Do you offer hybrid (or dual-mode!) office hours to your students? Which method suits them best? Why do some students never take the opportunity to meet with you? How can we maximize student participation? An article published in Life Sciences Education offers food for thought.
Student motivations and barriers toward online and in-person office hours
Through the newsletter Teaching (published by The Chronicle for Higher Education), I came across the article “Student Motivations and Barriers toward Online and In-Person Office Hours in STEM Courses,” from the magazine Life Sciences for Education.
Jeremy L. Hsu, Melissa Rowland-Goldsmith, and Elaine Benaksas Shwartz surveyed more than 500 Biology students at a university in California on their motivations for attending teachers’ office hours and the barriers for attending them.
Hsu, Rowland-Goldsmith, and Benaksas Shwartz also interviewed the teachers on their perceptions of office hours.
Even though the study was conducted in an American university, several results are undoubtedly relevant to the college reality.
The study was conducted in the spring of 2021, when the university where the study was taking place was just shifting to (optional) in-person learning. Therefore, first-year students had almost only had the opportunity to attend office hours online, while second-year students had had the opportunity to attend office hours in person before the pandemic, as well as office hours online in 2020-2021.
The authors found that the students perceived fewer benefits from office hours attendance than teachers. In addition, the students saw more barriers to attending office hours.
Barriers to attending office hours
The teachers surveyed provided several reasons why students do not attend office hours, including:
- having no questions to ask
- having a schedule conflict
- being uncomfortable
However, besides these reasons, students cited other reasons not mentioned by teachers:
- being too busy to attend office hours (but did not state a specific time conflict with another class)
- not knowing the location of office hours (location on campus or web platform); not knowing the office hours schedule or dealing with other logistics
In addition, significantly more teachers than students cited the lack of effort (laziness or lack of motivation) as a reason for not attending office hours.
Based on their results, Hsu, Rowland-Goldsmith, and Benaksas Shwartz offer suggestions to teachers. I list them here with additional personal comments.
Discuss the guidelines on office hours with students
From the very beginning of the semester, clearly mention to your students the guidelines on office hours. For example:
- Tell the students they don’t need to book an appointment to meet with you. If for some reason, you want them to book an appointment, make it clear how to do so!
- Indicate to students it is possible to meet with you in teams if they wish
- Tell them it’s possible to attend to listen to other students ask questions (either all the time or at specific times)
- Explain how office hours can be used to discuss various topics. Encourage them to:
- ask specific questions about the course content
- ask questions on assignments or exams (before the evaluation or after it has been returned to the student)
- discuss their study strategies or how to develop some methodological skills
- discuss field-related careers (or internships)
Take the time to introduce the students to the potential benefits of attending office hours.
Try to remove structural barriers
At the beginning of the semester, check your students’ schedules before setting your office hours. (It can easily be done by clicking on “Common free periods” in Léa, in Omnivox.)
Make sure students know exactly where your office is. (Giving them the room number is often not enough!) Why not head there with the group at the beginning of the semester? Alternatively, you can book individual meetings with each student at the beginning of the semester. This way, if students feel the need to meet during the semester, they will already know where to go.
Similarly, if the meetings are online (or dual-mode), make sure the instructions on how to access the videoconference are clear.
If the students are required to book an appointment to meet with you, try to keep it as simple as possible. Why not use Bookings?
Bookings is also quite useful to book a virtual meeting on Teams. When a student makes an appointment, a videoconferencing link is automatically generated, and an automatic reminder may be sent to the student prior to the meeting.
Giving your students the option to book a virtual meeting (in addition to offering the option of in-person office hours) is a good way to eliminate barriers. Your students will be more likely to ask questions if they have the possibility to do it even on days they don’t have classes, for instance.
Hsu, Rowland-Goldsmith, and Benaksas Shwartz also recommend rotating your office hours schedule from week to week to match with as many students’ schedules as possible. It is an interesting option. On the other hand, it seems like it would be more difficult for students to remember your schedule (or to build the habit of meeting with you). I personally prefer to survey my students at the beginning of the semester to make sure everybody has at least one common free period with me, and then find an individual solution for those who don’t have one.
Provide students with opportunities for practice and feedback
Predictably, the research shows that students come into office hours more if they have questions. Likewise, they do not come into office hours if they perceive they fully understand the course content. Hsu, Rowland-Goldsmith, and Benaksas Shwartz conclude that if you provide more formative assessments to your students, they will have more opportunities to develop metacognition, and they will be more likely to attend office hours. It goes without saying! The learning benefits these metacognition opportunities provide are so well-established that it seems unnecessary to elaborate on the subject to bring grist to the mill.
Create an inclusive environment in office hours
Nearly 15% of the students surveyed claimed that they were either intimidated by office hours or had previous negative experiences. To address the problem, the authors suggest considering:
- relocating office hours to a conference room or another “comfortable” location
- explicitly encouraging students to attend in groups
- taking the time to connect with students during office hours with topics beyond the course content
In-person or online?
When prompted to reflect on their preferences for attending office hours in the future, most students surveyed indicated they would prefer teachers to offer a mix of in-person and online office hours.
|Preferences of office hours||Percentage of students preferring this option|
|All in person||9,8%|
|Most in person, but some online||31,1%|
|Even split in person and online||28,7%|
|Most online, but some in person||17,6%|
How about you? What are your tips for encouraging your students to make the best out of your office hours?