Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few discussions related to office hours and how to make them more accessible. There are many instructors, myself included, who would love to have more students come to office hours—I think lots of students would benefit from coming, but most don’t come (and that’s even though we have a relatively good turnout at office hours for a class our size). There are many, complex reasons why students do not come to office hours, but probably some key things are:

  • Not realizing what (or who!) they are for
  • Not feeling safe showing up to them (e.g., out of fear of looking bad in front of the instructor)
  • Not being able to make it to them (e.g., because of work or childcare)

The solution to the first one seemed so obvious once I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/amy_nusbaum/status/1100440431500775424

From the twitter reactions, I know I am not alone in wondering how this never occurred to me—it’s a great idea! It, along with having some more information in the syllabus about what student hours are for, starts to address the second point, too. But that point and the following one can’t be fully addressed by a name change. When I was emailing about this with a colleague, she jokingly replied that maybe we should call them “FREE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION THAT SOMEONE ALREADY PAID FOR WHY DON’T YOU COME???”, then immediately added: “Just kidding – I never went either. I always had to work and was too shy to ask someone to adjust around my work schedule.”

So, I was really intrigued to learn recently that a colleague of mine at Michigan, John Montgomery, records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”). Michigan has a lecture capture system set up in classrooms. I use this for my lectures, which are all recorded and made available to students via the course website. Recording my lectures helps students review material, plus makes it easier for students who need to miss lecture (e.g., because they are sick) to catch up. It had never occurred to me to recording office hours/student hours, but, imilar to the “student hours” solution, it seems obvious in retrospect.

John said that, when he first considered the switch, he polled his class about it to see if it would make some students feel less comfortable coming. He also explained to students that he would be the only person who was being recorded (he restates questions that students ask so they are captured by the recording), and, according to him, students still feel comfortable coming to office hours even knowing the session is being recorded. He also stays after class to talk one-on-one with students and sets up one-on-one meetings if needed and as time allows.

When John polled students, he asked which they would prefer: 1) that the whole office hours session recording be made available, 2) that it be trimmed to just the most important content, or 3) they wouldn’t use it. The responses were roughly equally distributed across the three choices.

Still, in the days after hearing this suggestion, I couldn’t make up my mind how I feel about this idea. Right now, my office hours are in a conference room (so more students can attend than would fit in my office). Students come and ask questions. I spend a fair amount of time up at the board, but there’s also a fair amount of students answering each other’s questions (which is great for learning for both the student with the question and the student who asked the question).

I’m not entirely sure of how to deal with this, but also suspect that I am creative enough to figure something out. The part about what I do at the board is easy—I can just use a blank slide and the annotation tool to do that, and I don’t think it would have a big effect on the experience for students who are attending the office hours in person. For the part where students answer each other’s questions, I can paraphrase both the question and the answer.

That leaves one other main thing that happens in office hours that couldn’t be recorded: the meetings that I have (especially right after exams) where students are seeking support and reassurance and advice on whether to stay in the course. I could turn off the microphone so none of that is recorded, but I don’t know that students would fully trust that. (John turns off his mic as he walks around the room to talk with students about their individual work and it sounds like students are fine with that.) Another option would be not to record the office hours sessions that happen right after the exam or right near the drop deadline, which is when most of those questions occur. (In case it’s not clear: I have those conversations with students one-on-one. I ask the other students to wait in the hall while I have those conversations.)

When I spoke more with John about this as I worked on the post, he noted that he heard from lots of student-athletes and people who work saying that they found the office hour recordings invaluable for their success in the course. He also received feedback from students with disabilities that the recordings (of both lectures and office hours) were particularly useful, since they allowed them to move through the material at their own pace, including to take breaks when needed. Students who had illnesses and family emergencies also gave specific feedback about how helpful having the recordings were.

So, at this point, I’m planning on changing things for this fall so that I 1) call them “student hours” rather than “office hours” (and add a section in the syllabus explaining what they are, and 2) record the student hours in addition to the lectures.

In thinking about this more generally, I think the approach of recording student/office hours might not work as well for classes where office hours are primarily sitting alongside students as they work on problems. But, instructors in that sort of course could record themselves (or a willing student) working through a sample problem to give the idea of the way to approach it.

Do you think “student hours” (or some other name) is more likely to draw students in to your office hours? If you use a different name, or are thinking of changing it to a new name, I’d love to hear what you use. Do you think it would work to record your office hours (or have you already done this)? And what other things do you do to make your office hours more accessible (especially in classes with hundreds of students)?

18 thoughts on “Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

  1. I experimented this term with calling my office hours “Student Hours”. I’ve also started, this year, listing my student hours for today and the next couple of days on the board at the start of class, along with the agenda for the day, as a reminder. I think I’ve seen a slight uptick in attendance as a result of both. But honestly, I think the issue at my institution is that students are WAY overscheduled. So in the fall, I’m going to experiment with walking my students through how to look at my calendar and request/book a meeting with me (and putting this info on the syllabus), to give them one more tool to empower them to meet with me.

    • Yes, the overscheduled point is an important one. Do you think recordings would help those students? John’s data suggests that it does help (some) athletes and students who work. But, at some point, what it will be cutting into is sleep, and clearly that’s a problem, too.

  2. Interesting post! I remember reading a neat piece [but can’t find it] about the idea of ‘coffice hours’ where the instructor meets students in high-traffic spot on campus. By showing up, sitting down with a hot beverage, being present (e.g. nose not in laptop), students might feel more comfortable approaching and asking questions. I tried this approach this year with moderate uptake, but it did allow me to check-in quickly with students who happened to be about- which I think has value. I’m going to be trying this again for sure.

    In terms of accessibility – I love the idea of capturing these conversations. Are you planning to make a library of these that continues from year to year? These carefully thought out examples could be a very helpful resource to collate and make available to students either through the university LMS or an external platform (e.g. Youtube).

    • The idea of making libraries is an interesting one! I hadn’t thought of that but will think about it more.

      I know one colleague who holds coffee shop hours. I think she likes them in some ways — it’s definitely a different way of engaging with students! — but I think very, very few students come to them.

      • A colleague of mine who is teaching an applied communication course for veterinary technicians has a requirement of her students to come to office hours. While they’re there they need to participate in some kind of role playing exercise about difficult conversations in clinical practice.

        Perhaps (when the course context allows) something along these lines might be a way to incentivize students to take advantage of this extra time. Though I don’t have any data to back it up, my perception from talking to students is that the first visit to office hours can be a little intimidating – but the ones who come once tend to repeatedly return. I’ve thought about making a visit to office hours during the first three weeks have a positive consequence

        – Access to additional study tools on the LMS
        – An extension on an assignment
        – A ballot to win a $10 coffee card?

        I really don’t have any idea what might work best, though I’m open to experimentation. I think this is a valuable habit to encourage students to practice!

        -P

  3. The last couple of years I’ve had great luck using Google Calendar appointment slots in addition to regular office hours. I have my regular weekly hours (same time each week), but then I also add appointment slots around my other commitments (so the days/times change week to week). The students really like being able to sign up for a slot online, and I think that adding the scheduling variability helps avoid work/class/other conflicts to some degree. I provide both office hour and Google Calendar info on the syllabus and LMS, and the appointment slots link is in my email signature as well.

    • When I was filling out a scheduling poll for parent-teacher conferences for my second grader, I realized I should consider this approach with my students! If they all wanted to meet one-on-one, it would take more hours than there are in the semester, but that seems unlikely. But I do struggle with how to balance accessibility to my students with me needing to get other things done, too.

  4. Wait, would the recorded student hours be available to all students to view? That I have trouble wrapping my head around that probably just illustrates how different Calgary is from Michigan. Here at Calgary it’s rare for lectures to be recorded, and so I think recording student hours might seem weird to some students and faculty. But I haven’t polled anyone so maybe I’m wrong about that.

    Re: renaming office hours “student hours”, sure, can’t hurt. I agree “student hours” seems like a better name than “office hours”. But here at Calgary, I’m confident the effect on attendance would be very small or non-existent. Students here all already know what office hours are for. They also are busy. Most are already devoting as much time to coursework as they’re willing to devote. Also, probably many of them have time conflicts with any scheduled office hours (which as an aside is why I don’t keep fixed office hours and instead encourage students to just make appointments with me when it’s convenient for them). Finally, Calgary’s a big uni with big classes. As your colleague notes, most students at a big uni never go to office hours, and probably never will no matter what they’re called.

    I’d be curious to hear comments from someone at a big uni who has well-attended office hours. Because I’ve never heard of anyone who does! Is there someone out there at a big uni who has well-attended office hours, and if so, are there any generalizable lessons for how to get students to attend?

    • To get to your last point first: I think you’d need to be specific about what you mean about “well-attended”! We probably get as many as 10% of students at office hours on an exam week. That makes them well-attended relative to many other large courses, but 10% is, of course, still quite low.

      To get to your first point: I’m not sure what proportion of the big lectures at Michigan are recorded, but it’s not rare. Students often use the lecture recordings to review certain sections of lecture (watching on 1.5 or 2X speed, often!) And occasionally the recording helps me when there ended up being a really good discussion related to a clicker question or a question from a student in one section that I think the students in the other section would benefit from hearing. I then announce in the next class and/or in an email announcement that they should go to X time in the recording from Y lecture to listen to the discussion.

      • 10% of students attending office hours is substantially higher than I get during exam weeks in intro biostats or any of the upper-level courses I teach. Don’t know how it compares to what other profs teaching other courses get here at Calgary. I agree that 10% doesn’t seem “well attended” in an absolute sense, but does seem well-attended relative to other large courses at other large unis.

      • I’d agree with Jeremy here on attendance at office hours on the Calgary campus. I have some students with disabilities who record my lectures, but we have no built-in systems for recording lectures at all.

  5. From a student perspective, I can really relate to this. I was first generation college student, and I didn’t really know how approachable professors were. As others mentioned, I initially thought office hours were closed-door periods, or something like that, where the professor could get stuff done. A Ph.D later, I find that thought rather amusing now!

    With regards to office hours, I’m wondering if there’s a difference between how many student show up to office hours vs. how many benefit, but may not set foot in your office. I studied a lot with friends, and we usually relied on 1 or 2 of our friends to go and ask the questions at office hours (or whenever). You could be having more of an impact than you realize!

    As I mentioned, I was a bit tentative to approach professors in my first year or so of college. However, I was a lot less tentative with the TAs (more my age, more approachable in my mind, etc.). I’m curious not only if the number of students that approach TAs is different, but also if the demographic of students who approach TAs is different than those that would approach a professor.

    One last bit – I also have ADHD and mild dyslexia, and recorded lectures were a godsend to me. It meant I could pay attention and engage in the lecture, then watch the lecture again later to take notes. I had a really hard time doing both at once.

    • “With regards to office hours, I’m wondering if there’s a difference between how many student show up to office hours vs. how many benefit, but may not set foot in your office. I studied a lot with friends, and we usually relied on 1 or 2 of our friends to go and ask the questions at office hours (or whenever).”

      As a prof, I wonder about this too! To what extent do my answers to individual student questions (whether during office hours, or via email) diffuse to the other students? My offhand guess would be “not usually all that far”, but I really have no idea.

  6. If the question is “how can we get more students who have questions about the material, but who don’t pose them to the prof (for whatever reason), to pose them to the prof?”, then the best answer isn’t necessarily “get more students to come to office hours by renaming office hours” or “share recordings of rare office hour visits”. The best answer might be “find some other means for students to pose questions to the prof besides coming to office hours”.

    For a couple of years in intro biostats (130+ students), we experimented with an online system on which students could ask questions about the course material (under a pseudonym if they wanted, IIRC). Our system also allowed students to discuss and answer each other’s questions. The system was set up by peer mentors, undergrads who’d taken the course in the past and done well, and who were taking a for-credit course on mentoring. The peer mentors would monitor the discussions, intervene to nudge them in productive directions (though the peer mentors weren’t supposed to act as instructors and just answer questions themselves), and would let me know when a question/discussion seemed to require a response from me. For instance, they’d ask me to respond if many students were confused about the same topic, or if students were disagreeing about the answer to a question, or seemed to have agreed on the wrong answer. The idea was to give the students a way to help each other, and ask questions of me, in a way that would be sustainable for me.

    I found it kind of a mixed bag. Only a modest minority of students used it (though more used it than came to my office hours). And a couple of times, the peer mentors answered questions incorrectly. But something like that could be worth a try, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it works well for other instructors at other large institutions. I’d be interested to hear comments from anyone who’s tried a similar system.

    Or, students can just email the prof with questions about the course material. I’m fine with that, and here at Calgary as many or more students do that than come to my office to ask questions. Or sometimes, if it’s a question I can’t readily answer via email, I’ll respond inviting them to make an appt. to see me, which they always do. Curious to hear how others feel about emailed questions about the course material.

    And there’s the old standby, the review session. Which in my experience is only ever attended by a few students who come prepared with questions. Most others who show up only do so because…they feel like they should, I guess? They’re hoping someone else will ask a question that by pure chance will reveal an unrecognized gap in their own understanding of the material? I dunno. My admittedly-anecdotal experience suggests to me that review sessions are of fairly limited value for anyone who doesn’t come prepared with their own questions. Which is one thing that makes me wonder a little how much value there is in recording office hour Q&A’s and posting them for other students to view. YMMV, of course.

  7. I guess if 10% of students come on exam week, that’s roughly in line with my experience so not much has changed.

    One reason students would avoid “office hours” is that they’re intimidated by being 1-1 w/ prof. I also think your idea of having time in a conference room where there is a board and other teaching materials is great. And I like calling it “discussion group”. All of those things make it less personal and less intimidating.

    Seems more worthwhile to record the lectures than “discussion group”, unless the discussion group was regularly busy.

    One way to use discussion group recordings is to continue to compile them over the course of many semesters into an extended lecture library, so each time you give an extended explanation to a student about some topic, it’s available for future students.

    And wow, discussion group sounds like a *great* place to use your personal voice! 🙂

  8. My advisor Marissa Baskett does “open office hours” in her Population Ecology class, something I loved as a TA. It’s like an informal 2hr lab where students meet to help each other and ask the prof/TA anything they want. Of course, the extra Qs and feedback is also very helpful to instructors. Great (at least) for math homeworks where problems go a bit beyond class examples – something biology students can struggle with. Tricky part is to not make it feel like attendance is semi-required for doing well in class (attendance averaged ~50% of class weekly! and we did have another 1hr weekly computer lab).

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