David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Make Your Office Hours a Requirement.

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As I type these words, I’m sitting in my office, because I have to be: It’s my office hours. The reason I can write this column is because my students — like your students, I would guess — don’t make much use of my office hours.

There’s always a line of students outside my door right before an assignment is due, and I am sure to see some unhappy students in the days after I hand out grades. But otherwise, my office hours are a lonely time. I’m not really complaining; I can certainly use the extra hours for writing (see this column), but I wonder if I should be making more of an effort to sell the benefits of office hours to my students.

In a recent issue of College Teaching, Lydia Eckstein Jackson and Aimee Knupsky wrote about research that suggested many benefits accrue to students who take advantage of office hours. The advantages include:

  • Better relationships with professors, with the latter more likely to take on active mentoring roles for students who attend office hours.
  • Higher likelihood of completing a degree, especially for students from underrepresented groups.
  • Development of important skills for college and the workplace, such as planning, long-term thinking, and self-efficacy.

What’s more, in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Political Science Education, Mario Guerrero and Alisa Beth Rod found that the number of office-hour visits a student makes during a semester is positively correlated to his or her academic performance in the course. Even when controlling for such variables as GPA, family income, and gender, Guerrero and Rod still found that each office-hour visit increases the probability that a student will get a higher grade. In the study, which tracked 406 undergraduates over a four-year period, students who never made use of office hours could expect to finish with a final grade of 82 percent, a low B. By contrast, students who visited office hours more than five times during the term finished, on average, with an A.

Maybe attending office hours made a difference, or maybe students who tend to get good grades are more conscientious than others (it’s also possible that instructors unknowingly give conscientious students more generous grades). The distinction is not really important. What is important: Meeting with students one-on-one allows us to be better teachers — to reach students more effectively, regardless of whether the meetings lead to higher grades. In private meetings, students may feel more comfortable asking questions they cannot ask in class. You can take time to explain a concept to a confused student, or to encourage a slacker to be more responsible about coursework. Most important, I think, students can feel that there’s someone in a position of authority who actually cares about their academic progress.

So how do we encourage students to take advantage of our office hours?

One important, and easy, change to make is to arrange your office hours in different blocks of time. Being in your office during the gap between your classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays may be convenient for you, but any student with class during those hours will be out of luck. So try to give your students a few options.

Frequently mention your office hours (and the location) in class, and let students know that you’re willing to schedule a meeting outside of office hours if necessary. Many students assume that we are only available to meet during our exact office hours. Make sure they know that isn’t the case.

You might also tell your students about the research linking office-hour visits and higher grades. Talking about the intangible benefits of stopping by your office might not get through to them; the promise of an A could work better.

But the best way to get students to come to your office hours, of course, is to require them to visit. If, as I’ve been suggesting in this space, you are looking to give students more feedback on their drafts, face-to-face meetings offer a way to do that. And they can even save you time: Instead of marking up your students’ drafts, schedule conferences with them — this works best in small classes, of course — and read each draft just before the student comes in. Rather than scrawl comments in the margins (or in addition to your scrawled comments in the margins) you can walk through in person what the student needs to work on in the essay. Make sure you end each conference with a clear takeaway: One of my colleagues writes down a brief to-do list for each student to take home from the meeting.

Conducting student conferences may seem like a lot of work, but they can replace some of the time you would have spent marking up drafts, and offer the possibility that students might actually understand and make use of your corrections the first time you make them (instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over). Personally, I think I’m much better at responding to a student’s work in person; there’s something about a written comment that just begs to be misinterpreted (or ignored). I’ve also found that the more students feel comfortable about meeting with me in my office, the less they email me about every little question they have.

So make office meetings part of your next assignment. If you make them come in once, they may start dropping by on their own.

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