The Doctor is In–Office Hours Makeover

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

How can the students possibly stay away when art like this is on display in my office?

This week I decided it was time to entirely overhaul my office hours. I did this after several years of increasing frustration with my (dare I say) former office hour method. You see, office hours have always been a dilemma for me. I currently have 5 office hours a week and I love doing them because I get to interact with my students one-on-one and really talk with them about math and how they think. I also enjoy meeting them as people, hearing about their lives, making human connections. The problem is that most of my students come to the same time slot (right before the assignment is due, of course), so my office fills up with students and I don’t get to spend time working one-on-one with any of them. Often people are struggling with the same problems and so I decide to talk to several people at once about something. This turns into a sort of mini lecture, where I tell them how to get started. A few people are off and running then, and start working the rest of the problem right in my office, while others are still confused, so they ask more questions, prodding me to outline the next steps. Sometimes, before I know it, we’ve worked the whole problem “together” in my office. I always ask questions, so the students are forced to give me direction, but at times there are students who aren’t catching on, and everyone is waiting for me to work the next problem, and the atmosphere in the room strays far from my student-centered, conversational, growth-oriented vision.

Some students like coming to office hours anyway, some because they are comfortable speaking up in groups and get the attention they need in this atmosphere, some because they have realized that I will basically hold their hands through the entire problem. It can turn into a dynamic that I really dislike. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about math. That may be the problem, and why my office hours have turned out this way: there is (ahem) perhaps something personally rewarding about having the attention of a room focused on me while I play the expert and talk about what I love. I talk, they listen. And it’s not like in lecture–the homework is due, and students are ready to really pay attention!  They look at me like I’m giving them gifts! But I can feel that there are other possibilities, where the students take more responsibility for their learning and get proportionally greater rewards.


Marlow Anderson, expertly scuba diving in a sea of student questions, or maybe just the sea.

So what did I decide to try? The new method was inspired by Marlow Anderson, a truly excellent teacher and my former colleague at Colorado College. I observed that on many afternoons when Marlow has office hours, there are somewhere from 2 to 10 students sitting in the hall outside Marlow’s office. There is probably room in his office for all of them, but he only admits one or maybe two at a time. The students wait their turn in the hall, sometimes talking math with each other and working out problems there. When it’s their turn, each person gets to ask questions and talk with him one-on-one. They then leave and work the actual problems outside the office. When I worked at CC, my office was a couple doors down from Marlow’s. I sort of waded through his students on my way in and out of my office. At the time, I was running my office hours in a classroom, as a sort of problem session, and they seemed to be going okay. But I was always impressed with how he managed to engage more closely in office hours and wondered if it would work for me.

My first office hour this week was very busy because the homework was due that afternoon at 5. I started the office hour as usual, with several students in my office, and shortly I was at the board explaining something. The students who mostly knew what they were doing told me how to work each of the early steps of a problem, and the students who didn’t know nodded and followed along, writing every step down. One really cool student who has struggled on the last couple assignments was in my office, and I was really pleased, because wow, this meant the student had made the decision to seek help and so everything would go better, yay! But as I stood at the board, I suddenly realized that I was missing this amazing opportunity to actually connect with that student. We were in a small room together, but they were still being placed in a passive role. Coming in to office hours was a great step, but I wasn’t getting to know them at all. I was never going to uncover what misconceptions or confusions were at the base of their mathematical struggles because I wasn’t making them talk to me. But I couldn’t put them on the spot in front of the rest of the students, who I could imagine appeared to already know everything. So I decided to change everything right then. It was a little awkward at first, but I just told the whole room, “Okay, we’re going to try something different in the office hours. If you’re working on a problem, go out in the hall. I will see you guys one at a time. You explain where you are on a problem, I will help you work out some ideas and get on track, and then you go in the hall. You can come back and ask more questions later if you need to.”

For the first few minutes it was awkward, because I had to basically tell the students to get out of my office and go to the hall. I am constantly trying to get them in my office, and now I’m kicking them out? But with some jokes and repeated explaining we all seemed to get comfortable with the idea. And it worked! It worked so well! Immediately, the atmosphere changed. The student who seemed passive and dutiful when everyone else was in the room was curious and engaged when we talked one-on-one. Some force of polite instinct kicked in, perhaps, and each student had to talk to me like a real person when we were the only people in the room. They seemed to feel like they had more of a stake in the problem, because I told them right off that I would only give ideas, not tell them how to do the whole problem. It was more efficient, even though I said the same things about the same problems many times, because I could start where each person was stuck and often had to say much less to any one person than I had before. They were working hard in the hall, talking with each other and solving problems without my help.  But they each got personal attention, I felt better connections with them, and they all said thank you when they left.

I asked Marlow about my take on his office hours, and he made the following comment: “I actually structure some assignments to facilitate this.  What you saw was mostly small group (2 or 3) assignments, where by the honor code they are precluded from seeking any assistance from anyone except me (and their group members) – not even the paraprofessional.  This is my effort at the calculus level to ensure that most students do end up in my office in a setting where I can really get to know them.” This makes me wonder how I could actually engineer my assignments to encourage the interactions I want. So of course there is more to work on, but my office hours makeover feels like a major improvement. Let me know in the comments if you have my next great improvement idea, for office hours or building good professor/student relationships.

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4 Responses to The Doctor is In–Office Hours Makeover

  1. Evelyn says:

    Did you make the chain rule painting, or is this a thing I can obtain somewhere? It’s awesome!

    • Beth says:

      I must admit that I made it. My department went to one of those painting and wine places and our “assignment” was a Keep Calm painting. I think the proprietors guessed that a room full of mathematicians would need something structured and simple. You should make (a better) one and send us a picture!

  2. Anne Ho says:

    I was excited to hear that my math sister was taking over the blog after Adriana. It’s great to (1) read how you’re doing and (2) hear some ideas since I definitely need some early-career advice! This post was particularly interesting because I had way too many people at office hours the other day that it felt like another class session (except all of us were trying to squeeze into the math department office)–I even had to tell my students that they could sit on the floor as long as they weren’t blocking pathways and becoming fire hazards.

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