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Making the Most of Office Hours

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
519

Start out by publicizing your office hours, first in your syllabus, then on the board during the first day of class, and intermittently during the term before "high traffic" weeks, such as before exams and paper deadlines. You might have your students write your office hours and location(s) on the front of their course notebooks. In addition, post your hours prominently outside your office door.

Folks:

The posting below offers some excellent advice on how to make your office hours more productive. looks at some interesting factors impacting intrinsic and extrinsic faculty rewards. It is from Chapter 10 in Teaching at Its Best, A Research-based Resource for College Instructors, Second Edition, by Linda B. Nilson. Copyright ? 2003 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-882982-64-9 Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 176 Ballville Road P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA . Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Developing Faculty to Use Technology

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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MAKING THE MOST OF OFFICE HOURS

Linda B. Nilson

 

When you think of your role as an instructor, you normally picture yourself lecturing, facilitating discussion, answering questions, and the like in front of a classroom or laboratory-in any case, interacting with a group of students. During office hours, however, you interact with and tutor individual students as well. This is a golden teaching opportunity because one-on-one tutoring yields more learning by far than does group instruction (Bloom, 1984). Yet we rarely discuss or conduct research on holding effective office hours. Face-to-face in private, students share their confusions, misunderstandings, and questions more candidly and completely than they do in class, and you are in the best position to give them the individual attention they need. The problem is getting them in your office.

Find out the number of office hours per week that your institution or department requires or expects of instructors. You may want to add another hour when you have a relatively large class or an intensive writing course, or if you are a professor without a TA.

Getting Students to See You

Students see TAs during their office hours with little hesitation. But most of them, freshmen in particular, are intimidated by the prospect of visiting even the kindest, most hospitable faculty member. If you're a TA who teaches your own course, you may be mistaken for faculty and face the same problem. Spending your office hours alone with your research and writing may seem attractive at first, but it won't after you see those disappointing first papers, lab reports, or quizzes. So it is best to make efforts to induce the students to see you. These efforts include finding the right place, setting the right times, and giving a lot of encouragement.

The right place.

Office hours need not always be in your office. Howard Gogel (1985) of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine conducted an informal experiment that broadened the location possibilities. During a three-year observation period, he scheduled his office hours in a remote office building for the first and third years and in a common study area in the medical library the second year. In the first and third years, only one student showed up each year, predictably just prior to an exam. In the second year, however, a full 20 percent of his students paid him visits at various times during the semester to discuss the material and to ask questions. Could it be that students are more intimidated by your office than by you? Or perhaps the issue is the convenience of your office location. Does this mean you should move your office hours out of your office? If your office is out of the way for your students, the idea is worth considering, especially before exams and paper deadlines. You might even split your office hours between two locations-some in your office and some in the student union or an appropriate library.

The right times.

Be careful and considerate in scheduling your office hours. If you are available only briefly during prime class time-that is, when students are attending their other classes-then you immediately reduce your students' ability to see you. If you teach a discussion, recitation, or laboratory section, make sure that your office hours do not overlap with the lecture portion of the course. If there aren't enough hours in the day, consider scheduling an early evening office our, perhaps in the student union, an appropriate library, or another student-friendly location. During the term, remind your classes periodically that you also meet by appointment.

The right encouragement.

Start out by publicizing your office hours, first in your syllabus, then on the board during the first day of class, and intermittently during the term before "high traffic" weeks, such as before exams and paper deadlines. You might have your students write your office hours and location(s) on the front of their course notebooks. In addition, post your hours prominently outside your office door.

It also helps to establish a friendly classroom atmosphere on the first day of class by having students fill out index cards on themselves, by conducting ice-breaker activities, and by sharing highlights of your own background (see Chapter 7). On that day and throughout the term, warmly invite students to stop by your office to talk about the course as well as the material. But even the warmest series of invitations may not provide enough encouragement. You may have to require the pleasure of their company. Here are several acceptable ways:

* Make it a regular course requirement for each student to schedule a time to meet with you as early in the term as possible. The first meeting will pave the way for future voluntary visits.

* Have students schedule individual meetings while they are writing the first paper. You can use this opportunity to review their first draft and to clarify your expectations for the paper.

* Have students turn in papers, problem sets, lab reports, extra credit work, etc. not in class but in your office during certain hours of a non-class day.

* Have students schedule meetings with you to get their grades on their papers or written assignments. You can return their marked papers or assignments in class for them to review before meeting with you, but hold the grades "hostage."

* If you divide your class into cooperative learning groups or assign group projects, you might have each group schedule at least one appointment with you to give a progress report. When students arrive, especially the first time, try to make them feel welcome and at ease. After all, they're on your turf, and it takes courage for them to be there. You might spend the first minute or two finding out how they are, how the course is going for them, and what they think of their college experience in general.

In this day and age, however, too warm an approach can be misunderstood. If you are meeting in your office, close the door for privacy but leave it slightly ajar. Also maintain a respectable seating distance.

Should an emergency or illness prevent you from making your office hours, leave a note, or ask your department staff to leave a note, apologizing for your unavoidable absence.

Making the Time Productive

Most students who come to your office hours do so with a definite purpose in mind, often one that you have defined in class. So it is worth a little class time, if not a section in your syllabus, to advise students on how to prepare for meetings with you. You cannot be expected to read their minds.

For instance, you might instruct them to come with appropriate materials: their journals and/or lecture notes, their lab books, their homework problems, drafts of their papers, and/or the readings with troublesome passages marked. You might even tell them to write out their questions or points of confusion as clearly as they can. If the issue is a homework problem, insist that they work it out as far as they can, even if they know their approach is faulty. If the issue is a grade, tell them to bring in a written justification-with citations to the readings, lectures, discussions, labs, etc.-for changing their grade.

Reserve the right to terminate and reschedule a meeting if a student is not adequately prepared. Why waste both your time? In addition, counsel students that they are not to use your office hours to get a condensed version of the classes they've missed nor to get you to write their papers or do their homework problems for them. See Chapter 8 for suggestions on handling problematic student demand and questions.

When a student does come properly prepared, try to give her your undivided attention. If you cannot prevent intrusive phone calls, do keep them brief. If other students are waiting outside your door, work efficiently without letting their presence distract you.

Student-Active Tutoring

To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible. Refer to Chapter 13 on the discovery method, especially the section on the Socratic method, and Chapter 16 on questioning techniques for recommendations on how to help students work through their confusions as much on their own as possible. While some students resent this strategy, you can often be most helpful by respond to their questions that will lead them to answers. After all, they won't really lean what you tell them-only what they themselves realize (Bonwell and Eison, 1991).

Usually, the single most informative (to you) and helpful (to them) question that you can pose to students you are tutoring is why they chose the answer or problem-solving approach that they did (especially if it's an incorrect one), why they came to the conclusion they did (have them reason it through), or why they stopped solving the problem, researching, reasoning, writing, etc., where they did. This question should lead both of you to the key misconception, misunderstanding, missing step, or error in reasoning. Sometimes students want to see you to give them a sense of security. For instance, they have revised their paper according to your or their peer group's specifications, but they lack confidence in their writing. Or they have done their homework problems, but they want you to check them over. Rather than giving just perfunctory affirmations, you can help them acquire their own sense of security by having them explain and justify to you their revisions or problem solutions. If they can "teach" their rationales, they've earned the right to feel confident.

Identifying student errors calls for extra gentleness. Students who come to for extra help are probably feeling somewhat insecure and self-conscious. So it is a good idea to praise their smallest breakthroughs generously, and let them know you appreciate their coming to see you. You want them to feel welcome to come back.

If a student fails to show up on time for an appointment, call to remind her and reschedule if necessary. If she simply forgot, counsel her that your time is too valuable a commodity to be forgotten.

Students in Academic or Emotional Trouble

Dealing with students in serious trouble is beyond the scope of an instructor's responsibility. Students who seem overwhelmed by the material who lack basic writing, reasoning, and mathematical skills should be referred the learning skills or academic assistance center on your campus. As described in Chapter 1, a unit of this type usually offers individual tutoring and workshops on a range of academic skills, such as textbook reading, writing, studying, problem solving, note-taking, critical thinking, test preparation, and general learning. Emotionally distressed students usually need professional help. For your own peace of mind, it is important to remember that you are neither the cause of nor the solution to their problems, even if they try to attribute them to a grade you've assigned. You can be most helpful by knowing how to identify such students, promptly referring them to your institution's psychological or counseling center, and informing the center about the encounter. Here are some warning signs:

* angry challenges to your authority

* physical aggression, either real or threatened

* complaints of rejection or persecution

* distorted perceptions of reality

* unjustified demands on your time

* expressions of hopelessness or extreme isolation

* apparent drug or alcohol abuse

* dramatic mood swings or erratic behavioral changes

* continual depression or listlessness

The most immediate proper responses to aggressive behaviors are simple and easy to remember: When dealing with verbal aggression, make arrangements to meet with the student later in a private place to allow the emotions to defuse (verbal, private). If you sense the situation may elevate to physical abuse, move yourself and the student into a public area (physical, public).

It is impossible to anticipate all the different kinds of help that your students may need. Chapter 1 will help you refer them to the right office.