What’s the Use of Office Hours?
Chickering and Gamson (1987) put positive interactions with faculty at the top of their list of Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. “Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement,” they explained. “Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students’ intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans” (p.3). Getting to know faculty well involves contact outside of class time; office hours are intended to facilitate this sort of one-on-one interaction. But the students who most need the extra time with us are often the least likely to seek us out during office hours. What’s going on?
A lot, it turns out. Some of the issues are logistical, and some are interpersonal, but they’re all problems we can solve.
Although most of us don’t see ourselves as intimidating, for many students—especially first-year students, first-generation college students, and rural students—coming to your office feels like bearding the lion in its den. Students may feel like imposters, anxious that they’ll be found out and told they don’t belong; when they’re confused or struggling, the fear is all the greater. They also may not know what office hours are, and they probably don’t feel entitled to your time. This means we need to take time to explain the purpose (and even the location) of office hours; you’ll need to do this repeatedly. You might list examples of the sorts of questions students ask during office hours, and invite your students to bring their own.
When students do pluck up the courage to meet with you individually, they deserve patience and compassion. When we’ve studied in a discipline for decades, complex concepts start to seem deceptively simple, but our students are novices, and the structures and connections that seem so obvious to us may be overwhelming to an uninitiated learner. Too many students have had the experience of being told “you should know that already,” or “that’s easy,” when they muster a question, and the common lore is that professors are terrifying and dismissive. We have to counteract the rumors by inviting questions, listening with interest, and meeting students where they are.
“Where they are” can be a physical space, as well as a developmental stage. Bryan Dewsbury holds office hours in dorm common rooms, to make them less intimidating and more accessible. Other faculty hold office hours at coffee shops or in the library, spaces that students frequent and where they feel comfortable. We’ll soon have a space on our own campus for office hours in a residence hall, starting on November 18, when the University Housing Academic Resource Center will host a grand opening in Jennie Murphree Hall.
To help students past the barriers against office hours, some faculty require each student to visit early in the semester. If you have a large class, students can sign up for visits in groups—having a squad also reduces the fear factor. If you’re going to make a visit mandatory, of course, you’ll have to be quite flexible with times, and you might even want to offer virtual office hours. Many students have other classes while we’re in our offices, so you might also consider polling your students about their schedules and determining your office hours after the first few days of class. The students who need you most are most afraid to bother you, so they’ll benefit from any gesture that shows you want to be accommodating.