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Meeting the Office Hour Challenge

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
597

Some students are intimidated by faculty, or see using office hours as a sign of having severe problems in the class. To counter this impression, some faculty ask students to come by to tell them what they do know and understand, thus creating a positive experience for the interaction. A number require office visits as part of the class, and offer incentives (including points toward grade) to get students to drop by.

Folks:

The posting below looks at how to maximize the effectiveness of your office hours. It is by Miriam Rosalyn Diamond, Northeastern University Center for Effective University Teaching, and is #24 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, September, 2004, Volume 13, Number 5, ? Copyright 1996-2004. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Finding My Teaching Voice

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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MEETING THE OFFICE HOUR CHALLENGE

Miriam Rosalyn Diamond, Northeastern University Center for Effective University Teaching

 

"I have so many projects, deadlines, course preparations - even family concerns - on my mind. How can I keep from being distracted so I can focus on the students and their needs when they're in my office?"

"Students don't come to my office hours. When they do come, how can I get a handle on why they are struggling with the material and what the best way is to help them?"

"Sometimes when I meet with a student during office hours, it becomes apparent that they are having personal difficulties that are affecting their work. I'm not a trained therapist. How should I handle the situation?"

Sound familiar? Office hours can provide a setting in which to teach students, provide remedial assistance, coach them on assignments, and encourage those who are investigating your field as a major or career. Yet, faculty rarely get the opportunity to discuss the challenges they face and techniques they use to maximize the effectiveness of office hours.

I've worked with faculty and teaching assistants investigating the various uses of office hours as well as strategies for maximizing learning in this setting. The approaches we discussed may be useful to anyone who wants to make the most of time spent one-to-one with students.

As a first step, we listed purposes for holding office hours. (The rationale and approach for meeting with students varies by discipline, type of work assigned, and teaching approach used by faculty.) The objectives we came up with included the following:

Purposes of Holding Office Hours

* to clarify concepts/operations/expectations

* to discuss/resolve grading issues

* to help solve problems

* to assist with writing (including grammar, thesis)

* to motivate students

* to increase learner self-?confidence

* to teach studying and time management techniques

* to uncover reasons for student mistakes/misunderstanding

* to provide a check-in point and direction on projects and independent research

This partial list illustrates the many activities associated with office hours that support good instruction. But office hours present their own sets of challenges. In workshops, faculty collaborated on ways to address some of these. Here are their suggestions:

Challenge: Getting Students to Utilize Office Hours

It can be difficult for students to recognize that office hours can actually help them. Thus they need to be encouraged to make use of this resource. Some professors design a project-based course with mandatory check-in points that require students to meet with faculty to give progress reports and receive direction. Others make frequent references to and reminders about office hours during class (time, location, availability), particularly around exam time or major due dates.

Some students are intimidated by faculty, or see using office hours as a sign of having severe problems in the class. To counter this impression, some faculty ask students to come by to tell them what they do know and understand, thus creating a positive experience for the interaction. A number require office visits as part of the class, and offer incentives (including points toward grade) to get students to drop by.

Sometimes location is the problem; students have difficulty finding the office or it is too far out of their way to make it easy to visit. In that case, some professors hold office hours somewhere other than their actual office, such as a computer lab, cafeteria or study area.

Challenge : Dealing with Faculty Distractions

Working in the office can be distracting. Telephones ring, email notifications beep, colleagues and staff pop in, graduate students come by, making it difficult to give students full attention.

Some faculty make a point of turning off their phone ringer and email notifications when they are meeting with students. I know of several professors who close their doors and post "do not disturb" signs. Communicating with other students who may be waiting and with colleagues about respecting this time has proven helpful for a number of professors. Finally, notify students ahead of time if you are expecting an urgent call or email, and check the caller ID to make sure it is the important call before answering the phone.

Challenge: Handling Student Problems that Extend Beyond Class

Often during the course of office hours, students reveal that they are struggling with issues that go beyond the realm of the class. These include personal, emotional, financial difficulties as well as learning problems. In such cases, it is important to validate the concern, while explaining the boundaries of faculty responsibility and expertise. It is important to have a list of campus resources readily available, including the counseling center, campus mediation program, department for students with disabilities, tutoring and writing support, and center for Affirmative Action. Refer students to the appropriate office. It is possible to have students call from your office, so you can be assured of follow-through. Some professors walk with students directly to the department.

Office hours offer an opportunity for more individualized attention and instruction than classes. They also provide space for more dialogue and a less formal communication style. Yet the amount of time available to meet with each student or groups of students may be limited. Therefore, faculty often use approaches to teaching in this venue that differ from tactics used in classes. During our workshops, participants participated in and observed an unscripted office hour problem-solving session role-play, and noted what the instructor did that seemed the most useful in supporting the students' learning. They generated the following list.

Tactics to Support Learning During Office Hours

* building rapport

* listening

* asking questions to diagnose/identify areas of difficulty

* answering student questions

* reviewing/explaining/clarifying (in a variety of ways)

* coaching/hinting/prompting/offering advice

* outlining steps/heuristics

* summarizing what was done

* demonstrating/modeling

* solving the problem together

* motivating/encouraging/reassuring/confidence-building

* acknowledging difficulty/reassuring

* giving feedback

* scaffolding/fading (providing less guidance and having the student work more independently over time)

* providing sample test/problems

* solving problems with a small group of students through discussion or collaborative work

* teaching study skills

* coaching on test-taking tactics

* scheduling follow-up visits

* giving the student an assignment to do between visits

Another important role of office hours is to increase the student sense of "mattering" at college. Mattering is a term coined by Morris Rosenberg and Nancy K. Schlossberg to describe feeling significant to others. It includes getting recognition for work done, feeling valued and useful. It also means knowing that people care about one's achievements, successes and setbacks. My own research shows that students who feel they matter in their universities are more likely to persist in their studies. Their self-image as a (successful) student can be supported, and educational efforts can be reinforced.

Faculty can use office hours to increase students' sense of mattering. By making the effort to learn names and something about the students (where they grew up, their career goals, groups and activities they are involved in), faculty convey a sense of interest in the individual. Encouraging students to persist and providing stories of others who were able to succeed in the class despite initial difficulties can demonstrate to students the faculty member's belief that the student can succeed. Through recognizing improvements in understanding and skills, faculty can reinforce student efforts while conveying that they care about the individual's progress and learning. The impact of these actions should not be underestimated.

Office hours provide a valuable setting for teaching and learning. It is worth making an extra effort to maximize effectiveness in this venue.

Contact:

Miriam R. Diamond

Center for Effective Teaching

225 Hayden Hall

Northeastern University

360 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115 - 5000

Email: M.Diamond@neu.edu

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