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The undergraduates in my courses are frequently surprised at how helpful office hours are. In fact, many report that it’s the first time they’ve ever gone to see a professor. They’re having that experience because one of the regular assignments for my class is to come to office hours twice.
That policy—whereby coming to see me in office hours counts for 5 percent of their final grade—has been both popular and successful over the last six semesters. A student who receives full credit on every other assignment but does not come to office hours twice can only get a 95 percent in my course. But the other 5 percent is easy to get. All students have to do is to reserve one of my 20-minute slots and come chat with me two times.
Research shows a correlation between individual support, like office hours, and student achievement, and some instructors have recommended continuing to offer not only in-person but also virtual office hours post-COVID because virtual office hours are more accessible for many students. Though some observers have questioned whether it is good to actually require office hours, few have delved into the pros and cons. In this article I’ll make a pitch for adding office hours to the factors you include in how you assess your students.
I’ve noticed that how students react to requiring office hours often has to do with how you frame the policy. As with policies about laptop bans, students often view mandatory office hours as a punitive extra requirement, a visit that has more to do with checking off a task than a conversation that might help them learn. So rather than tell my students that coming to see me is simply obligatory, I explain that I’m instead incentivizing something that is something they should do even without the nudge, because 1) research has shown it’s beneficial and 2) it is, in any event, an easy way to get 5 percent of their grade. I’ve never seen my interest in pedagogical research rub off on students even when it’s supposedly good for them, so the second reason has proven to be a far greater motivator.
Framing the requirement and scaffolding the visit for students is important. I let students know early on that they can earn that 5 percent of their grade with two office hours visits, each worth 2.5 percent. They can see me twice, see their TA twice or visit with each of us.
The scaffolding doesn’t stop there: mindful of what I learned from Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor, I am always sure to be explicit about what office hours are. It’s not a time when I’m in my office working and therefore can’t be bothered—something some first-generation, low-income students might think, according to Jack. Rather, office visits are part of my responsibilities as an instructor and provide something I enjoy: time to meet with students outside of class. I post not only the times of the office hours, whether in person or virtual, but also exactly how to sign up for slots and find my physical office (or access the Zoom link).
Finally, I put on my course site a module called “What to Expect in Office Hours With Zach.” In that page’s text, I briefly explain what office hours could like look for students who have never been or don’t know me. I explain that they can come to discuss a specific assignment, brainstorm a paper topic or talk with me about how to succeed in class—or we can just chat and get to know one another. The student, not me, will be decide how the conversation will go. On that course site module, in class and in questions in the online quizzes, I also underscore that office hours are neither optional nor for extra credit but rather an integral part of each student’s grade.
Because students are not used to policies like this and at first see them as heavy-handed, I try to make my office as friendly and accommodating as possible. I’m careful to have nothing open on my computer and no papers out on my desk, making it clear that the student is not bothering me. I usually sit and read something light while waiting for the first student. When students arrive, I tell them how glad I am that they came by and offer them a bottle of water or a cup of Keurig coffee. (I have cream and sugar/Splenda ready.) Because I have both afternoon and early-morning office hours so those who have work-study jobs can make it, I get a decent number of takers on the coffee. Students have generally read the learning management system module about what to expect, but if they haven’t, I tell them the various options and that it’s their choice.
Since I started offering credit for office hours, I have tinkered with the parameters based on my own observations and student input. I’ve occasionally given students credit for meeting with university librarians to begin the research on their final papers. Sometimes I’ve mandated that students who want to get full credit have to have at least one visit before the middle of the term and the other before the third-to-last week, as end-of-term office hours aren’t that useful. During COVID, I also offered a set of office hours slots that were just for first-year students, and now that I’m teaching in person, I still continue to offer virtual appointments, too.
The Pros and Cons
In fall 2018, I asked assessment experts at Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center to survey my students about my pedagogical approach. As many as 90 of those students found my office hours either very or extremely useful. On evaluations in other semesters, students said they liked that office hours counted for credit, as it made it easier to connect with the teaching staff. One student said that the teaching staff “demonstrated that they really care about their students as people and life-long learners (they made us attend office hours in an attempt to establish personal relationships with us).”
Students mostly appreciated that they were being incentivized to do something that actually helped them, and many reported that they had rarely gone to office hours before: “I’ve gone to more office hours for this class during this semester than the rest of my semesters combined, and I attribute this to the requirement for students to attend office hours at least twice per semester … Prior to this course I have felt somewhat intimidated to go to office hours, but I am now a lot more comfortable.”
Of course, not everyone was happy with an ultimately productive and very easy 5 percent. One student wrote on an anonymous course evaluation that the course had a “lot of micromanaging. Mandating class-adjacent socializing and office hours—too forced.” My guess, based on conversations with lots of students about my policy, is that some students don’t realize the value of a one-on-one with an instructor. And because they don’t—or they’re just plain intimidated by professors—they don’t prioritize going to see that instructor. Never going to office hours means not having the experience of the visit being helpful … and so on with the vicious cycle.
The cons of this system are that some other way of assessing students has to be lower in value. You also have to be prepared to get no work done during your posted hours, because they will almost always be full. And if you teach large, intro-level classes, as I often have, you need to have a shared spreadsheet in which you track students’ visits and then transfer the credit to the grade book.
The pros, however, significantly outweigh the cons. You get to know many more of your students than you would have had you simply encouraged them to come see you. The chats humanize you to your students. You give them individualized help and can send them good sources of information after brainstorming with them. Requiring office hours also seems to have the beneficial spillover effects of lowering the barrier for them to offer an opinion in your class, as well as making them more likely to attend office hours for other courses.
After the previous year off campus, this fall I was very much looking forward to reconnecting in person as well as using the virtual environment to engage my students. Offering credit for both in-person and virtual office hours—a low-stakes, low-stress assignment but one that is actually part of the course’s grade—is one of the effective tools I’ve been using to do that.