Student-faculty interaction outside of the classroom can improve student learning and retention (Lundberg and Schreiner, 2004; Griffin et al., 2014), and in most colleges and universities office hours are required. Likewise, participation in extracurricular activities positively influences retention and success (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, Schelbe et al., 2019). These findings are particularly true of first generation and minority students (Lundberg and Schreiner, 2004, Schelbe et al., 2019). However, faculty frequently report that their office hours are poorly attended (Lundberg and Schreiner, 2004; Griffin et al., 2014; Weimer 2019) and that students who most need their support are less likely to come (Weimer, 2019). First-generation and minority students in particular, are less likely join extracurricular activities and study groups, and four times more likely to drop out (Davis, 1991, Schelbe et al., 2019). Office hours and extracurricular activities, which should be inclusive, may actually be excluding the students whom they are most intended to benefit.
While many studies recommend improving accessibility (location, scheduling etc.) of office hours/activities to enhance attendance, fewer address the effects of student-related factors such as low self-esteem on students’ hesitancy to attend. At-risk students have a great deal to overcome. Some students may have never experienced a positive interaction with a faculty member or have no idea how to approach a faculty member. Students from minority groups may find it difficult to approach faculty who are different than themselves in terms of racial identity (Lundberg & Schreiner, 2004; Kim and Sax, 2009). In particular, African American students report that they’re afraid that faculty may hold negative opinions of their racial group (Lundberg and Schreiner, 2004).
Clearly, making office hours and other activities accessible is a necessary step toward improving inclusivity. However, reports indicate that these measures don’t significantly improve attendance (Griffin et al., 2014). This “passive inclusivity” is not enough; faculty may need to be more intentional about fostering a sense of belonging. Moreover, an atmosphere which focuses on remedial and corrective outcomes is very likely to interact poorly with students of low self-esteem. However, if one re-envisions the purpose of office hours and other activities, it’s possible to create an atmosphere which actively encourages positive behaviors, improvements, and successes while at the same time opportunistically focusing on students’ needs.
Here, we recommend taking an approach of “active inclusivity” to improve attendance at office hours and other activities. We’re not suggesting such measures as attaching a grade to attendance; this is more likely to contribute further to lowered self-esteem and unsurprisingly, positive feedback better improves motivation (Lundberg and Schreiner, 2004). Rather, we recommend an approach we borrowed and modified from the One Minute Manager (Blanchard and Johnson, 1982), which revolves around emphasizing students’ strengths, or as Blanchard and Johnson would phrase it, “Catching students doing something right.”
This approach requires mindfulness, understanding, commitment, and action.
- Be mindful. Re-envision the purpose of office hours. Explore fresh ways to have a positive impact on all students regardless of their performance rather than focusing on remedial intervention.Consider changing the name “office hours” to reflect this paradigm shift (e.g. springboard sessions or break-out sessions). Be mindful that grades don’t tell all; a student with apparently good grades may still be struggling to meet his/her full potential. For some students, your interest may make the difference between a GPA of 3.5 and a GPA of 4.0. Consider using another tip from the One Minute Manager, which is to “manage by walking around.” Casually engage students outside of expected locations and scripts. Be mindful of warning signs of a student who was doing well and is now floundering. Such signs include sudden absences, failure to complete assignments on time, withdrawal, lowered enthusiasm, or reduced interactions with peers.
- Gain better understanding (of students’ strengths). Take note of what students ask in class or write in their assignments. While educators are typically trained to form an acute awareness of at-risk behaviors, this approach additionally encourages us to become aware of moment-to-moment positive behaviors so that they might be used as a basis for reinforcement and inclusivity. In short, continually hone the mindfulness to “catch them doing something right.” Compliment them on their strengths and invite them to your office hours or activity on the basis of those strengths. For instance, “You asked an interesting question in class, I would like to meet with you to discuss it a bit more,” or “You raised an interesting idea in your last assignment. I’d like you to come to X activity and share it with the other students,” or “Your data is well presented in your lab report, can you join X activity and give the other students some tips?”
- Commit to inviting at least one student to your office hours or other activity at least once per week.
- Take action. To begin this, practice immediately and stick to it until it becomes habitual.
Students are more likely to attend if they feel they have something to contribute. When you express your confidence in their ability to contribute something meaningful, you also give them the confidence to ask questions and reap something meaningful in return. This approach creates an atmosphere in which students and faculty learn together. It empowers students to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses and to take ownership of their learning. More importantly, it fosters a sense of belonging.
Katherine Robertson is director of faculty affairs at Duke Kunshan University, China, and was previously an associate professor of biology. Timothy Smith is project manager for the Humanities Research Center at Duke Kunshan University, China.
Blanchard, K. & Johnson, S. (1982) “The One Minute Manager”. William Morrow & Co. ISBN 978-0-688-01429-2
Davis, R. (1991) “Social Support Networks and Undergraduate Student Academic-Success-Related Outcomes: A Comparison of Black Students on Black and White Campuses”. In College in Black and White: African American Students in Predominantly White and Historically Black Public Universities. Edited by W. R. Allen, E. G. Epps & N. Z. Haniff. Albany, NY SUNY Press
Griffin, W., Cohen, S. D., Berndtson, R. Burson, K. M., Camper, K. M, Chen, Y. & Smith, M. A.. (2014). “Starting the Conversation: An Exploratory Study of Factors that Influence Student Office Hour Use.” College Teaching. 62 (3): 94–9.
Kim, Y. & L. Sax. (2009). “Student–Faculty Interaction in Research Universities: Differences by Student Gender, Race, Social Class, and First-Generation Status”. Research in Higher Education. 50(5): 437–59.
Lundberg, C. A. & Schreiner, L. A. (2004) “Quality and Frequency of Faculty-Student Interaction as Predictors of Learning: An Analysis by Student Race/Ethnicity”. J. College Student Development. 45 (5), 549-565
Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P. T. (1991) “How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research”. San Fransisco: Josey-Bass Inc. ISBN-1-55542-304-3
Schelbe, L., Becker, M.S., Spinelli, C. & McCray, D. (2019) First Generation Students’ Perceptions of an Academic Retention Program. J. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 19 (5), 61-76.
Weimer, M. (2019) “Office Hours Alternative Resonates with Students”. Faculty Focus. February 15th 2019, retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/office-hours-alternative-resonates-students/