No More Lonely Office Hours

Has this ever happened to you? It’s time for office hours. You sit alone in a temporary office space provided by your department. The office shelves are bare, except for a stack of papers from another teaching assistant or course instructor. The mismatched furniture stained with coffee and lack of an electrical outlet make the space seem bleak. You listen intently for footsteps, but none arrives. You curse yourself for forgetting to bring the stack of midterms you could be grading as you sit alone in your office hours. You stare at your phone, willing for the hour to pass by, or at least for one soul to show up so that you feel you have done your job today.

The scenario described is what I experienced in my first few years of being a teaching assistant. Students do not seem to attend office hours regularly. To be honest, I did not attend any office hours until my last year of undergraduate studies. Office hours were lonely. I learned to show up to my temporary space with a fully-charged laptop and a stack of grading each week. But that’s not the point of office hours now, is it?

When I became a course instructor, I followed all the advice: setting clear expectations for office hours, providing various options (time and location) for holding office hours, and publicizing office-hour availability during class (Morrison & Wilsman, 2013). I even hinted that attending office-hours can count towards participation marks. In this scenario, the eager students attended office hours with more vigour, but the uninterested remain absent.

In Winter 2020, I decided to change my tactic. Office hours became part of the marking scheme. Students who book and attend a ten-minute office hour meeting with me during the semester earn 5% toward their grades. Astonishingly, 96% (117/122) of students booked and attended office hours throughout the semester. Some of these meetings were held in-person, others online. Office hours were held after class on Wednesdays from 1 PM to 8 PM. Students can book ten-minute slots via Acuity Scheduling, an appointment-scheduling assistant that sends reminders to students before the meeting. The reason I provided such a broad time frame was to accommodate students who have afternoon or evening classes.

In at least half of the 117 meetings, students commented on how they never attended office hours. When asked why, the students stated that they do not know what to talk about during office hours, and they do not want to bother the course instructor and teaching assistant. Both reasons align with the literature on underused office hours, as outlined in the literature review of Margaret Smith et al.’s 2017 article (pp. 15–16). Dana T. Johnson and Jennifer E. Price (2019) provide some additional reasons why students don’t use office hours enough (pp. 84–86):

  • They don’t know what to expect.
  • Students may think office hours are only for those who are having trouble.
  • Some students put off going to office hours until they are desperate.
  • Some students are embarrassed that they need help.
  • Some students believe that email is preferable to face-to-face contact.
  • Students are too busy.

Students were surprised that as the course instructor, I genuinely want to know them individually, and that supporting my learners is a joy, not a burden. By the time the University of Toronto switched to online instruction in mid-March, I had already met with 75% (92/122) of students. Meeting the majority of learners eased the sudden change from face-to-face to online teaching. Students were forthcoming with sharing their concerns about the last three weeks of class, and despite the pandemic, all 122 students successfully completed the course.

During the Summer 2020 term, I incorporated the same tactic again, and this time, 100% (44 out of 44 students) booked and attended office hours. Even though the Summer 2020 term was completely online, the office hours helped establish a community of learners (Gibbons-Kunka, 2017). Synchronous webinars and office hours accompanied the asynchronous course materials. What was different between the Winter 2020 and Summer 2020 office hours was its description and the distribution of hours. In the summer, during the first synchronous webinar, I shared my experience avoiding office hours during my undergraduate years, and the benefits reaped from participating in office hours. I provided a list of possible topics and questions, similar to Lisa M. Nunn’s (2019) list of office hour conversation starters (pp. 77–78), and reassured my learners that I am not too busy to listen and talk with them. Keep in mind that our multiple identities—be it professional, social, cultural, racial, sexual, etc.—affects our interaction and participation. (On the issue of intersected experiences and positions, I recommend reading W. Carson Byrd, Rachelle J. Brunn-Bevel, and Sarah M. Ovink’s 2019 edited volume Intersectionality and higher education: Identity and inequality on college campuses.) With regards to time allocation, instead of scheduling office hours all on one day, I re-distributed the hours to midday Tuesdays and Thursdays, Thursday evenings, and Friday mornings. The various time options enable students from different time zones to participate. Rearranging availability also has to do with responding to our learners’ needs. As the term progressed, I provided additional hours leading up to the final term test. The teaching assistant noted how office-hour appointments increased after grades for the first major assignment were posted. Using office hours as a time to offer additional feedback, which will benefit the learner for the remainder of the course, was a useful strategy in encouraging recurring appointments (Griffen, W., et al., 2014).

One strategy that I would like to try in the future is rebranding office hours. Patrick L. Lowenthal, Chareen Snelson, and Joanna C. Dunlop (2017) suggest renaming virtual office hours, depending on function, with more inviting titles (p. 188). For informal sessions: happy hours, coffee breaks, afternoon teas, etc. And for formal sessions: consultations, design studio, conference room, etc. Last week, I stumbled upon Danielle Slakoff’s Twitter post about rebranding “office hours” as “student hours.” In retrospect, renaming “office hours” to “students hours” seems obvious. If lunch hour is for lunch and happy hour is for happy gatherings, then, obviously, student hour is for supporting students and not office work. Supporting student learning is the point now, isn’t it?

Works Cited

Byrd, W. C., Brunn-Bevel, R. J., & Ovink, S. M. (2019). Intersectionality and higher education: Identity and inequality on college campuses. Rutgers University Press.

Gibbons-Kunka, B. (2017). Synchronous office hours in an asynchronous course: Making the Connection. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 13(4), 98–110.

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.

Johnson, D. T., & Price, J. E. (2019). Will this be on the test? What your professors really want you to know about succeeding in college. Princeton University Press.

Lowenthal, P. R., Snelson, C., & Dunlap, J. C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning, 21(4), 177–194.

Morrison, D., & Wilsman, A. (2013, March 22). Ask Professor Pedagogy: Lonely Office Hours. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Nunn, L. M. (2019). Thirty-three simple strategies for faculty. Rutgers University Press.

Smith, M., et al. (2017). “Office hours are kind of weird”: Reclaiming a resource to foster student-faculty interaction. Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 12, 14–29.

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