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Office hours

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Office hours refers to a practice, common in colleges and universities, but also found in some other settings, where instructors and teaching assistants allow students to visit them (typically, at their office) to ask questions or discuss topics related to their course.

Office hours could be:

  • Walk-in office hours within predetermined time ranges (for instance, an instructor might have office hours 4-5 PM Wednesday and 10-11 AM Friday).
  • Office hours by appointment: The student and the instructor or teaching assistant make an appointment (online, by email, or in person before or after class).

In addition to or in place of in-person office hours, some instructors might offer office hours by Skype or text chatting.

General observations on office hours attendance

Fewer students attend office hours than instructors expect or (in many cases) hope for

Office hours are rarely crowded -- instructors rarely get more than one student per hour for walk-in office hours, and some get less.

The following exceptions have been noted:

  • For some courses, particularly writing-related courses, students are expected to use office hours to seek help from the instructor or grader on improving their skills.
  • Some teaching-focused liberal arts colleges place considerable emphasis on teacher-student interaction, so students may use office hours more.
  • Office hour usage is often high immediately preceding a test. However, in cases where the instructor holds a review session for the test or provides clear review materials, office hour usage before a test need not be high.

For more evidence that students don't attend office hours much, and speculations on the reasons, see these Quora questions:

The reasons students attend office hours are varied, and different motivations can generate different responses from the instructor

On the Quora question For professors, what does it feel like to have a student attend office hours?, Rosina Lippi's answer offers the following categories (quoted but with bullet points added for clarity):

  • An earnest student with real questions: that's a good feeling, that the person was comfortable enough to come and talk.
  • A student wanting a therapy session and life advice: irritating and/or sad. There's not much you can do for a student except point them to a better resource.
  • A student looking for a way to get around a bad grade: sometimes amusing, because the narratives can be so convoluted; usually irritating. I had a long, drawn out series of meetings with a football player with professional aspirations who simply refused to come to class, but thought I should pass him anyway. He was hoping to win that war by attrition. He had his mother call me. The coach called. He worked really hard to get me to pass him, as long as the work didn't involve him actually coming to class or doing the work. Every angle he tried just made me angrier, and he did not get what he wanted.
  • A belligerent student (and this is not uncommon): tiring. Professors are often the place students focus their anger and unhappiness. It can also be a little frightening, because it's not unknown for students to be physically violent.
  • A student with a valid complaint: Relief. At least I'll have a chance to fix the problem. Some students will immediately go over your head (the chair, the dean, the school newspaper) without coming in to say what the problem is.
  • Once in a while there's a student who is very professional and hard working and also friendly, who will stop by for five minutes just to say hello, not looking for anything. And that's very nice.

Dos and don'ts of office hours

  • Use the instructor's recommended walk-in office hours or make an appointment.
  • For simple interactions or questions, including bureaucratic questions, consider using email or cornering the instructor before or after class (if the instructor seems open to these interactions). This minimizes overhead for you as well as the instructor. If the instructor asks you to meet him or her during office hours, of course, you should do so. Email trails are also preferable for initiating discussion of bureaucratic matters, since they are easier to forward to other relevant parties and also provide both sides with evidence in case of future controversy. Another advantage of using email is that it's easier for both sides to stay civil in language (for instance, if you ask for a homework extension and the instructor denies it, it's easier to avoid getting too worked up if you're using an asynchronous medium such as email).
  • If you anticipate a lengthy interaction (for instance, you'd like the instructor to answer lots of questions) it may be better to check with the instructor in advance, even if you're using walk-in office hours. The instructor may have some time preferences (for instance, the instructor may ask you to come a little earlier or later so as not to conflict with other students who may use the walk-in office hours). The instructor may also have suggestions for ways you could resolve your doubts yourself.

For more, see making a positive impression on teachers.

Arguments for going to office hours

  • If you have doubts, questions, or curiosities concerning the material, office hours could be a quick way of resolving them for free.
  • Office hours can be a good way of connecting better with your instructors and making positive impressions on them (through, at minimum, the mere-exposure effect, but you can impress them even more by coming prepared and asking perceptive questions). This could give you better future opportunities to interact with your instructors after the course is over, as well as get assistance from them.
  • Instructors who see students in office hours may also have more substantive material to write if they're asked to write letters of recommendation for the student.

Arguments against going to office hours

  • Many instructors hold office hours only grudgingly. While they're willing to help students if needed, they're not enthusiastic about it. If you don't really need help, they may see your coming in as an undue imposition.
  • Many instructors don't have very interesting things to say beyond what they're already telling you in the classroom. Their research or other things that they do may not be of interest to you.