by Frances B. Henderson, PhD
I am writing about office hours during my lonely office hours. I, like many faculty members and instructors, know that students are not likely to attend or use office hours. Although I am required to schedule them, more often than not, I depend on that time to get other things accomplished (i.e., grading and class preparation) despite having the time set aside dedicated to students.
Why are office hours so lonely for faculty? I suggest that the answer to that question boils down to two things: students’ perception of office hours and instructors’ ability to sell office hours.
Origins of College Office Hours
In their renowned work “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson (1987) were among the first to note the ways in which good faculty-student relationships outside of the classroom facilitated good performance in the classroom and thus increased students’ motivation toward degree completion. Later empirical studies affirmed the potential for greater student success and retention as a result of increased student-faculty interaction (see here Dika, 2012; Kuh &Hu, 2001; Pascarella and Terrenzini, 2005). Office hours are one such intended site for this increased interaction outside of the classrooms, and globally, universities require faculty to hold office hours in order to set aside time for this increased faculty-student interaction. Dutifully, faculty post office hour times, advertise them in class, and send emails to remind students that we are available to them during these dedicated times, all the while suspecting that these passive methods of trying to get students to use office hours will not work.
How Do Students Perceive Office Hours?
Many students view office hours unfavorably (Smith et. al 2017). This is likely because students do not understand the purpose or value of office hours. Recently, I conducted an unscientific poll with my online synchronous Zoom class to gauge their understanding of the purpose of office hours. About 70% of those polled said that they know when their professors’ office hours are but are unlikely to use them. Some students said that they don’t visit during office hours because they feel that office hours are awkward. Others said that office hours, even Zoom office hours, are outdated, while many preferred to email their professors instead of engaging in face-to-face interaction. When asked under what conditions they were likely to use office hours, students said that it was more likely to be in the instance of crisis (such as needing an extension, right before an exam, or at the end of the semester to discuss ways to improve a grade).
This informal poll echoes some of the conclusions that Smith et al. found in their 2017 study of office hours at R1 universities. Their pre-COVID pandemic study highlighted the disconnect between the intent of office hours and its intended impact. They discovered that students did not understand the potential benefits of office hours in terms of increased student-faculty interaction, nor did they consider this increased interaction a natural extension of their classroom experience or college experience.
Changing the Narrative around Office Hours Begins with Faculty
How can we get our students to shift the way that they think about office hours and integrate them into their learning strategies? First, it requires a shift in the way that we, as faculty, view office hours. I recommend using office hours as a pedagogical tool that can be used for cementing concepts, answering questions, and forming relationships as opposed to viewing them as an opportunity to get other work done. What if, as instructors, we included office hours as part of our pedagogical tool kit and treated them as such from the beginning of the semester, even as we developed our syllabus? For example, I hold in-person office hours three times a week. I am considering dividing those office hours in the following ways: first office hours of the week are dedicated to more in-depth discussion of specific concepts and topics of the week. The second hour is dedicated to open questions about readings, content, or assignments as generated by students on a drop-in basis. The third office hour session would be dedicated to exploration of how these concepts and ideas are implemented in the field and in the discipline in terms of jobs, employment, and further research. This doesn’t have to be a lot of extra work. Many of these examples are related to aspects of the lecture or discussion for the week and require minimal additional work. However, the hope is that these changes in structure will have the effect of attracting students by providing clear indication of how the time will be used.
Let Students Know Why They Should Come
It is imperative that we inform students about the purpose of office hours. Studies show that students are unclear of the purpose of office hours and that many students avoid them like the plague because they are intimidated. Kim and Sax (2009) remind us that not all students experience the classroom or university the same. In particular, first-generation and minoritized students carry the fear of being seen as less intelligent and stigmatized by faculty if they use office hours. Further, many minoritized and first-generation students don’t know how to engage with faculty outside of the classroom, having not had the experience of teachers as anything other than punitive authority figures. One way to navigate this is to answer the question “What are office hours for?” by “modeling” office hours interactions. This does not have to be actual role play, but at some point during class, provide some tangible examples of what the real-time experience of office hours is like. Several universities and faculty post short videos/podcasts around what to expect at office hours or peer-to-peer videos about office hours and the purpose of talking to the instructor there. Another way is to assign a particular week of office hours to students alphabetically. Another way to encourage students to attend office hours is by awarding extra credit points to those who attend.
At the beginning of each semester, faculty can include an in-class discussion of office hours that goes beyond a simple recitation of office hour times. While some universities may include a flyer that explains the purpose of office hours and how to use them in their new student orientation material, it is important for faculty to let students know that we actually WANT them to come and see us during office hours, even if it’s for “nothing in particular.”
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