal conversations we have with our students. We learn about the various myths they have regarding graduate school or more advanced training in another type of program (i.e. you have to have all A’s to get into the program or that graduate school is easier than undergraduate classes). Some of them don’t know exactly what they want in a career and just need someone to talk to.
Often we share our past work and life experiences—discussing both the positives and the negatives. We don’t tell them what to do, but let them know there are many choices and that they need to think through all of their options. We also let them know they can talk to us anytime and much to our surprise, any number of our former students have showed up asking for assistance, career advice or help with interviewing skills.
Benefits for Instructors
As instructors, we have reaped numerous benefits and insights from our “office hours off campus.” By observing and listening to how our students study and interpret what is being taught in our classrooms, we have learned more about their strengths and weaknesses as well as our own. We have both learned to modify particular teaching strategies for specific disciplines and for different learning styles. We find out what is not getting through and this enables us to make adjustments, correct misconceptions or provide detail before we find out on the exam that they didn’t understand.
We believe wholeheartedly that this experience has made us better teachers. It has taught us how to observe our students, how to better help them, and more importantly, how to really listen to our students and their needs. We, like Dr. Campbell before us, have now made this a pillar of our teaching philosophy and know first hand that if you show your students you care about them, they will care about what you teach.
This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor in October 2011. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.