In The Privileged Poor -- a recent study of 103 undergraduates at an elite, highly selective institution -- Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack (2019) relates an interview with a college senior who had previously attended a competitive boarding school:
I know what I ought to do. My friend struggles, ‘I don’t know this; I don’t get this; I don’t know what to do.’ I told her what to do: ‘Contact them.’ That was very intuitive to me. Reaching out to your teacher and having one-on-one time was definitely something that was at my boarding school. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but the fact that my friend was like, ‘Are you sure I can just email them?’ Not that she felt the professor wasn’t welcoming, but ‘cause she wasn’t used to that. I arguably have an advantage. I would have been meeting with my professor for a whole semester at this point and she would have been struggling (pp. 115-116).
Although some students, due to their time at well-resourced high schools, felt comfortable in their use of office hours, others’ perceptions ranged from confusion to feeling “awkward” (p. 98), like the encounter was “emotionally taxing” (p. 94), and even like they were “sucking up” through attendance (p. 107).
Most likely, these perceptions are not isolated to the site of Jack’s research or even the students who were a focus of his research. Some estimates suggest that only one third of students use office hours at least once per term (Griffin et al., 2014; Smith, et al., 2017). At Brown, we do not have precise information on office hour use, but the Enrolled Student Survey (2017) reports similar percentages for students who “had an intellectual discussion with a faculty member outside of class” (ranging from 27% of first-year students to 37% of seniors).
The implications for students’ lack of use of office hours goes beyond performance in a single course or even letters of recommendation. Sociologists Chambliss and Takacs (2014, p. 155), in their study of liberal learning, note that relationships with faculty “are the necessary precondition, the daily motivator, and the most valuable outcome” of a college education. In general, the frequency of faculty interactions is related to increased well-being and emotional health (Mayhew, et al., 2016). A study at Elon University indicates that alumni who were able to identify 7-10 significant relationships with faculty or staff were also three times more likely to report that their college experience was “very rewarding” compared to those naming no important connections.
However, even one significant faculty relationship during a college career -- relationships which often begin during office hours -- can have a profound impact. A Gallup-Purdue (2014) study of over 30,000 college graduates found that the odds of reporting feeling engaged at work were double if the the respondent also:
- Recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person
- Was able to identify a faculty member who made them excited about learning
- Had a mentor (faculty, staff, student) who encouraged them to pursue their dreams
Likewise, the odds were almost double that alumni would feel a sense of well-being (e.g., a sense of purpose, having positive connections to family) when respondents reported the presence of all three contacts.
Because I’ve found that required conferences lead to better student writing as well as more frequent participation in class discussions, I require 15-20 minute conferences in virtually every course I teach. I try to schedule them as early in the semester as possible so that students learn how useful they can be.
-Jim Egan, Professor of English
Although there is strong evidence that office hours attendance contributes positively to the student experience, there are also benefits for faculty as well. For example, classroom incivilities are most likely to flourish in classrooms where students feel anonymous (Boice, 2000). Above, Professor Jim Egan also describes benefits for reading student work and the classroom experience.
Strategies to Encourage Use of Office Hours
The following three evidence-based strategies can be used to create a more invitational approach to office hours. They are listed in order of time and effort needed to implement in a course, with strategies ranging from low time/effort (making clear to students why and how to use office hours) to higher time/effort (offering alternative time and format options for office hours) (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Three Strategies to Increase Office Hours Use, by Time/Effort
Making Transparent When to Use Office Hours -- But Also Why and How to Use Them
Jack’s (2019, p. 83) study observes, “When professors mention office hours, often only on the first day of classes, they tell students when office hours are. They almost never say what they are.” Likewise, a study of over 600 undergraduates at one mid-Atlantic university found that when asked, “What would make you more likely to use office hours?” the most frequent suggestion (57%) is to indicate how, why, and when they should use the resource (Smith et al., 2017).
Transparency around the purposes of office hours can help students make more considered choices around their use and create a more invitational tone for this learning space. Syllabus statements or in-class conversations can raise the following reasons to use office hours, beyond questions about course material:
- How can I find research or internship opportunities in this area?
- How did the instructor become interested in the discipline?
- What are academic and non-academic careers in the field?
- If I like this course, what other ones should I consider?
Rhea Mathews ‘21, English and Literary Arts, also proposes these topics:
- I'm confused about this topic, can you explain it to me in a different way?
- I'm interested in this topic that we discussed in class. How can I explore it more?
- I'm interested in your field/work. What do you like most about it? What do you dislike?
- What is it like, on a daily basis, to work in this field?
Catherine Bai ‘19, Literary Arts and Applied Mathematics, adds that asking for book recommendations can also be helpful. Catherine notes, “In an annotated bibliography assignment for a class, I wrote that I was actively looking to read more Asian-American writers, and my professor emailed me with a list of recommended books!” Finally, Marianna McMurdock ‘19, Education Studies and English, suggests asking, “Are there supports or student groups regarding this discipline that meet regularly?"
In my first year teaching BIOL 0100, I required all students to attend my office hours at least one time and write a reflective essay about the experience. This was an actual assignment - for a small amount of points. In the second year, I did not have this assignment and only only student came. I will bring it back again.
-Kate Smith, Associate Dean of Biology Undergraduate Education and Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (Research)
Another option is to prompt students to generate their own questions. Associate Dean Kate Smith finds success in devoting a small assignment to this topic, which asks students to:
- Read about her work on Brown webpages
- Write five questions they would like to ask her
- Meet and take notes about the conversation
- Summarize what they learned, as well as their observations about changes in confidence and goals: “In a separate set of paragraphs (1-3), describe your level of confidence before, during and after the meeting – were you nervous, excited, reserved, outgoing? Did your confidence change over the course of the meeting? What was something positive about your conversation that boosted your confidence? What is something you want to work on improving as you continue to interact with professors in your time at Brown?”
Normalize the Use of Office Hours Through Incentives
The research suggests that office hours are critical to course and longer-term success. Because not all students have equal access to this information, instructors may wish to consider incentivizing this practice, just as they would for other key study skills. Office hours might be incentivized in the first weeks of a class as a precondition for a paper or in-class presentation, or as one way to calculate a participation grade (Gillis, 2019).
In smaller courses, instructors could consider requiring office hours or offering extra credit to normalize their use. For example, at the beginning of each term, Jay Tang, Professor of Physics and Engineering, requires 15-minute interviews with his students, which he schedules with Google calendar appointments. He finds that, once students undertake this initial visit to his office, they are more likely to come to his office hours throughout the semester.
In larger courses, faculty may wish to have groups sign up for office hours (e.g., a group of students signs up for a time). Jim Egan, English, notes, “In larger courses, I’ve had conferences with groups of 4 or 5 students, and these group conferences lead to similar results without requiring me to spend a disproportionate amount of time in student meetings that a large course would demand.” Another possibility is to have TAs require them, to establish some connection with an instructor.
Modify Time and Location of Office Hours
Time and location inconvenience have been found to be key perceived contributors to some students’ reluctance to visit office hours (Griffin et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2017). Holding some virtual office hours, on platforms such as Zoom, at alternate times may help reduce these barriers and communicate that “the primary benefit of office hours comes not from a student’s physical presence in the faculty member’s office, but rather from the time and space that office hours create for constructive student-faculty engagement” (Smith et al., 2017, p. 25). These alternate times need not be offered every week, nor called “office hours.” In fact, some research suggests that doing them periodically (e.g., four times a term) and using a different term to signal their “specialness” (e.g., Coffee Breaks, Open Space, Career and Course Chat Hours) can prompt better attendance (Lowenthal, Snelson, & Dunlap, 2017).
Additionally, for face-to-face office hours, relocation to a public space like a café or the library may make the visit less daunting. However, instructors may also wish to consider keeping some office hours in their office, for students who need to discuss sensitive or personal issues. Additionally, if office hours are held at a restaurant or café, and it is expected that students will purchase food or a beverage, instructors should consider the cost of that purchase as a potential barrier for some students and pick up the tab.
If you would like to speak with someone at the Sheridan Center about how to increase your students’ use of office hours, please email [email protected].
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil nimus. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Chambliss, D.F., & Takacs, C.G. (2014). How college works. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gallup and Purdue University (2014). Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report. Available: https://products.gallup.com/168857/gallup-purdue-index-inaugural-nationa...
Gillis, A. (2019). Reconceptualizing participation grading as skill building. Teaching Sociology, 47(1): 10-21.
Griffin, W., Cohen, S. D., Berndtson, R., Burson, K.M., Camper, K.M., Cjen, Y., & Smith, M.A. (2014). Starting the conversation: An exploratory study of factors that influence student office hour use. College Teaching, 62(3): 94-99.
Jack, A.A. (2019). The privileged poor: How elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lambert, L.M., Husser, J., & Felten, P. (2018). Mentors play critical role in quality of college experience, new poll suggests. The Conversation. Available: https://theconversation.com/mentors-play-critical-role-in-quality-of-col...
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.
Mayhew, M.J., Rockenbach, A.N., Bowman, N.A., Seifert, T.A., Wolniak, G.C., Pascarella, E.T., & Terenzini, P.T. (2016). How college affects students: 21st century evidence that higher education works. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.
Smith, M., Chen, Y., Berndstson, R., Burson, K.M., Griffin, W. (2017). “‘Office hours are kind of weird’: Reclaiming a resource to foster student-faculty interaction. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 12: 14-19.