When new college students first arrive on campus for orientation, they are often told that one of the keys to success in college is to utilize office hours. However, the concept of office hours may be completely foreign to new students, especially those coming from high school.
In high school, students have fairly similar schedules, with designated class times that most everyone participates in, and school-wide breaks for lunch, free time, or the end of the day. Students are able to talk to their teachers during these breaks or after school. But in college, students and professors alike have a much wider range of when they have class, when they have breaks, and when they have other commitments.
The purpose of office hours is for professors to have a set time during the day each week (or multiple times per week) when they can meet with students. These office hours can be hugely beneficial when a student is struggling with a class, needs help in working through specific problems, wants to expand on bigger picture questions about the class or field, and in many other situations.
“[Office hours] give a student a chance to establish a relationship with a professor. But if you don’t go into office hours, it can make it harder to establish those relationships. It can be extremely helpful to let your professor know that you’re interested in learning and that you value the class,” said Kindalee Pfremmer De Long, Associate Dean of Seaver College at Pepperdine University and Professor of Religion.
Janice Sweeter, Assistant Professor of Practice, teaches strategic communications at Northern Arizona University. Sweeter also talked about building a personal connection, especially when class sizes are large and it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.
“I teach two introduction to advertising courses that have combined almost a total of 150 students, so [office hours are] a great chance to get to know them on an individual level, understand more about their goals and their dreams. And then, I use that insight and that knowledge to connect with the whole class. It also gives them a voice. It gives them a chance to share more, to learn more,” said Sweeter.
While students can receive a great deal of value from office hours, not all students utilize these effectively either due to a misunderstanding of the purposes of office hours, or an idea that they will not be worthwhile. De Long recommended starting the year off with the intention of using office hours and getting involved in class by simply introducing yourself.
“One piece of advice that I would give every first year student is just go in and get to know your professor. You don’t have to wait until there’s a specific reason, you could just stop by office hours for five minutes the first week of class to go in and shake their hand and say, ‘I always like to stop by and meet my professors in office hours.’ Then the professor knows your face right away and your name,” said De Long. “It’s a great practice to get used to as a life skill. So that is a great way to use office hours right at the beginning of the semester.”
After initial introductions, don’t be afraid to go to office hours whenever something comes up. Remember that professors set aside this time specifically to talk to students.
“Sometimes students see office hours as a burden so they walk in and say, ‘sorry to interrupt you,’ and I always say, ‘you’re not interrupting, that’s what office hours are for.’ So I encourage, especially first year students, to get past that view of it being an interruption or a burden,” said De Long.
De Long explained that students are more likely to use office hours in a technical class, such as a math class, where they have specific questions about, say, a math formula. While this is one way to use office hours, in a more abstract class, students are still free to go over projects, tests, or essays with their professors during this time. This could be before these assignments are due. For example, you may want to go over a study guide to make sure you understand certain concepts before a test. You can also go back into office hours to go over the test after it’s returned to you, so you can understand why you got certain questions wrong and learn from your mistakes.
There is also the fact that your professor has extensive knowledge in the area they’re teaching, and can be used as a resource for your own career goals if you’re especially interested in the field they’re teaching. Students are able to talk about these personal goals and gain knowledge in this one-on-one setting.
“I have a professional background in a major city that’s close to NAU, so I can offer them ideas for internships and even potential jobs, and just give them a chance to feel more connected to their personal goals,” said Sweeter.
As a religion professor, De Long says many students come to talk to her in office hours to extend a class conversation.
“There will be something that comes up in class that sparks a question in [a student], but it’s not necessarily something they want to bring up in front of all of their peers, but they would like to have a further conversation about it,” said De Long. “That can happen in any humanities class, so those are great things to bring up with a professor. It could be that something happens in class and it makes you think as a student, ‘maybe this is a topic I would want to major in or minor in.’ That’s also a good conversation to have in office hours.”
While there are many ways you can use office hours, De Long emphasized that there is no one way to do it.
“A successful use of office hours could be a one time visit about a specific problem or issue. But, we’ve had students that came in every single week because they were determined to do better in the class. They were struggling, so they would come in to review the material. That was also a successful use of office hours. So it just depends on what the needs are, which can really vary,” said De Long.
Both De Long and Sweeter gave examples of students who were struggling at the start of the semester, but came to office hours consistently to review content and were able to grasp class concepts and improve their grades. Sweeter also discussed different types of students and how she sees growth.
“It’s interesting because there’s the A++ students. There are the ones who get every inch of extra credit that they can, they usually excel on exams, they like to get the very most out of the program. So they come for the opportunity to really get the most from the experience and move on to what will likely be very successful careers. And then at the other end of the spectrum are students who are simply not engaged. They don’t come to class. They probably should drop the course. They’re really struggling but they’re just not reaching out,” said Sweeter.
She explained that she reaches out to these students and meets with them, attempting to sort out the issues. Yet, those students who are neither extremely engaged or disengaged are who Sweeter sees benefiting the most.
“There’s this wonderful middle that I’m really enjoying getting to know, and that is people who may have never seen themselves as an A++ student or as a failing student. That’s just not how they would perceive themselves. But I love the idea of the growth mindset, that you don’t have to say just, ‘oh I’m not good at math, I’m not good at tests, I’m not good at this.’ And then [a professor can] step up and say, ‘well what can you do? What can you change about your situation that would help you succeed more no matter where you’re starting from?’”
Sweeter said that in many of these cases, students are able to make huge improvements by participating in class, taking good notes, going over the study guide in office hours, and getting more involved overall.
Of course, timing of office hours can still be an issue for college students’ schedules. While Sweeter talked about how she’s changed around her office hours to try to accommodate as many students as possible, no single time may work for everyone. Sweeter discussed the alternative ways she tries to touch base with students, such as making herself available before and after class.
“Being available before and after class, even 10 to 15 minutes, [gives us] a chance to touch base and maybe set a time for later,” said Sweeter. “I’m also a big fan of walking office hours. I used to have a class that was a good 15 minute walk away. I always felt bad about not being able to hang out with the students after class, so if someone wanted to talk with me I’d say ‘alright, we’re walking and talking.’ I think sometimes it’s a freer kind of thing especially for students that have a lot of energy.”
If you’re unable to make office hours, there’s always the option to set a time with your professor that works for both of you to work together one-on-one.
For students that are more intimidated to go to office hours, Sweeter said she’s seen pairs of students feel more comfortable.
“I’ve seen some students coming in in pairs, which I think is fun. They’re either roommates or they know each other through their sorority or fraternity or something like that, so that’s kind of an interesting dynamic that I hadn’t seen before,” said Sweeter.
Generally, office hours allow for a deeper level of understanding of the course content, and students can discuss topics both with the professor and with other students present.
“More than anything I think it’s just giving them a voice, giving them a chance if they want to take it to have an audience with someone who has some experience within this area, to just talk through ideas and see how that connects with what is going on in the classroom,” said Sweeter.
Recognize that office hours are available for you as a student, and utilizing them is to your advantage. Find out what your professor’s office hours are through the class syllabus, class website, or by talking to or emailing your professor.