The focus on effective teaching within the classroom can overshadow the importance of effective teaching outside of the classroom. Interactions with students outside of class can take many forms, from the post-class clarification to the awkward public run-in, but the most structured outside of class interactions occur during office hours. A cynic might say, “Well, they would occur if anyone attended office hours!” Others might find office hours frustrating, with the time spent reassuring students before tests or explaining grades (again). While anyone who has taught can surely sympathize with these points of view, I suggest a focus on the utility of office hours, even when they are spent on the activities I just mentioned.
Why is engaging with students outside of the classroom important? There is evidence suggesting productive encounters outside of the classroom support transformative teaching and help build rapport. Slavich and Zombardo (2012) consider personalized feedback a method through which transformative teaching may occur, suggesting use of office hours as a way to personally engage with students (for a review of Slavich and Zombardo see this informative post from our director, Debie Lohe). Buskist and Saville (2001) found that students consider availability outside of the classroom and displays of personal interest to be reflective of good student-teacher rapport. How can we increase students’ willingness to utilize office hours while, perhaps more importantly, ensuring these interactions enhance learning?
Being prepared to maximize the learning potential of individual meetings with students requires an understanding of the motivation of the student. What led the student to make the effort to meet with you? They likely want something; to receive feedback, lobby for a better grade, use you as a counselor, become your friend, complain about class policies etc. (Filene, 2005). Initially, it is necessary to identify whether the desires of the student provide an opportunity to satisfy what they perceive as a need while also encouraging learning. For some students, facilitating learning during office hours may be unrealistically challenging due to very specific, learning-irrelevant goals (see this related post regarding challenging students).
For most students, though, an office visit may be a reaction to something that occurred in class (e.g., assignment was returned). If these students are seeking clarification regarding something you already felt was made clear (classroom content or assignment feedback), it provides an opportunity to probe deeper into the ways in which the student engaged with the material. How did they study? What concepts did they focus on? The answers to these questions might provide the guidance sought by the student while also offering valuable insight into how your students are interpreting the class content. Finding teaching-related utility in these types of visits can also help make what would otherwise seem redundant more rewarding.
Inventive ways to increase the utility of office hours can only be successful if students actually attend. To encourage office hours attendance, Filene (2005) suggests passing an appointment sheet around during every class in order to make sure those office hours aren’t repurposed as “guaranteed downtime.” This encourages students to reflect on their learning-related needs at least once per class. It also reinforces the idea that you actually want to meet with students, a key component of rapport building (Buskist and Saville, 2001). This is also a great option for those who want to avoid designating a large quantity of set-in-stone office hours, as you can use the appointment sheet as an extension of the “by appointment” style of office hours. Additionally, office hours attendance can be made mandatory, whether as a general requirement or as part of specific assignments (a particularly useful technique for checking progress on lengthy, challenging projects). Using the structure of the class to facilitate an initial office visit may lead to subsequent voluntary visits as the benefits become clear to students who might not have considered office visits a worthwhile endeavor.
Finding the best way to improve your office hours, beyond the few examples provided, requires reflecting on your teaching and utilization of office hours in the past. As we enter the height of presidential campaigning and slogan generating, I ask you: are you ready to make office hours great again?
Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2001). Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing
teaching and learning. APS Observer, 19, 12-13.
Filene, P. (2005). The joy of teaching. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North
Slavich, G. M., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical
underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Educational Psychology Review, 24(4), 569-608. doi: 10.1007/s10648-012-9199-6
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress