If you are like me, you spend the majority of your office hours staring at the door, willing your students to walk in and use the time you set aside for their benefit. Why is it that so few of them take advantage of this time, and how can we get more of them to do so?
What Are Office Hours, Anyway?
Many college students, especially first-year students and first-generation students, aren’t sure what exactly office hours are or what they are for. Many students report that they assumed “office hours” were times that professors were working and should not be disturbed. Others think office hours are like a visit to the principal’s office: something you only have to do if you get into trouble. Still others think office hours are only supposed to be utilized by a certain kind of student, either the ultraprepared or those on the brink of failure. This means the first step to getting students to attend your office hours is to dispel such notions.
On the first day of class, explain to your students that office hours are the times that you have set aside specifically for them in case they need help outside class. Give some examples of the kinds of things you are willing to do during this time (go over drafts of papers, talk about the readings and so on) and reassure them that all of them are welcome and, indeed, encouraged to attend.
Where Is Your Office Again?
The next step is to remove as many excuses your students might have to skip out on office hours as you can. It doesn’t take much to push a student who is ambivalent about coming in to see you to decide against it. The No. 1 reason I’ve heard from reluctant students who “really wanted” to visit my office hours but didn’t is “I couldn’t find your office.”
In some cases, this is actually a legitimate puzzle, especially when it comes to first-generation students, who assume that college works similarly to high school. These students often think that the classroom where they meet is “yours” and show up to meet you there instead of in your office. They are then puzzled when they arrive to see another instructor and another class occupying that space.
Take away this excuse by explaining on the first day exactly where your office is located. Give directions, especially if your office is in another building than your classroom.
Set Up for Success
Once your students arrive at your office door, they still need to work up the courage to cross the threshold. Be sure to leave your door open during scheduled office hours so they can look inside and see that you are in. If you see them hesitating outside, call out to them and invite them in. Let them know that they are not bothering you by showing up to ask for help. On the contrary, show them you are glad they came by.
Set up your office furniture so that students sit to the side of your desk rather than across from you and try to ensure that both your chair and theirs are of approximately the same height. This will encourage them to see their interactions with you as a collaboration rather than an occasion to be scolded or spoken down to.
If You Make Them, They Will Come
One surefire way to make attending office hours less intimidating is to require all students to attend at least once early in the semester. Have your students complete a short introductory assignment in class or as homework and then sign up for a five-minute slot during your office hours when they can discuss it with you. Make attendance at the meeting a small part of their grade. This exercise will show those who have never met with their professors outside of class that there is nothing to fear and much to gain by showing up and, again, it will ensure that later in the semester they cannot use the excuse of not knowing where to find you.
I have had a lot of success by making the required office visits described above into a group activity. I ask three or four students to work together on a short assignment, and then, in order to receive the maximum amount of credit on the assignment, I ask that all the members of the group attend a meeting in my office to go over their work. Students are much more likely to show up at these meetings if they are experiencing a bit of peer pressure. I often see one student collect the email addresses of their team members so they can send them reminders to attend. This exercise also has the benefit of reducing the anxiety students might have about meeting with professors one-on-one.
Welcome to My Virtual Office
You might choose to provide your students with another avenue of access by creating virtual office hours with the help of a free program like Skype or a forum or chat room built into your course management system. Holding virtual office hours doesn’t mean you have to be on call to your students 24-7. Instead, it means you have committed to setting aside scheduled periods of time when students can expect to find you online. These could be during your regularly scheduled office hours or evenings or weekends if you are feeling especially generous. You might hold them weekly or only on special occasions such as right before major projects or exams. Either way, virtual office hours are a boon to students who commute long distances and therefore may not be able to afford to come to campus on their days without classes.
Tell ’Em Early and Tell ’Em Often
It is vital that you repeatedly remind your students throughout the semester when and where your office hours are. You might also suggest to them when attending office hours might be a good idea --for example, when major assignments are due or before an exam. Often students have so many different demands on their attention -- including other classes, jobs and family obligations -- that they need a bit of prompting to get them back in your door as the semester wears on.
Employ these strategies and you can expect to see many more of your students darkening your door to get the help they need.
Megan Condis is an assistant professor in the English department at Stephen F. Austin State University.
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