By Maryellen Weimer, PhD
More than 600 students answered 17 survey items about one of their courses in order to help researchers explore factors that influence students’ use of office hours. The research goal was to identify ways instructors could increase the use of office hours because so many students don’t take advantage of this opportunity to interact with faculty. Sixty-six percent of these students reported that they had not attended office hours for the course in question. The remaining third had been to the instructor’s office once. Only 8% reported attending office hours more than once a month. These percentages are consistent with previous findings.
The researchers examined a number of course and instructor characteristics identified elsewhere in the literature as being relevant to student-faculty interaction. Here are some (not all) of the items that ended up being associated with the use of office hours: whether the instructor gave useful feedback during office hours, whether they were held at a convenient time and location, if the course was at the 100 or 400 level, if students perceived the class as small, if the course was required either as general education or as part of a major, and if the student was taking advantage of university-sponsored peer tutoring.
Just as interesting is a sample of those course and instructor characteristics that did not influence the use of office hours for these students: whether the instructor was willing to schedule additional office hours, whether the instructor was available through and responsive to email, whether the course was blended or traditional, whether the instructor was approachable, whether in-class discussions were useful, and whether the material was explained clearly in class.
Study authors claim that those factors influencing student decisions to use office hours are largely beyond the instructor’s control. I see that being true of some of the characteristics, for example course level, class size, whether the course is required, and whether the student has opted for tutoring, but not for others. Instructors set their own office hours. Obviously, on any given day they have other commitments, but still there are discretionary time blocks. And true, instructors usually don’t get to pick their office locations, but just because they’re called office hours doesn’t mean that’s where the meeting has to take place. Lastly, faculty members most certainly control the kind of feedback offered during office hours.
The question not asked here is why students don’t make use of office hours. I wonder if we underestimate the fear factor. Most of us have a hard time imagining how we could provoke fear in a student, but we do. First, we have deep subject matter expertise, and that alone can be intimidating. In addition, we evaluate their work, which they often see as connected to their character. Plus, it’s embarrassing to have to ask for help, especially when the person you’re asking talks about how it’s easy and obvious. And what if the answer leaves you more confused, not less?
The researchers do recommend that faculty “educate” students as to the benefits of office hours. I think it might be more useful if students discovered those benefits for themselves. Perhaps some alternatives would increase the chances of discovery. What about topical office hours? Say there’s something a lot of students are struggling with, schedule some office hour time when you’ll work on that topic with individuals, pairs, or small groups.
These researchers also recommend soliciting feedback from students as to the “convenient” scheduling of office hours. Identify three of four possible times that work with your schedule and see which students prefer. Office hours can occasionally or regularly be convened in other locations, such as a place where students tend to congregate that’s still conducive to conversation.
Although we hold office hours as a way of supporting students, they benefit us as well. That time together helps strengthen our connections with students. We learn of student concerns—about assignments, course content, and their progress in the major. Perhaps those benefits deserve a mention.
If you have good strategies for getting student to take advantage of office hours, please share them. Those of us who aspire to increase the use of office hours would welcome new ideas.
Reference: Griffin, W. et. al., (2014). Starting the conversation: An exploratory study of factors that influence student office hour use. College Teaching, 62 (3), 94-99.
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