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Office hours

Office hours give students the opportunity to ask in-depth questions and to explore points of confusion or interest that cannot be fully addressed in class.  It is important for UW instructors to encourage their students to come to office hours and to use that time effectively.  This page will provide basic guidelines for planning, scheduling and holding office hours.

Planning ahead

Effective use of office hours involves some organization. Beware of long, aimless, drifting discussions. When a student appears, try to establish early on in the conversation the reason for the student’s visit and keep the conversation on track. Sometimes it is helpful to have paper and pen handy to jot down suggestions and ideas for the student, so you can both remember what was discussed.

It is usually more effective in office hours to help students learn by leading them to conclusions through careful questioning rather than simply giving them an explanation. Ask questions, try to be a good listener and avoid giving a mini-lecture.


At the University of Washington, it is typical for instructors to offer two to three office hours a week, usually held in their on-campus office.

Your office hours will be more productive if you schedule them at times when students are likely to be free. It is important to remember that scheduling office hours also entails a commitment on your part to keep them. Today’s busy students often juggle family, jobs, volunteer work and a myriad of other tasks in addition to school. Coming to your office hours often means a schedule rearrangement for a student and it is important that you are there when you announced that you would be.

Tips on managing office hours

When students come in with a complaint, refrain from becoming defensive. Ask questions and consider giving yourself a day or two to think before giving the student a final response.

If a large group of students arrives at the same time or nearly the same time, find out if any of them have similar issues and work with several at a time.

If you have spent a long time working with one student and other students are crowding outside the office door, consider giving the first student an “assignment” and rescheduling another appointment with them.

Students may start out by telling you they “don’t understand anything.” If this happens, ask questions that will help you understand the reasons behind their sense of confusion. Possible reasons include:

  • They feel confused, but they actually understand more than they think. If you ask them questions about the course, you can confirm what they know and help them work through areas of confusion.
  • Students have not done the reading or have missed lecture(s). If this is the case, give students an “assignment” to read the chapter in the book or, if possible, review another student’s lecture notes before coming back to you to ask for clarification.
  • Students lack basic foundational knowledge. Make an attempt to assess the student’s level of understanding. If additional support is required you might suggest they post an ad for a tutor on the HUB bulletin board or, in extreme cases, you might tactfully suggest dropping the class and signing up for a more basic course the following quarter.

Encouraging students to come

As useful as office hours can be, students sometimes do not make use of them. What are some ways to encourage students to come?

  • Make it repeatedly clear that you are available. Include office hours on your syllabus (day, time, and location). Make it clear that students can make appointments with you if office hours are not convenient. Repeat invitations to come to your office hours periodically during class.
  • Require all of your students to come to your office hours during the first few weeks of class. They will learn where your office is, and you will learn their names. Also, after your students have made that initial visit, they are much more likely to return.
  • Invite specific students to come see you in office hours if they are having trouble with course material or if they show interest in exploring material that is outside the scope of the class. You can do this after class, via email, or write a note of invitation on a returned assignment.
  • Ask students individually or in groups to sign up for specific appointment times early in the quarter. After students have come in once, they are usually more comfortable coming in more often.
  • Encourage students to e-mail you (it is a good idea to include e-mail protocol on your syllabus). Sometimes students are more comfortable initiating contact with you by e-mail. Once they have begun an inquiry by e-mail, they may decide to follow up in person.
  • Briefly review key topics at the end of the week or the end of every two weeks and suggest that students come in to see you if they do not understand any of those topics (instead of waiting until the day before the exam).
  • Consider designating certain office hours as “study sessions” or “review periods” to help students get a better sense of what they might gain by coming to office hours.
  • Be welcoming when students do come.

Virtual office hours

In-person office hours are important for student learning and engagement, yet risk serving only students who live close to campus and have flexible schedules. Many students work, have family responsibilities, and long commutes to class. To provide all your students with greater access, while using your time more efficiently, try moving your office hours online.

Benefits of virtual office hours

  • Virtual office hours can take place at times that are convenient for you and more viable for your students.
  • Students can “pop” online during your online office hour, ask a quick question, and go back to work. This saves time for both you and your students.
  • Small groups of students can participate in the same office hour conversation: fun for them and a time-saver for you.
  • Online hours can reduce the number of individual emails on the same topic.
  • Shy students might be more willing to participate if they can do so online, rather than in person.
  • The whole class has a chance to see what types of questions individual students are asking.

Getting online office hours started

an icon of a tool boxStep 1: Choose a tool

See the list of online tools. Schedule an appointment with UW-IT for advice on choosing a tool and help getting started.

an icon of a clockStep 2: Determine a set time

Decide on a time when you can be available online, e.g., Tuesdays from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Announce this time and instructions for connecting to the online platform in class and on the syllabus.

an icon of peopleStep 3: Connect with students!

Confirm that students know when the office hour is and how to participate online.

Online tools

Zoom offers video conferencing and group messaging in one, with the option to screen share, record, and chat.

Canvas is the UW’s Learning Management System (LMS) and provides a suite of online tools to supplement face-to-face courses. All UW instructors are provided Canvas course sites automatically, and UW-IT provides support for Canvas. The following Canvas tools can be used to help facilitate virtual office hours and other online communication with students.

  • Real-time office hours:
    • Conferences: A place to upload files (.ppt, .doc, .pdf, etc.), access a digital whiteboard, broadcast real-time audio and video, or demonstrate applications and online resources.
    • Chat: A useful tool for hosting real-time office hours. This tool can store written chat so that students can review the conversation asynchronously after it has ended.
  • Asynchronous office hours
    • Discussions: Discussions support ongoing dialog within different topic threads, the most important of which can be “pinned” to the top for all to see. Discussions can be especially useful for posting FAQ’s in large courses as a way of cutting down on repeat question-and-answer emails.
  • Online office hour scheduling
    • If you prefer scheduling appointments during your office hours, rather than using them as a drop-in option, Canvas’ Scheduler tool can help. Part of the Calendar feature, Scheduler allows faculty to create blocks of time for which students can sign up — making it easier to manage online meetings.

Information for TAs: Office hours

TAs may need to hold additional office hours or extended office hours at more critical points in the quarter (e.g. before exams or important deadlines). Those teaching lab sections may be asked to provide students supplementary laboratory assistants.

Some departments have office hour policies. TAs should check with their departments and with their professors regarding applicable office hour commitments.