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Teaching Tip Thursday - Breathe New Life Into Office Hours

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As someone whose faculty role also included a staff role where I had to be in the office every day anyway, I never considered keeping "office hours" as anything other than just going to work. However, I know for many of my fellow faculty, office hours feel a lot like being put in the penalty box. Unfortunately, office hours are often spent alone, but they still have an air of unpredictability about them. Will today be the day a student actually drops in? If so, what will they want to discuss?

Today's idea may add some consistency, help you build out some great content to supplement your courses, and demonstrate to students that you care.

Let's take a look at a round up of ideas

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Take Your Office On The Road 

While some administrators may require that you are actually in your physical office for office hours (I'm sorry if that's who you work for), most will allow you to hold office hours elsewhere. Just advise students clearly and early where you'll be doing your office hours. My favorite place would probably be in a student union coffee shop or an area of the library or learning commons where you can speak with students freely. 

Why is this important?

First, there is an inherent power dynamic in faculty/student relationships. Walking into a faculty member's private office space for the first time — or even finding it for the first time — can be incredibly intimidating. Getting out to where the students are and meeting them on their turf can bring down the power dynamic a bit. Unfortunately, many of our students come to us with trauma in their backgrounds. While I was never a victim of this from one of my college faculty, one of our faculty members was notorious for hitting on pretty female students if you went to his office. Setting your office hours in a public place can lower the threat level significantly for students who may fear this kind of behavior — no matter how unwarranted that fear may be in your place.

Take Requests

This has been one of my favorite tools over the years to make sure that students at least used office hours once. I would ask students to make requests of problems they'd like to see or concepts they'd like explained during office hours, and it was a course requirement that they do this at least one time. I typically assigned it as a "quiz" grade to give it enough weight to make it at least feel meaningful. 

When I got requests, I could then make videos explaining the concepts, working the problems, or building on something from our class discussion. After "office hours" were complete for that week, I'd email out a link to the video to students to watch. 

This offered many benefits. First, the students who asked questions got instruction before we went back to class and I would walk through questions from the homework. Second, students who watched the videos were more willing to work through problems during homework question time in class. This was something I always offered — that if a student wanted to walk through the demo of a homework problem they could do so. I saw many students build confidence this way. Third, because the videos were sent out in advance and I only allowed a small window for homework questions, it made class run more efficiently. Once students realized I was serious that the 10-minute window for homework questions was a hard limit, they took watching the videos more seriously. Grades improved, learning improved, and my classroom management improved. The final benefit is that these videos got added into my online course supplement, so over time there were worked examples of problems or similar problems to the most difficult questions students struggled with. Additionally, difficult concepts were explained in multiple ways. 

Bring a Friend

Finally, this may seem like it's not your job as a faculty member, but after I spoke with a few students who did this on their own, I realized what a barrier coming alone to office hours is for some students. The reasons why it may be intimidating, awkward, or an absolute barrier for an 18-year-old to walk into the office of a 40+ year old on their own are myriad. That's one of the reasons I encouraged students to come to office hours together. While it was never a requirement, it was always welcome. If a student needed to discuss something personal, then one person could step out of the room. However, most of my office hours were spent doing academic work rather than in advising activities, so it made sense to let students learn from and with one another. 

Putting This Into Practice

As I survey syllabi from across the country in my consulting practice, Office Hours are often never more than one line on a syllabus. If you want students to use your office hours, make them purposeful and explain them in your syllabus. Here are a couple of sample syllabus statements to get you started.

Syllabus Statement Example 1

Office Hours give you and me the chance to meet one on one or in small groups to talk about the course. I love questions, and so office hours are a great time to ask the question you didn't have time to ask in class. Office hours are also a time when we can work together on a problem set or concept you're finding particularly challenging. The only wrong way to use office hours is to NEVER attend them or use the resources from them.

I hold office hours in the Library in room 234, which is right at the top of the stairs or to the left as you step off the elevators. You can attend in person (my favorite option) or you can submit a request for a problem/question in advance, which I'll send out a few hours after office hours end. You must do at least one of these (attend a session in person or submit a problem or question) once during each of the four exam cycles to earn the full points on the office hours assignment on your syllabus. To get attendance at office hours, make sure you either sign in on the sign-in sheet in the room or use the form provided to submit your question.

What are your secrets for Office Hours?

Do you have a great way to make Office Hours a better resource for students? If so, please comment below to share that here.


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