I was trying to think of ways in which I could make my office hours more effective in terms of connecting with students and having meaningful discussions. I noticed that some students often seemed intimidated in my office, and sometimes avoided making eye contact. I decided to hold walking office hours, where we walk on trails around campus.
I teach several undergraduate science courses (with enrollment ranging from 24 to 1,000 students), and for each course I schedule about 2–3 office hours every week, plus midterm prep sessions, as well as final exam reviews. This translates to more than 108 hours in total (which is more than 6,480 minutes), all spent sitting in my office meeting with students, and if they don't show up, then waiting for them to come. Sometimes my office hours are fulfilling and productive, and I think the students benefit—they can contain golden teaching opportunities that strengthen the relationship between professor and student. However, at other times, they can feel rushed when there is a long line of students waiting to be seen, or they can seem impersonal (such as when students come solely to request grade increases). Now with online office hours or other types of virtual office hours, they can feel even more impersonal.
I was trying to think of ways in which I could make my office hours more effective in terms of connecting with students and having meaningful discussions. I noticed that some students often seemed intimidated in my office, and sometimes avoided making eye contact. I decided to hold walking office hours, where we walk on trails around campus. Being a parent, I noticed that my kids are sometimes more willing to talk about difficult subjects when they are in the car and aren't making direct eye contact. I thought perhaps the same would be true of my students, as it is difficult to make direct eye contact when walking on trails. It became clear to me that walking office hours, although I'm not advising that they should act as a replacement for traditional office hours, are an excellent supplement. I'd like to explain why.
How it works: I suggest you post walking office hours at the start of the term, and send email reminders the day before. Also, post a map of the route and where students can join the route. I find it works best to have a ∼15-minute circular route, and to pass by the “pick-up point” multiple times in case students want to join your office hours at different time points. (For example, students could join at 10:00, 10:15, or 10:30.) The “pick-up point” should be a central hub, such as near the library or the main instructional building. The students can also walk in the opposite direction of the route in order to intercept you. This is another reason to have the route and direction posted clearly on the course management website. I have found that these walking office hours work well for both bigger (15+) and smaller (∼4) groups. For the bigger groups, everyone walks in twos, and I go through the middle, dropping back now and then, making sure I walk beside everyone for a bit. The bonus of this approach is that students start to talk to one another. With traditional office hours, when students were outside of my office, they would usually be rather quiet, or listening intently to the person in my office (I asked why they did this, and they told me that it was because they didn't want to miss out on any advice). It's also important to check the weather the morning of walking office hours, and email out cancellations as necessary. I don't routinely offer walking office hours in winter terms, as I live in a part of North America that can be freezing and covered in snow during winter.
Benefits: From a professor's perspective, I immediately saw a benefit in terms of the types of conversations I was having with my students, and the walking office hours definitely led to more meaningful discussions. Importantly, I felt that on these walks, I was able to be a better listener to my students as I didn't have the distractions (such as a computer, phone or hallway noise) that I may have had in my office. Also, from a personal perspective, I saw an improvement in my own mood and well-being through being more active in the outdoors with less time spent sitting at my desk. There have been many recent medical reports on how “sitting is the new smoking,” and the fact that these walking office hours have me walking on campus at least three times a week is a significant health benefit. My anecdotal impression for students is that they enjoy the extra one-on-one (or close-to-one-on-one) time. There has also been more meaningful discussion about career opportunities or research placements, or history of the subject we are talking about, and several students have applied for research positions because of these walks. At the end of the term, students have sought me out to tell me how much they appreciated the walks.
Interestingly, I found that students would come to traditional office hours and walking office hours for different reasons. The walking office hour students asked questions about my research, my experience as a student, sought out advice for personal matters, or just wanted to chat about current events. During my walking office hours, students would rarely ask questions about test or exam marks or even about course content.
I feel strongly that students should steer office hour discussions, but some may not be comfortable doing that. I found that many more students would drive the conversations during walks than during traditional office hours. The walks give the students the opportunity to “warm up” to the conversation or talk (or not talk) as we walk before asking a difficult question. I recognize that the Walking Office Hour format may select for students who are more outgoing or are more interested in “deeper” conversations; however; it's important to note that I wouldn't have had these same types of conversations had I only scheduled my traditional office hours.
Considerations: I was always aware of any mobility-challenged students that may have wanted to attend these walks, and I had a back-up route that followed sidewalks on campus in case any of these students attended. You need to consider your route carefully regardless, and a lot will depend on whether or not your campus is in an urban or rural environment. It is also important to consult your department regarding legal and insurance considerations.
These walking office hours were in addition to my traditional office hours, and thus were additional calendar items that I had to schedule. However, given that they resulted in me and my students connecting with each other, being in the outdoors, getting some exercise, engaging in meaningful conversation, and learning more about each other, I feel they were worth it. After all, the point of office hours isn't really to be in your office.
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