Hold Effective and Inclusive Office Hours

What’s Effective?

Research shows that how, when, and where office hours are held, as well as how instructors communicate about them and structure them, can result in more students attending office hours and reporting office hours as more valuable to their learning.

1. Communicate the purpose and logistics of office hours with students

Although office hours are an ingrained part of university life for many instructors, students are often unaware of the purpose and benefits of attending office hours. For example, some students may believe that they must have a specific problem or even an emergency to attend office hours, while others may believe their instructor is unapproachable, intimidating, or unhelpful (Griffin et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2017; Briody, 2019). Beyond including the times and locations of office hours clearly on the course syllabus, instructors can communicate in other ways to encourage student attendance.

  • Frequently promoting office hours in various ways–such as during class, on Canvas, and by email–can help students feel more welcome at office hours (Dingel & Punti, 2023; Nunn, 2019; Smith et al., 2017).
  • Creating transparency about the purpose of office hours can address student misconceptions and help students recognize why they might attend. This might include renaming office hours to express what happens during that time and introducing students to the questions, conversations, activities, and other engagements that you would welcome during office hours (Sathy & Hogan, 2022).
  • Sharing the value of office hours with students–such as how students can benefit from them personally, academically, or professionally–can help students feel motivated to attend (Smith et al., 2017).
  • Rescheduling any office hours that you must miss and communicating these changes with students in advance can show that you prioritize that time with students.

L&S Instructor Example

Sara Chadwick, Assistant Professor, Gender & Women’s Studies and Psychology

What do you do? At the beginning of the semester, I talk about the broader benefits of attending office hours beyond getting a better understanding of course material. For example, I explain that office hours are certainly for course-related questions, but they are also an excellent opportunity to connect with professors and instructors in ways that set you up for other opportunities. This is because attending office hours allows the instructor to get to know you and your work ethic better, making them more likely and able to write you strong letters of recommendation, consider you for research assistant positions, and even just provide you with great life advice.

Why do you do it? Office hours really do offer students an opportunity to network with their instructors in ways that can provide them with future opportunities, yet students are rarely taught this and many aren’t sure where to begin. This is especially true for first-generation college students and students from other minority groups or non-academic backgrounds.

What impact does it have on students? I have had students tell me that they didn’t realize that office hours could serve other goals besides asking course-related questions, and some have even said that they never visited an instructor’s office hours before my class.

2. Hold office hours outside of the office

The office can be perceived as a space that belongs to the instructor, not to the student. Instructors within L&S and at other institutions have found success at increasing attendance at office hours by holding some or all office hours at locations outside of their office.

Possible locations outside of the office include:

  • A designated open, communal classroom space (Dingel & Punti, 2023; Briody, 2019)
  • A cafe near the room where the course meets (Glynn-Adey, 2021)
  • Outdoors, as a physically active experience (Cafferty, 2021)
  • A rotation between multiple locations across campus (Sathy & Hogan, 2022; Soares, 2012)

Holding office hours at locations outside of the office can offer many benefits to both students and instructors, including:

  • Encouraging attendance from more students by meeting students where they already spend time.
  • Creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for students where they feel like they belong.
  • Demonstrating that instructors prioritize their students’ needs and are fully focused on them during office hours.
  • Enabling peer-to-peer interaction, which can help instructors connect with more students in a short time and engage students more actively in their learning process (Bristol, 2021).
  • Opening space for conversations on a greater variety of topics, helping instructors and students get to know each other more personally.

L&S Student Voices

The L&S Dean’s Ambassadors suggest that holding office hours outside of the 9am to 5pm workday makes these meetings much more accessible. This is supported by research reporting that students find office hours difficult to attend due to time constraints or location (Hsu et al., 2022). Consider polling students on a range of times, and offering a few that are outside of business hours.

Sharon Thoma leads office hours in a classroom with a group of students.
Sharon Thoma, Teaching Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, leads office hours in a classroom with a group of students. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

L&S Instructor Example

Sharon Thoma, Teaching Professor, Department of Integrative Biology

What do you do? For office hours, my favorite thing to do is to have them in a classroom, so I can have students use the chalkboard/whiteboard to work together to answer questions. Last fall, I had an hour between my lecture sections, and I had a large group of students come regularly – some just studied and asked questions when they came across something they didn’t understand and others formed study groups within the office hours, which then extended to outside the classroom (I loved seeing the connection between the students).

What impact does it have on students? Last year, the students who met during office hours also studied together outside of office hours and I am sure the experience benefitted everyone in the group. The struggling students learned a lot about being a college student from the other students. They also became friends, which I think is so important. One group sent me a picture of them having ice cream together after their biology final and it was kind of an emotional thing for me – seeing all of those students (and a diverse group of people) who worked together also playing together.

3. Hold virtual office hours

Virtual office hours have become more popular since the COVID-19 pandemic and can offer another opportunity to shift office hours to a student-centered setting. Research on virtual office hours has shown various benefits. Some pre-pandemic research has shown that while virtual office hours may not increase student attendance, offering a virtual option can increase student satisfaction and positive perceptions of office hours (Li & Pitts, 2009). Other research during the pandemic found that students in a computer science course at a large public research institution attended online office hours at a higher rate compared to in-person office hours offered before the pandemic (Gao et al., 2022). Multiple studies have found that a mix of in-person and virtual office hours offers the greatest flexibility to meet the needs of students (Hsu et al., 2022; Gao et al., 2022). Holding virtual office hours may also allow instructors greater flexibility in offering them outside of the traditional 9am to 5pm workday.

Portrait of Jenna Seidl, Dean's Ambassador
Jenna Seidl, L&S Junior

L&S Student Voices

Dean’s Ambassador Jenna Seidl shared about Chelsey Green (Statistics)

“She was very welcoming and approachable, making it clear she genuinely wanted to help students and see them succeed at a new & difficult subject. She even held virtual office hours later in the evenings to help with homework when students weren’t busy with other classes, work, etc. She never made me feel silly or like a burden for asking for help, and I appreciate it so much!”

L&S Instructor Example

Chelsey Green, Lecturer, Statistics

What do you do? During zoom office hours, I usually have students share their screen so we can see the document they are working on (may be coding or may be a typed response to a prompt). This takes a lot of courage on the student’s part so if they are not comfortable sharing their screen, I will ask if another student would be willing to share their screen to explain how they approached the prompt or I will share my own screen and type in a solution that we develop together as a group. I typically ask clarifying questions during the solution-development to make sure the key understandings are touched upon. If a student references a formula or definition that they used, I ask them where in the notes they found that information to remind other students to use their class resources in addition to their memory!

Why do you do it? I format both my in-person and zoom office hours much like group-tutoring, where I really rely on the students to guide and support the discussion. I think it optimizes the amount of engagement students have with the material. My zoom office hours have higher attendance than in-person office hours. I find zoom office hours more effective in some aspects, because it is so easy for the students to share their work and collaborate.

What impact does it have on students? Instead of just listening to me talk about the material, students are talking, typing, looking up topics in their notes, and evaluating their own and others’ responses at the level they are comfortable with. Some students do just attend and listen, but most engage with the discussion we are having and end up asking the group for feedback on a response they are working on.

4. Create structure for office hours

Creating structure for office hours reduces uncertainty for both students and instructors, and can make for more efficient use of time. One way to provide structure is within the scope of the semester by holding office hours with different purposes at different points in the semester. A second way is to provide structure for specific office hours sessions by sharing a rough agenda for weekly meetings, sharing conversation prompts students can bring to meetings, or assigning preparatory work that connects to office hours.

  • A psychology professor offers short, casual meetings for students to get to know her early in the semester. Later in the semester, she hosts meetings intended for small groups to work through specific problems together in addition to traditional individual meetings (Sathy & Hogan, 2022).
  • Students in a psychology course who completed a reflective activity before and after attending office hours out-performed peers on a statistics test (McGrath, 2014).
  • A Physics instructor observed an increase in office hours and lecture attendance, as well as an increase in grades, when using a 4-question metacognition check-in quiz after each exam that connects to office hours meetings (Toro, 2022).
  • Providing conversation starters to students–example questions that they could ask you when they arrive at office hours, such as, “What kind of research do you do?” or “You mentioned ________ in class. Can you tell me more about that?”–can help students feel more comfortable approaching office hours for the first time (Nunn, 2019).

L&S Instructor Example

Sara Chadwick, Assistant Professor, Gender & Women’s Studies and Psychology

What do you do? I provide students with a list of questions-for-the-professor that they can ask me in office hours, and encourage them to use these to practice their networking skills with me. Questions include things like: How and why did you start doing the research that you do? What was the process like to become a professor? Could you tell me about a research project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

Why do you do it? Talking to professors about non-course related topics is an intimidating concept for many students, who aren’t quite sure what networking means or how to make these connections without relating it to a question about class. I believe that all students should have the opportunity to gain the broader benefits of office hours, and I want to provide them with the tools and confidence they need to make this happen.

What impact does it have on students? Providing students with pre-set questions for me in office hours offers a low-stakes way for students to engage with me. It lets them know that I do want to talk with them more and get to know them and it’s okay for them to be nervous or unsure of what to say. I have had students come and say that they didn’t know what to talk about, but that they felt like I would help them learn how to start the conversation!

5. Supplement office hours with peer-to-peer instruction

Five students studying physics around a table
A student study group at the Physics Learning Center

As enrollments increase, departments, programs, and teaching teams may feel more pressure to scale office hours to meet the needs of all students. When it comes to providing students with academic support, one way to address the challenge of scale may be to reconsider office hours within a larger landscape of supplemental instructional offerings. Programs such as the Math Learning Center, Chemistry Learning Center, Computer Sciences Learning Center, Physics Learning Center, Writing Center, and History Lab are compelling models for focused, individual, disciplinary instruction in support of classroom instruction. Many of these centers rely on peer-to-peer instruction, which provides employment and leadership opportunities for students, but also challenges the idea that office hours help students connect with instructors and professors. As class sizes increase instructors could consider using peer-to-peer instruction to supplement other office hours offerings, or advocating for a new departmental or disciplinary support resource.

L&S Instructor Example

Jim Williams, Teaching Faculty, Computer Sciences

What do you do? We use undergraduate peer mentors to help with staffing drop-in hours, which is one type of “office hour” students in CS200 can attend.

Why do you do it? Undergraduate students can assist their peers with a different perspective than instructors and graduate students because they have much more recent experience with the course material from the same perspective. The peer mentor role also provides an opportunity for undergraduate students interested in teaching.

What impact does it have on students? By employing undergraduate students, we can expand the hours that help is available, increase the capacity (and reduce wait times for help), and provide help in-person and virtually. Employing peer mentors is one of a variety of changes the CS200 program has made over several semesters, gradually improving D/F/Drop rates for all groups while maintaining consistent competencies to be successful in the next course in the sequence.

Considerations for your own context

Not every office hours strategy will be effective for every instructor and every class. You might find that a combination of strategies or picking elements of one strategy will work best for your context. If you are thinking about modifying your office hours, consider the following questions.

  • What are the learning goals for your course?
  • How do you expect office hours to support these learning goals?
  • How do office hours connect with other course components, such as lectures, discussion or lab sections, tutoring opportunities, and review/study sessions?
  • What level of preparedness do students have for your course?
  • How much experience do your students have attending office hours?
  • What other kinds of support are available to your students?
  • What is convenient for your students?
  • How do you view the instructor-student relationship?
  • What kinds of conversations are you comfortable having with students?
  • What do you view as the purpose of office hours?
  • What responsibilities do you believe that you and your students have in the learning process?
  • What is possible and practical given the number of students and staff in your course?
  • How might responsibilities be shared within a teaching team?
  • How can you connect your course to other disciplinary student support options, like the Writing Center or a campus learning center?
  • What other responsibilities do you have as an instructor?

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Would you like help getting started on making a change to your office hours? Do you want to discuss your ideas about office hours? Our team is happy to meet with you, brainstorm solutions that meet your needs, and help implement your ideas. Our work typically starts with one 45-minute virtual meeting. To get started, request a meeting.

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References & Further Reading

Briody, E. K., Wirtz, E., Goldenstein, A., & Berger, E. J. (2019). Breaking the tyranny of office hours: Overcoming professor avoidance. European Journal of Engineering Education, 44(5), 666-687. https://doi.org/10.1080/03043797.2019.1592116

Bristol, R. (2021). Standing room only office hours strategies. In K. L. Armstrong, L. A. Genova, J. W. Greenlee, & D. S. Samuel (Eds.), Teaching gradually: Practical pedagogy for graduate students, by graduate students (pp. 58-62). Taylor & Francis Group. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wisc/detail.action?docID=6732763

Cafferty, P. (2021). Taking the office hour out of the office. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50(3), 3-7.

Davis, J. (2010). The first generation student experience: Implications for campus practice, and strategies for improving persistence and success. Taylor & Francis Group. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wisc/detail.action?docID=911903

Dingel, M., & Punti, G. (2023). Building faculty-student relationships in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 31(1), 61-82. https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2023.2164976

Gallagher, C., Haan, J., & Lovett, S. (2020). Faculty and international student perceptions of language performance and instructional support: A mismatch of expectations. TESOL Journal, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.462

Gao, Z., Heckman, S., & Lynch, C. (2022). Who uses office hours? A comparison of in-person and virtual office hours utilization. Proceedings of the 53rd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 1, 300-306. https://doi.org/10.1145/3478431.3499334

Glynn-Adey, P. (2021). Public space office hours. College Teaching, 69(3), 180-181. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2020.1845599

Griffin, W., Cohen, S. D., Berndtson, R., Burson, K. M., Camper, K. M., Chen, 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2014.896777

Guerrero, M., & Rod, A. (2013). Engaging in office hours: A study of student-faculty interaction and academic performance. Journal of Political Science Education, 9(4), 403–416. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2013.835554

Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom. West Virginia University Press. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wisc/detail.action?docID=29288711

Hsu, J. L., Rowland-Goldsmith, M., & Schwartz, E. B. (2022). Student motivations and barriers toward online and in-person office hours in STEM courses. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 21(4), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.22-03-0048

Jack, A. A. (2019). The privileged poor: How elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/9780674239647

Li, L., & Pitts, J. P. (2009). Does it really matter? Using virtual office hours to enhance student-faculty interaction. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2), 175–185. https://ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/does-really-matter-using-virtual-office-hours/docview/200118830/se-2?accountid=465

McGrath, A. L. (2014). Just checking in: The effect of an office hour meeting and learning reflection in an introductory statistics course. Teaching of Psychology, 41(1), 83-87. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628313514186

Nunn, L. M. (2019). 33 Simple strategies for faculty: A week-by-week resource for teaching first-year and first-generation students. Rutgers University Press. https://doi.org/10.36019/9780813599519

Smith, M., Yujie Chen, Berndtson, 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, 14–29. https://doi.org/10.46504/12201701sm

Soares, J. (2012, November 15). Office hours in the pool hall. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www-chronicle-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/article/office-hours-in-the-pool-hall/

Toro, S. (2022). Self-regulated learning strategies for the introductory physics course with minimal instructional time required. Journal of College Science Teaching, 51(5), 16–22. https://ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=ehh&AN=156669970&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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