Running Office Hours

Of all the advice I’ve received in my mathematical career, precisely none of it had anything to do with the subject of office hours. So here’s some advice I wish I’d been given on the matter:

  1. Figure out what sort of office hours you want to run.

In other words, how formal do you want your office hours to be? Some people prefer to dedicate their office hours exclusively to answering questions about course material and other academic topics. Others like to keep their office hours casual, so students can drop in and talk about things unrelated to course material if they want.

Formal office hours might work better if you’re expecting to see a lot of students and don’t have time to chat with each one individually. On the other hand, a more relaxed environment allows you to get to know your students better, and they might be more willing, for example, to give honest feedback about your course. I don’t think there’s a right answer here, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about before you move on to my next piece of advice.

  1. Make the purpose of office hours clear to your students.

It turns out a lot of students, especially first years, don’t really understand the purpose of office hours. Once you’ve figured out the type of office hours you want to hold, I suggest communicating to students very clearly what office hours are for and what sort of help they can expect to receive during those hours. I made the mistake earlier this semester of not following my own advice, and was surprised to find several students didn’t realize they could ask me questions about that day’s lecture during office hours. Won’t make that mistake again!

  1. Location is important!

As a graduate student I share my office with several other people, and on my busier days I might end up seeing 15 – 20 students over the course of two hours. This means it’s not really practical for me to hold my office hours in my actual office. Instead I use a large lecture room for my office hours. One advantage of this sort of room is that students feel comfortable sticking around for the entire 2 hours if required, since the room is never overcrowded/there’s always space for people to sit. I personally think students who stick around like this for office hours end up learning more, since they not only get to ask their own questions but can hear the answers to questions other students ask.

  1. Communicate

This is another piece of advice I need to follow more often – remind students every week when and where your office hours are! Even though my office hours are written on the course syllabus and mentioned frequently on my Canvas page, sometimes students just need confirmation that you will, in fact, be available at the allotted time and in the usual place that week.

  1. Think hard about timing and frequency

If you regularly assign homework due Wednesday afternoons, then most students aren’t going to want to attend your Wednesday evening office hours. Similarly, if you want to have morning or afternoon office hours, it’s likely that a good percentage of your students won’t be able to make these office hours regularly, which possibly commits you to holding multiple office hours a week.

This semester I’ve been holding office hours on Mondays from 6 to 8 pm. Mondays are a sweet spot for us since I usually have homework deadlines on Wednesday night, and 6 to 8 pm works for most students, including student athletes who tend to have late afternoon practice sessions. However, I still have students in lab courses who can’t make my usual office hours, so I’ve had to introduce a second set of office hours on Thursday evenings to accommodate. You might have to be flexible with timing and frequency, since office hours are no good if students can’t make them!

We tend to think of teaching as something that begins and ends in the classroom, but office hours can also be a hugely important part of the learning process for your students. I hope some of the advice in this article helps someone before they host their first office hours, and if you have you own advice, please leave a comment below!

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