Teaching Today

Office Hours: Why Students Need to Show Up

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar describes why, despite how drained she sometimes feels afterward, she actively encourages her students to meet with her.

May 14, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/MaksimYremenko

Office hours: those moments when we are held hostage by our students, shackled to our desks, unable to tackle our mountains of other responsibilities. At crunch times, to better handle the line of students queueing outside my door, I’ve thought about installing a ticket dispenser, like at the deli: now serving number 17.

Despite the intensity of transitioning from one student’s problem to another, despite how drained I sometimes feel after these sessions, office hours are when I do some of my most meaningful work. Here’s why I actively encourage my students take advantage of this opportunity.

One-on-one interactions can lead to higher achievement. Countless research, such as the 2016 study by Young Kim and Carol Lundberg in Research in Higher Education, has demonstrated the correlation between faculty-student interactions and achievement. Frequent, positive contact encourages intellectual growth and academic self-concept, fostering a higher grade. Given the demands of our curricula, however, we rarely have time to engage individually with each student every single day, especially in large classes. That’s where office hours pick up the slack; even if it’s only for five minutes, I can give students my full attention and offer advice on conquering the roadblocks impeding their understanding. Students generally walk out of my office with more direction and satisfaction than when they arrived.

Students are more likely to verbalize what help they need to be successful. No matter how self-confident students may appear around their classmates, many hold back from asking questions for fear of embarrassment. During office hours, though, it’s just the student and you, and a few simple statements can let them know that it’s a safe space to air their queries and concerns. Here, privately, you can help them get to the bottom of the difficulty they can’t seem to grasp. Through prompting and asking your own probing questions, you can push them to reach their potential and provide specific insight into how they can progress.

Individualized instruction directly addresses student needs. Sometimes students don’t know what they require to succeed; they can’t articulate where they’re deficient. When I plan my lessons, I do my best to serve all of my students, but instruction is not always one size fits all.

During office hours, though, we can easily differentiate our teaching. Within a couple minutes of prompting a student to ascertain how they are lost, I can usually diagnose a prescription for improvement -- whether it’s recommending additional resources, reviewing certain course concepts or suggesting more intrusive tutoring. Since students might spend two hours trying to work through a two-minute problem on their own, I encourage them to let me help them work through it. Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, they confront the problem with my guidance, and I’m able to offer tips and materials for independent use when subsequent issues arise.

Personal connections can strengthen attendance/effort/engagement in class. In my own experiences dealing with low-performing students, I’ve seen innumerable improvements after they have spent time in my office. Part of it is that they get to learn more about us as human beings just by coming into our personal space. For example, many of my students will comment on my pictures and artifacts from my world travel, often telling me something about themselves, as well. While my job during office hours isn’t officially to get to know the student on a personal level, we can learn much about each other as we sit down together.

After students learn to trust us more as real people -- versus just the lecturers behind the podiums -- they often branch out in class, becoming more actively engaged. While one-on-one interaction isn’t a magical elixir that will inspire all students to shape up their academic behaviors, it does work for many. Having established more of a shared connection, they are more likely to work harder to impress us. Since they now know we see them as individuals and will notice their absence, they’re more likely to come to class, as well.

Closer relationships to professors fosters students’ connections to the university, increasing retention. Ashley Grantham, Emily Erin Robinson and Diane Chapman examined student survey data in their 2015 College Teaching study to determine what students found meaningful when interacting with faculty. Among other themes, students explained that these sessions increased their confidence in the subject matter and made them feel that their professors respected and cared about them. When we provide one-on-one time during office hours, our students often appreciate that we spend time dealing with their concerns.

In large classes especially, some of our students blend into the background; although physically present, they don’t ask or answer questions. They may want to seem anonymous, but such feelings can lead to disassociation from the class and the institution. Even when students have come to me for help on an essay, they frequently end up talking about other aspects of their college experiences. While I’m not a counselor, I can still guide students to resources they need, such as student groups to join to gain a sense of belonging. They might not consciously acknowledge it, but even our most introverted students often want to be seen on some level, and office hours are an opportunity to show them they’re visible. Students who feel connected to their colleges and universities are more likely to stick around and graduate.

It’s not enough to slap your office hours on the syllabus and expect that students will find their own way there. That is especially the case with our underprepared students who need the most help but may lack the problem-solving skills or courage to walk through that office door on their own.

While I personally don’t believe in mandatory office hours, as many students simply don’t require the extra support, I make a point to remind my students every day that they are welcome to attend if they need any help outside class. I’ve had students tell me that they don’t want to bother me, so I make sure to let them know that they have a right to my time and I want to help. To encourage reluctant students who need the extra assistance, I provide specific examples of how interactions outside class can positively influence performance. Sometimes all it takes is the extra push to get them through our office doors and on the path to success.

Bio

Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar is an assistant professor of writing at Bloomsburg University.

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