Office Hours

Some thoughts about office hours with probably no real or useful conclusion.

I’ve been thinking about office hours lately. I don’t really have a point to it all, so I’ll just go with questions and partial answers.  Enjoy!

Should one have scheduled physical office hours? It is convenient for both teacher and students to hold online office hours, but there are always somethings that are best (and only?) done in person. So unless the course is entirely online with no local students, then one should at least have physical office hours.  And it is also convenient for all for office hours to be ‘By Appointment only’ but there is a certain need and security in having at least one scheduled hour per week. In general, students don’t come to office hours enough, but occasionally they need to be able to see you in person, and so yes, have a scheduled physical office hour.

Is it a good or a bad sign if lots of students come to your office hours? It is a good sign in that it shows that you are an approachable teacher, and that students are taking some initiative to be successful in you class. It is a bad sign in that it shows that some students are not being reached during the regular class, that you’ve maybe crossed the line from instructor to friend, and that students aren’t doing much on their own to figure stuff out and are depending on you. It’s probably bad overall, if lots of the same students come all the time and they either need you to basically explain everything again, or they spend most of the time just shooting the breeze.

How can I get more students to come to my office hours? It’s probably not really a problem of getting more students, but of getting the right students to come to office hours. For that I recommend making sure that students know of your office hours regularly, know why they should come, and know what to expect when the do come. You should also make the office hours effective, meaning don’t be too friendly, address the concerns or questions, make sure their concerns or questions are resolved to some satisfaction, and let them move on. If you do have specific students that you think should come, the direct approach of a note on homework or test, or an email, inviting (requiring) them to come by is best. It can also help if you refer to productive things that happened during office hours while in class, like ‘As one of your classmates, brought up during office hours …’.

How can I get fewer students to come to my office hours (when they have other, more appropriate, opportunities)? This relates to teaching a large-lecture (140+ students) with GTA support (1 per group of 35ish). In this case, I want students to first meet with his or her GTA and only come to me with bigger issues or as recommended by the GTA. For this, I’d publish and announce the GTA office hours early and often, and make sure that the GTAs are showing up. I’d make it clear that the GTA is the first contact and that I won’t get involved until they’ve been tried. I’d minimize my office hours, maybe limiting them to 1 scheduled hour, with additional contact through email or a discussion board. Overall, I’d push information to the web, and individual tutoring to the GTAs. I’d probably pull back a bit from being too approachable, making office contact more formal and not so inviting.  I might also replace office hours with group sessions (with GTA support). (If it’s a smaller class, and you just don’t want any students coming by, just be a jerk, be non-helpful, be unavailable, say mean things; few will come, none will come back)

How many office hours should I have per week? Some schools have rules, we don’t, except you do need to post something about office hours, and try to have at least one scheduled per week. The number and schedule depends on the class and the students (and you). I like to schedule 2 per week, on the days before class, with extras available by appointment. This also requires using some web based means of either announcements, emails, or a discussion board, and using the small spots before and after class to resolve quick technical questions. Have a small number of scheduled hours can also work well if you otherwise have an open-door policy, i.e. if they stop by, with a short question, and my door’s open, they can ask; if it is a more involved visit, I’ll ask them to come to office hours or schedule something.

What e-resources do you recommend for office hour substitutes? Good old email is fine for individual simple yes/no questions.  For classwide information, I use the announcement capability in our LMS.  I’ve also used Piazza as it allows both corporate and individual messages, peer-to-peer responses, and supports TeX. I have a colleague who uses Facebook Chat (or whatever it’s called), and the discussion board in Google (or on an LMS). I’ve thought about using Google Hangout or Skype with a whiteboard.  With Google Hangout, the session could be recorded for later. The best answer might depend on what your students have easy access to and are willing to use.  It also depends on whether you want synchronous  or asynchronous communication, individual or group, or the ability to save (and edit) responses for later. I don’t think the right (or wrong) choice will really make a dramatic difference in student participation, but might make a difference in the instructor’s enthusiasm and participation.

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