Office hours — more than meets the eye

26 May 2017

In the past two weeks, I have attended or participated in three different presentations/discussions in which the topic of office hours has come up. Faculty are sometimes frustrated that the students who would benefit the most from office hours often don’t use them, and yet faculty don’t realize how intimidating office hours can be for students. In this week’s LTC presentation by Anita Chikkatur and Stephanie Valle ’17, Anita and Stephanie shared the results of their participatory action study on the experiences of under-represented students in STEM courses and majors. One of their take home messages was that faculty are often not clear about their expectations for office hours and the variation in expectations between faculty can dissuade students from using office hours. For example, some faculty members expect students to come to office hours having prepared questions in advance while others encourage students to stop by to chat about whatever is on their minds, even if they don’t have particular questions. Another example of the varied expectations for office hours is scheduling. Some faculty members have an open door policy where they welcome student conversation and questions any time their office door is open, while other faculty members ask students to schedule individual appointments via Google calendar. Both of these approaches can be intimidating for some students. Having at least one regularly scheduled office hour that is available for groups of students to attend can lower the barrier to entry. This provides a way for a student who is hesitant about office hours to come by at the designated time and participate in office hours with peers.

During the inclusive classroom faculty cohort conversations this term, several other office hours suggestions have come up. For example, consider having an occasional office hours outside of your office because holding office hours in a space that isn’t faculty home turf can make the experience more comfortable for some students. Also, students appreciate being reminded and encouraged to go to office hours throughout the term, not just at the beginning of the term. In those reminders, faculty might want to highlight timely ways in which office hours could be used to prepare for upcoming assignments and activities or to talk about feedback from earlier assignments.

In short, don’t underestimate how difficult it is for some students to engage with faculty during office hours and carefully consider how you might more clearly define expectations and encourage students to use office hours.