Office Hours: The Doctor is In

Steve Volk, September 12, 2016

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients. 1875. NY Public Library

After a faculty/staff workshop last week, I was able to chat for a moment with one participant, new to the college. She remarked that she was surprised that so many of her students had shown up for office hours in the first week of classes. Most, she remarked, were worried that they were already falling behind or that they were not “getting it”. I wasn’t surprised, but I also suggested that the students who came to her office were not necessarily the ones she needed to keep an eye on. Often it is those who don’t show up that one should be concerned about.

My experience, shared by others, is that two different kinds of students most often come to office hours: those who are quite prepared in the class, know the material, and know that office hours will help them to excel in the class or are a way to get to know the faculty member, which they understand is important. The other kind are students who are struggling, but often know the ways that they are struggling. In other words, they can generally form a question as a way to begin a productive conversation.

But the students who don’t come to office hours are often the very ones who could use the most attention: the students who: (a) are so confused by the course material that they can’t formulate a question about it; (b) are embarrassed by having to ask a question, thinking that since they have gotten into a selective college, they should be able to figure it out for themselves; or, (c) worry that they are imposing on the instructor’s time and have had no previous experience asking for help outside the classroom.

After reading the “Letters to the Editor” in this week’s Oberlin Review (Sept. 9, 2016), I find I must add another category: those who feel such “an overwhelming sense of shame and self-blame” about outcomes in a class that they will not speak to the instructor. It’s not my purpose to criticize or even analyze such sentiments, although the student’s recommendation, that it is the administration’s task to “do more to…encourage students to approach their professors,” suggests that (some) students are coming to rely more on the administration to resolve their issues with the faculty, whereas, to me, this seems an obvious shared responsibility for faculty and students, not administrators.

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

Leonard Chien, Flickr, CC

But let’s think about office hours for a few minutes, and focus in particular on how instructors can encourage students to seek out faculty support after class, since faculty office hours are available, and what can happen during office hours can increase the students’ ease at asking questions and taking away gained knowledge.


The Invite: Getting Students to Come

We put office hours on our syllabi, announce them in class, remind students to come see us if they have any questions, particularly before papers are due or exams are given. We invite them to see us if they have any questions about a grade received and, particularly, what they can do to prepare for the next paper or exam. Such invitations are usually sufficient to round up the usual suspects, i.e., those described above: students who are familiar with academic practices and the foundational rationale of the residential liberal arts college, that faculty are here because of the opportunities we have to engage with students. We have research obligations, and families, and our own lives to live, but we have signed on at a liberal arts college for the opportunity (and challenge) of being with students without the intervening layers of TA’s or graders.

We take steps to make sure that the students who have scheduling conflicts with our posted hours can find a time to see us. We schedule additional hours “by appointment” (although the formality of that invite might put some off, whereas a statement that, “if you can’t make the regularly scheduled hours, we’ll working something out; just send me an email,” could produce more positive results). Would such measures have encouraged the letter-writing student who waited 15 months before getting in contact with her professor to come in (and discover that the posted grade she was embarrassed about was recorded in error)? Hard to say; probably not, so other approaches should also be employed.

Some faculty have begun to use “virtual” office hours as a way to accommodate students who can’t make regular, face-to-face office hours. The easiest way to do this is through a commercial (mostly free) product such as:

  • Google Hangouts (free video conferencing);
  • Skype (you can be sure that most of your students will already be on Skype);
  • Zoom,, Jive Chime are other products that offer screen and multimedia sharing as well as group conferencing and offer free (if limited) access.

But, given that the basic argument for a residential liberal arts college is that students can talk to us face to face, in-person meetings are what we want to stress.

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

Hour glasses; Players Cigarettes. New York Public Library

Often, faculty send emails to a specific student, or catch them after class, to encourage (or require) them to stop by during office hours. This approach will work for a few more students who needed the extra push, but, again, probably not for those who seem more nervous about such meetings or are less aware of their purpose. Some students imagine that if they don’t come in to see us the “problem” – for why else would we be asking them to stop by – will go away. Others, as suggested by the letter-writer, are embarrassed or “overwhelmed” by “self-blame.” How to get to those students?

The easiest way, which probably only works for smaller classes with 20-25 students or less, is by requiring that all students sign up for a meeting with you at least once in the first module, if not more. This is particularly important in first-year seminars as a way to introduce students to the practice of office hours if they are not already familiar with the concept. By inviting all your students in to office hours, you insure that such visits are not seen as an occasion for the instructor to tell the student what she is “doing wrong,” or that she is “in deep trouble,” but a regular part of an education and that they are quite valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is to get to know the professor better.

But what about in larger classes where the possibility of meeting individually with each of 50+ students is impossible? You’ve sent out the general invitation, posted it on your syllabus, encouraged students in class, and even sought out the particular student after class inviting him to come to your office hours. Still no visit. One suggestion is to approach that student directly after class ends and ask if he has a few minutes free right then to talk. No need to go to an office –find a spot outside the flow of traffic where you can give him a sense of what you’d like to talk about during regular office hours, and try to set up a future appointment. For example:

  • “I’ve noticed that you’re very quiet in class but I can see from the short comments you’re posting on Blackboard you have a lot to offer the class. Maybe we can figure out a way for you to contribute to the other students’ learning by speaking up. Come to office hours and we can talk more about this.” Or,
  • “I noticed in your first exam that some issues of algebra are difficult for you and are making it hard for you in general chemistry. The college offers a lot of peer support and other help in those areas. Can we set up a time for you to come in to speak with me so I can make sure you know about where you can get exactly the help you need?” Or simply,
  • “I’m often fascinated/curious/intrigued by some of the comments you make in class. I’d love to talk to you more about them. Can we set up a time for you to come in?”

Sometimes students, a few, to be sure, find it intimidating to come to your office, so a “neutral” space – meeting in the library, the student union, the local coffee shop, or outside on the lawn if it’s good weather – can help in that regard.

And if you think that students should “get over it,” cut the crap, take responsibility and  just come to office hours, that may be true… but you also might be losing the one or two students who actually want help but lack the cultural capital (particularly the experience in academic life) to know how to get it.

Finally, if none of these strategies work – and I’d be happy to post other suggestions that colleagues have that have worked for them – you might think of contacting that student’s class dean or advisor to suggest the nature of the issue. I’ve found it unusual for students to resist repeated attempts to coax them to office hours, but for those who simply won’t come in, something else is probably involved and it won’t necessarily be resolved on the student-faculty level.

What Comes up in Office Hours

From Henry Campkin, "Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence" (1851). British Library

From Henry Campkin, “Peter Little and the Lucky Sixpence” (1851). British Library

There has been (probably too much) discussion in the media about “safe spaces” and the “comfort” level of students nowadays. But there is no doubt in my mind that office hours must be seen as a safe space for all students, particularly for those who have been reticent about coming in or who might otherwise be wary of why they have been asked to come in. That doesn’t mean that difficult topics aren’t to be discussed (why they failed the last exam, didn’t turn in a paper, or have missed two weeks of classes). But for students whose prior experiences with teachers have been fundamentally negative, creating the space where one can talk is essential.

For most student visits, the nature of the visit will soon become apparent: to talk about an assignment, to go over an exam, or to clarify some points that came up in lecture or discussion. We all know how to engage such conversations.

Others can prove more complicated:

  • There are times when it becomes clear that the student is in over her head, by which I mean that she lacks some fundamental skills (reading, calculation, etc.) that are required for the course but that you can’t provide. Often we will take a lot of time to try to offer the help required. But it is also important to point the student to the help she can get elsewhere: the Learning Assistance Program, peer tutoring in writing, quantitative tutoring, or the sciences. If you think the student will need additional support, it’s a good idea to contact that person’s advisor (you can find him/her on Blackboard), or class dean.
  • Conversations may quickly turn toward more personal issues. You will have to determine whether that kind of conversation is one that you want to or are prepared to handle: troubles with boy/girlfriends, issues at home, questions of identity, or other serious matters. The longer one works with students, the sooner one comes to realize whether this is a conversation you feel it is important to engage in, or whether it is an area that you clearly lack the expertise to take on, and that the student needs to go elsewhere for help and advice. In this matter we are under some obligations (to pass on evidence of sexual harassment, or evidence of cheating, for example), and many matters are better handled by counselors, class deans, friends, or other trained personnel.
  • There is an abundance of evidence (here, here, here) that faculty of color and women faculty are likely to be turned to in moments of distress (particularly by students of color or female students) and invited into personal conversations. This added burden has been called “cultural taxation,” and few administrations have figured out how to compensate faculty or staff for the time required to take on such advising. How faculty/staff of color handle such conversations is beyond the scope of this article, but the evidence is quite clear that they will be asked more, are likely to be more generous with their time, and will find themselves uncompensated for their generosity and sense of responsibility.

Helping Students Become Problem Solvers

I have been fortunate to sit in on some training sessions for some of Oberlin’s peer tutors. The message in those sessions is always the same: tutors provide guidance to allow the students to solve their own problems, they don’t provide the answers. This is often the same message at office hours: when students come to your hours with problems they can’t solve, your task is to help them solve them for themselves, not to provide them with answers. One entry into this is to help students figure out the source of the problem: inaccuracies in reading, thinking, computation.

Linda Acitelli, Beverly Black, and Elizabeth Axelson of the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, provide some very useful approaches to these issues, and I recommend you take a look at their article, “Learning and Teaching During Office Hours.”

But, in the end, if students aren’t coming to your office hours, you can’t provide the advice they could benefit from. So think about how you are going to get them to come, and send in the strategies that have helped in the past.

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