Academic First Year Experiences

Demystifying Office Hours for Your Students

SummaryTwelfth-century Autun dragon devouring a victim as tweeted by @DamienKempf

Teach your students how to go to office hours.  Once they know what to expect from an office hour visit, they're far more likely to take you up on the invitation to come by--and far less likely to believe they will be eaten alive in the process.

Strategies for Teaching Students How to Go to Office Hours

  1. In your syllabus, require a brief office-hour visit from each student. Pick a week and cancel class if need be (students can work on other assignments). Have students sign up for a ten-minute slot. Tell students to bring along at least one graded assignment you’ve returned to them; it will serve you both as a starting-point for discussion.
  2. Talk about office hours during class. Explain what they are, what happens, where you are, who comes, how long a typical visit lasts.
  3. Bring something from your own office into class such as an engaging photo (the picture of a pet can be good for this) or an art object.  Let students know that they will see this object when they visit you. If you have candy on your desk, or bookmarks, etc., tell them to expect that, too.
  4. Follow the example of CSUN faculty member Melisa Galván (Chicana/o Studies):

    Melisa assigns her students a low-stakes writing assignment due the first week of class. Her assignment asks students to draft a formal one-page cover letter in which they introduce themselves to her and provide any details that they would like her to know (reasons for taking the course, specific learning styles, accommodations, etc). This provides the opportunity for students to practice professional correspondence with the professor from the outset, and to express their commitment to succeeding in the course.

    She gives students until the end of the third week of instruction to visit her during office hours to introduce themselves in person and discuss what they wrote. As a reward, she provides them with a "free weekly assignment pass" that allows them to drop the lowest grade on a future weekly reflection paper.

    This idea could easily be adapted for quizzes or other low stakes assignments. Melisa says she has found that at least half of the class will come visit her in office hours — greatly facilitating her ability to learn their names and break down previous student perceptions of the faculty office as an intimidating space.

  5. Consider hosting a brief role-play exercise in class, with a small group of student volunteers scripting and then acting out scenarios like these:
    • The entrance: what do you say when you arrive at the faculty member’s office? How do you start?
    • The middle: aside from discussing the course, what might you see or ask about once you’re in a faculty office? (Family photos; books; posters or other artwork; the office door which often has posters or artwork; pets; recommended readings….)
    • The exit: when you are ready to leave, what do you say? What are some graceful ways to end the appointment?  (Hints: “Thanks so much; I need to study for my _________ class now.” Or: “I’m meeting my study group at the library in a few minutes so I have to go now, but thank you” etc.)

To extend the role play: have students work in groups to script a short-short office hour drama. Get them to play both parts (student and prof). Ask them to vary the character of the prof (welcoming; super-busy & brusque; on the phone; stern…) and perhaps the character of the student (shy; nervous; confident and ready to talk about all kinds of things…).

If you have peer mentors or teaching assistants or graduate assistants in your classroom, by all means invite them to participate in the scenarios or (if you enjoy role plays) to act out with you what it’s like to go to office hours.  These more advanced students can sometimes also share real-life stories of their own past successful or positive visits to a faculty office hour.

One More Thing: Don’t Forget to Practice Ways to Welcome Students

If you Google “office hours,” you’ll find plenty of resources geared towards helping faculty learn how to welcome students into their offices. Many faculty have already mastered the fine points of this advice; others might benefit from a refresher.

Background: Why We Demystify Office Hours in University 100 at CSUN—and Why You Should in Your Own Classes

In spring 2014, CSUN faculty members April Taylor (ataylor@csun.edu) and Cheryl Spector (cheryl.spector@csun.edu) hosted a one-hour focus group with former University 100 students. Among other things, the students said they wished the course had included information on how to “do” office hours. And that's why it does, now  Here are excerpts from the transcript of the students' comments:

Student 1:  In COMS XXX, it’s work, work, work, and you don’t get to see your professor. You know they have hours.  You don’t approach that because you’re never told to do that.  And a lot of professors like—well, like Political Science XXX that I’m taking right now, she’s always asking us to visit her in office hours and get to know her more personally and to get to express yourself more because it’s going to help with the class. 

Student 2:  It’s a learning experience to know what to say--to know how to act, how to approach them….   Do I bring an apple? Do I bring coffee?

Student 3:  My professor told me, “Come see me in office hours.” But there’s really no reassurance for us because some [students] may have never even been to a professor’s office.  So for the professor to tell us to go see our professor it’s like, “Okay, I will,” but we really won’t.  We need to feel comfortable confronting someone that we think is a superior.  For me, if I go to a professor I feel like I have to keep up a certain professionalism.  I’m talking to you about my grades and it’s everything that will help me succeed but there’s a little fear and there’s a little shyness and it’s probably a lot easier than we think it is; only, we just don’t know what to think.

Additional Reading

Close, Fiona Rawley. "Thinking otuside the Office (Hours)." Tomorrow's Professor #1587, 21 Sep 2017. https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1587

Diamond, Miriam Rosalyn. “Meeting the Office Hours Challenge.”  Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/597.

Freishtat, Richard. "Don't Be Alone during Office Hours." Tomorrow's Professor #1570, 22 May 2017. https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1570

Knowles-Yánez, Kim. “Rethinking Office Hours.” NEA Higher Education Advocate, Jan 2016, pp. 6-9. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/1601Advocate_Full.pdf.

Weimer, Maryellen. “Why Students Don’t Attend Office Hours.” Faculty Focus, 25 Jan 2015. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/students-dont-attend-office-hours/.