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.
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 him/her.
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.
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.