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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Lonely Office Hours

Posted by on Friday, March 22, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

by Dan Morrison & Adam Wilsman

(Professor P. is away on Spring Break)

Dear Professor P.,

Each semester, I spend the vast majority of my “office hours” sitting around checking my e-mail, reading, and lesson planning.  While I value any time I can spend catching up on my own work, I can’t help but think I’m missing opportunities to enhance my students’ learning.  However, as friendly and approachable as I try to be with students, no one ever comes to my office hours!  I know many of the students are struggling with the material, so there are students who would benefit from attending them.  What can I do to get students to visit my office hours?

– All By My Lonesome


Dear “All By My Lonesome,”

You are correct that office hours, when used effectively, have incredible value for students.  Those times represent excellent opportunities to clarify material, to provide direction on essays, projects, and homework assignments, and to teach studying and time management techniques.  Office hours can also give students a sense that they matter, especially students in a large class who might feel lost in the crowd.  The value of office hours has repeatedly been verified by the National Survey on Student Engagement, which has demonstrated that students who have access to professors outside of regular class time are more satisfied with their educational experience.[1]

Office hours also have great value for instructors.  For starters, these one-on-one or small group meetings help instructors uncover common student errors, which can be critical feedback as instructors assess their own teaching.  Effective office hour usage can also help facilitate better classroom teaching in other ways.  One study in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal, Observer, revealed that students tend to pay better attention during class time for those instructors who effectively utilize their office hours.[2] Using your office hours well can also have a payoff at the end of the semester as students tend to highly value “approachability” when filling out teaching evaluations.

The problem of lonely office hours is a common one, but there’s a lot you can do to try to remedy the issue. First, let’s address two primary reasons students don’t come to office hours: they’re scheduled in a location that’s far away from the rest of their classes or their residences, or the office hours are scheduled at inconvenient times. So you could:

  1. Change where you hold office hours. You could meet students outside your echo chamber, especially since it is in Stevenson, a location notorious for its forbidding entrances, serpentine pathways, and an odd numbering scheme. If your class is mostly first-year students, you might consider meeting in the Commons. Alternatively, you could find a table in Rand, close to the coffee shop. Graduate students usually need coffee.
  2. Hold office hours at the most convenient time for the majority of students. Most students tend to avoid class before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. (just like professors). Holding office hours right after class, or holding one morning and one afternoon session per week might be more attractive to busy and overcommitted students. If you can’t schedule one during the day, consider an early evening office hour. This could be held at Rand, the Commons, or Sarratt.You might also survey your students using a scheduling website, like this one: In addition to setting up hours that the majority of students could attend, you should also add “and by appointment” to your description of office hours. You simply won’t be able to accommodate all students without making time for those whose schedules don’t align with your standing office hours.Students’ interest in, and attendance at, office hours is likely to increase over the semester, especially around exam time. Consider scheduling extra office hours, or special study sessions or review periods to meet the demand.

Once your schedule and location(s) are set, publicize your office hours in class. In the future, you could ask the professor to require students to attend your office hours early in the semester as part of an assignment or to review a problem set. Do your best to be friendly, engaging students before and after class. During this time, suggest the kinds of topics that you could discuss in office hours: questions about projects and homework, research ideas and opportunities, reviews of key topics and concepts. In this way, students can be focused when they meet with you. Remind students to bring appropriate materials, such as lecture notes, books, homework problems, paper drafts, or readings with difficult passages already marked. Suggest that students come to office hours with written questions or confusing concepts to help focus the conversation.

Don’t be afraid to encourage students to attend office hours via notes on graded exams and essays.  Here, the framing may be important.  Students don’t like to feel that they’re being singled-out for poor performance, but a subtle nudge to visit office hours to discuss certain aspects of the course material can often yield positive office hour interactions.

So now we’ve address getting students to come to your office hours, and though you didn’t ask about it – I want to give you a few tips anyway about what do when students do come to see you. (if they come once and don’t find it valuable, they won’t be coming back!) Here are my suggestions:

  • Help the student feel comfortable by having a brief chat about their background and interests.
  • After this brief introduction, narrow the conversation to focus on the reason this student sought your help. Establishing early the reason for the visit helps keep the conversation on track.
  • As the student unpacks his/her question, jot down ideas and suggestions. Rather than giving the answer or explaining the concept, lead the student by asking good questions, listening, and identifying misconceptions. Avoid giving a short lecture.

Recall that your office hours are intended to help students work through their own confusions or problems with your guidance and support—not to provide them with quick and easy answers. In other words, the best office hours provide guided practice for students in developing the lessons and skills the course is designed to impart. You may be an expert, but office hours are not about showing students how much you know—they are about helping students become more effective learners. Be a coach, not a boss.

Finally, making an office hour visit or visits a course requirement is an easy way to encourage better student use of office hours.  One thing to keep in mind is that for many undergrads, “office hours” are a mysterious concept without precedent in their middle and high school careers.  Many students simply don’t know what goes on there, or are too nervous or anxious to engage their instructor in one-on-one conversation.  Making an office hour visit a course requirement can serve to demystify the experience to many such students.  For still others, it can reveal the value of time spent engaged one-on-one with an experienced teacher and researcher.

Like many common teaching problems, there is much you can do to make the most of office hours.  For more information, please consult the readings below.  Good luck!

-Professor P.

Some electronic resources:

Some Recommended Readings:

Banville, Sean.  “Using Office Hours to Boost Learning & Impact Students.”  Sean Banville’s Blog.

Barry, Elaine S.  “Using Office Hours Effecitvely.” Observer Vol. 21 No. 6 (June/July 2008).

Burke, Kathleen.  “Effective Use of Office Hours.”  Pacific Crest Faculty Development Series.

Chung, Carl and Leon Hsu.  “Encouraging Students to Seek Help: Supplementing Office Hours with a Course Center.” College Teaching 54 No. 3 (Summer 2006): 253-258.

Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for Teaching.  San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 1993: 369-373.

Lucas, Sandra Goss and Douglas A. Bernstein. Teaching Psychology: A Step by Step Guide. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2005: 123-162.

[1] Banville, “Using Office Hours to Boost Learning & Impact Students.”

[2] Ibid.

Dr. Dan Morrison is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Pepperdine University.  Adam Wilsman is Graduate Teaching Fellow and History PhD Candidate at Vanderbilt University.


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