Spotlight on Students: Re-thinking Office Hours

Focus on Teaching: Re-thinking Office Hours

In our Back to School workshops this week, we’ve been talking about ways to meet with your students. Office hours are the traditional method: setting aside a dedicated one or two hours at the same time every week for students to ask question in person. However, some faculty find their office hours are not well attended, and are left to wonder why. Do students have no questions to ask? Are they simply not interested in coming?

The truth is there are many reasons, and they may have nothing to do with a lack of questions. Your students have full schedules and hectic commutes to campus, and may simply not be able to attend at the time you have set.  They also may feel shy about approaching you, simply not know how to approach an office hour appointment, or just not know the right questions to ask.

Exploring different options as alternatives to traditional office hours can give you different ways to meet with your students and improve your interaction with your students. Here are three strategies to try:

1.       Online office hours via discussion board.

Move your normal office hours to a virtual setting using the discussion board feature in Blackboard. Allocate a specific time of the day or week when you will be monitoring discussion board activity and answering questions.  This also helps students by serving as a reference they can check back with later. Signing on only during set times will help you maintain boundaries and keep the discussion focused.

2.       Online office hours via chat or instant messenger

Chat or Instant Message (IM) sessions can be useful for “just in time” questions before an assignment deadline.  Use the Collaboration Tools feature on Blackboard or set up a course account on a free client such as MSN Messenger or Meebo, and sign on during scheduled times. This helps students with last-minute questions that may not have emerged in the early stages of their assignment work. As with discussion board interactions, remember to use this environment to mimic the professional interaction you would have with students in office hours.

3.       Group office hours, Q&A or help sessions

Instead of inviting students to your office, use your weekly office hour to meet in a larger, approachable location such as a classroom, a bookable library space, or University common space such as a cafeteria.  In this setting, shy students can still benefit from listening to others’ questions, or work on questions at their own pace, and anyone can drop in as their schedule allows.

A note on boundaries: Remember that as with other online interactions such as email communication, it is important to set limits on availability and appropriate conduct. Do remain approachable without de-professionalizing your interactions with students. By modeling appropriate online interaction, you will create a positive and safe space for you and your class to connect over your interest in the course material.

For more ideas on how to improve student-faculty interaction in your courses, see our current list of effective practices.