How to Design Better Office Hours

by | Jan 14, 2020

The majority of advice on office hours is geared toward students and simply encouraging them to go. The few articles geared toward faculty focus on increasing traffic, which makes sense given the typical ebb and flow of drop-ins throughout the semester. Students usually attend office hours right before a pre-set deadline (e.g., for an exam, assignment, or presentation) or right after receiving their grade.

This means that neither students nor faculty are getting as much out of office hours as they could.

I noticed this pattern in my own office hours across very different academic contexts. Whether I was working at a research university, a teaching college, or an Ivy League institution, I spent a majority of my office hours preparing for class rather than engaging with students.

Below I outline several key changes I implemented to shift this dynamic. The result? Students began to show up regularly and both they and I began to get much more out of it. I now hold office hours twice per week on the same days that I teach and at least three students drop in every single time.

Explain what office hours are, not just when

In The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Anthony Abraham Jack argues that “office hours” is a classed term and one of many ill-defined yet consequential activities for undergraduates. The expectation that students attend office hours often goes unsaid and feeds into what Jack calls a “hidden curriculum” that further places low-income students at a disadvantage.

I thereby borrow my first suggestion from Jack: explain what office hours are, not just when you hold them.

I remember feeling apprehensive about communicating with faculty as a first-generation student. For a long time, I thought office hours was reserved for academic crisis rather than ordinary course-related inquiries.

I recommend a more expansive definition of office hours that reframes the time as a student-centered resource and takes a holistic approach to teaching.

Certainly, office hours are a great time for discussing course content, especially if students have specific questions. But they’re also a time when you can discuss classroom dynamics, navigating higher education, post-graduate plans, and beyond.

In other words, faculty can treat office hours as an opportunity to demystify the “hidden curriculum” and cultivate belonging for current students. 

Build relationships

While office hours can be a site of learning and mentorship, it’s most valuable for building relationships with students and simply checking in. Lead by asking how a student is doing instead of waiting for them to pose a question.

For faculty like myself who teach large classes, office hours are a precious time that’s particularly well-suited for broader conversations as well as fostering mutual support among students.

I suggest meeting with students in pairs or small groups. This allows students to get acquainted with each other and you to get acquainted with them. Faculty typically praise students for making connections with their professors outside of the classroom and judge those that don’t.

For students who commute, work, parent or have caretaking responsibilities, spending additional time on campus is nearly impossible. If students do attend office hours, ask about their lives so that you can better understand their unique collegiate experience.

Get feedback

Ask students about their classroom experience. Students are poised to evaluate your pedagogical practices better than anyone else. I request anonymous feedback at the midway point of every semester. However, I have found that students are willing and eager to offer reflections on both the course and the class in office hours.

Let’s say a student is seeking clarification on a confusing term. You can follow up by asking what, if anything, would have better clarified the term in class. It’s likely that they will comment on the pace of lecture, which provides you with priceless feedback for improving lecture comprehension (e.g., slowing down, repeating main ideas, introducing fewer terms per class, or making more time for discussion).                  

Change it up—with caution

Finally, consider holding office hours away from your office. I have experimented with holding office hours outdoors and at student centers on campus. Both were a hit in part because my office wasn’t accessible to all students.

It’s important to find an accessible space that maintains student confidentiality and the parameters of your responsibilities as a professor. Sign-up tools like You Can Book Me can minimize your administrative scheduling work.

I strongly suggest setting time limits and other boundaries for student meetings. Even as office hours can facilitate interactions that enhance and build on course content, they can also prompt students to disclose extremely personal and private information. This is especially true for faculty of color, who tend to be overburdened by invisible—often emotional—labor, and faculty who teach courses that catalyze deep introspection such as those in ethnic, gender, and sexuality studies.

Learning how to set emotional boundaries with students and refer them to support services on and off campus is crucial for upholding office hours not as a therapeutic space but as a formal extension of the course.            

Generally speaking, office hours continue to be an underused treasure that’s already structured into higher education. To make the most of these additional hours spent on campus, faculty must reframe the time for students and for themselves. In this way, office hours can have a transformative effect on students, faculty, and the culture of academia.

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Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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