Last semester, pre-pandemic, I spent a lot of time thinking about office hours. This happened after I noticed a recurring problem. You see, after class, I always had a line of students waiting to talk to me. Most of the questions were pretty simple, but some were not. But as the semester wore on, the length of time that it took me to speak to all of these students grew longer and longer, and some days it took me 30 minutes after class ended before I could get to my office hours. Meanwhile, a grand total of three students had come to see me in my office hours.
So what was going on?
I wasn’t entirely sure at the time. I emphasized the importance of office hours on the first day of every course, and I brought it up at the end of every class. It’s also written on my syllabus and every research assignment in bold letters. But clearly, the message was not getting through.
In the 10 years I’ve spent as an instructor, office hours attendance varied by institution and course. Students were much less likely to see me in introductory courses, and much more likely to see me in seminar classes. But in generally, students were far more likely to ask to speak to me after class rather than come to my office hours.
This is far from an isolated case. There is clearly evidence that universities are aware of the issue. A quick Google search will reveal plenty of pieces written for students encouraging them to visit their professors and extolling the benefits of attending office hours. I was particularly struck by Arizona State University’s “Adulting 101” entry, “Your Fear of Office Hours is About to End: A Guide to Meeting with Professors.” This particular piece suggest that students are “afraid of meeting with their professors one-on-one.” There have even been a number of scholarly studies looking into reasons why students do not attend office hours. The most common cited study, Griffin et al, found that the most important factors were things that are beyond an instructor’s control: the perceived convenience of office hours’ time and location, course level, requirement of labs/discussion groups, having a prior history of consulting peer tutors, whether the course is a requirement or elective, and student perception of class size. Factors that an instructor can control, like timing, availability, and approachability, had no significant impact.
I also decided to do my own informal survey, and asked my students why they didn’t come to office hours. While several students mentioned factors like conflicting schedules, difficulty finding the office in question, and a lack of time, I was also struck by the most common response. Basically, they didn’t think office hours were important. I was flabbergasted at first, but then I thought about the situation a little more. I didn’t figure out what office hours were for until I reached graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, I always thought that they were only for people who wanted to complain about their grades. I think I went to office hours maybe once or twice in my entire undergraduate career. So, from my perspective, I think the biggest problem is that students just don’t know why they should be attending office hours.
All of this leads me to two conclusions. First, we need to reframe or rebrand office hours. Most instructors know how beneficial they are, and what’s more, they enjoy having the opportunity to speak to their students. But not all students understand what office hours are and why they are important. We can’t expect that students will recognize the advantages of one-on-one faculty interaction, so we need to sell it. What’s more, we need to emphasize how office hours are the solution to many student problems. I know that in the next course that I teach, I will be including these talking points.
And second, we need to meet the students where they are, and that means being flexible about what office hours actually look like or mean. This is especially the case given our current situation as a result of COVID-19. We should consider what kinds of office hours make sense for you and your students. This also matches up with other expert advice from various resources. They recommend:
- Requesting student input regarding the timing and location of office hours.
- Providing more extensive feedback (which suggests to students that office hours will be similarly helpful).
- Having additional office hours in more congenial locations, like common or public spaces, or even empty classrooms.
- Requiring visits from students, especially early in the semester. These visits could discuss paper topics, or include attendance as part of an introductory low-stakes assignment.
- Holding virtual office hours, using tools like Skype or Google Hangouts.
- Use an online appointment scheduler, and allow students to book appointments during set hours.
- Ensuring that all of your students are aware of what office hours are for and the location of your office (drawing a map is particularly helpful).
So maybe this means holding your office hours while standing in the hallway after class and chatting. Maybe it looks like asking students to join you for a walk-and-talk outside on a lovely day. And maybe it means scheduling blocks of time where students can sign up to chat with you on Skype. Each class is unique, so why should office hours be any different?
I do want to recognize here that many of these suggestions require additional time and resources, which is a problem for all professors (though especially sessional instructors). What’s more, they don’t address the structural issues that make office hours very different for tenured/tenure-track professors and sessional instructors. But regardless of one’s employment status, many faculty members already work 60 hours a week or more. I mention this, because as important as office hours as, it’s also not fair to expect people who are already overworked to devote extra resources and time to try and convince students to come and see them. But I still think that we need to do a much better of job of explaining why office hours are important, and making office hours more accessible to our students.
I ended up enacting these changes in my own classroom. After my informal survey, I used a normal group discussion period to have a serious discussion with my students about why they should be attending office hours for all of their classes. I also offered to hold virtual office hours, since the hours I spend on campus are pretty limited. Both of these measures seemed to work, since I saw a pretty significant rise in the number of people who came to see me or scheduled virtual appointments. I was quite pleased with this result, and I learned a lot of importance lessons I will take with me to future classes.
Have you also noticed that students are no longer attending office hours? How have you handled this issue? I look forward to discussing this in the comments!