Conducting Office Hours

Author: Dr. Saphida Migabo (Biology)

You are expected to keep and post office hours for all courses you are instructing.  A set time to hold office hours provide structure to your classes and at the same time, allow you to perform your other duties without student interruptions. Office hours are also vital because they provide you with an opportunity to meet “face to face” individually with students. The amount of time scheduled for office hours varies from course to course and it usually based on the needs of the students and the size of the classes. In most cases, the course instructor will let you know the expected number of hours per week.

Scheduling office hours

Office hours can be held in a classroom, your office or a public places. Wherever you decide to hold them, be consistent so that students are not trying to figure out where to find you each week. It is also important to keep in mind that not all students will be able to make it to your office hours. In such a case, you should provide alternative ways for students to get in touch with you. For example, meeting with you before or after class (if this is possible) or contact you by email or office phone if they need extra help.

Consider the needs of your students before setting office hours. If you have a flexible schedule, give the students several time options and as a group, decide which times work best for most students. Hold office hours at a reasonable time and if possible, avoid holding office hours late on Friday afternoons, or early Monday mornings. Most TA find that scheduling office hours before and after classes works out well because many students try and avoid scheduling back to back classes.

Throughout the semester, remind students of your office hours and invite them to come and see you during this time. If you establish a friendly relationship with them in the classroom, they will not hesitate to come and see you. For small classes, you can also make an office visit during the first two weeks of classes, or after the first hand-in assignment or first test, a requirement.

Tips on conducting successful office hours:

  • Be punctual. Showing up late for your office hours is unacceptable and it shows lack of respect for your students.
  • Keep your door open during your office hours. This announces to your students that you are in and available.
  • Conduct yourself in a professional manner. When students come to your office, put your work aside and make them feel welcome. You should not be answering phones or emails or talking to your office mates. Remember, it takes a lot of courage for some students to come and see you for help.
  • Advise students on how to prepare for a meeting with you. You can ask them to write down specific questions, highlight sections or areas they are having difficulties with or they would like help with.
  • Ask students to specify why they are coming to see you. This will help you prepare and keep the meeting more focused. If possible, you ask them to send to you their questions ahead of time so that you can prepare for them.
  • Poll them. If you have a large number of students waiting for you, poll them to see whether there is a common question or concern and you can address their concern as a group.
  • Become an active listener. Maintain eye contact with the person speaking to you, paraphrase, repeat and summarize student’s comments. This gives the student the opportunity to see whether you understood what she/he is asking. Ask for clarification if you do not understand the questions or comments. Be and look interested in what they are saying.
  • Watch for nonverbal communication. Looking for these responses will give you a solid idea the point the student is trying to make.
  • Ask effective questions. Ask open-ended questions. “How” and “when” are useful starting points to ask questions. Good questions will also help you separate issues and show the student that you are taking their concerns seriously. Additionally, skillful questioning can help students develop critical thinking capabilities.
  • Be prepared for student frustrations. Some students will come to voice their frustrations and vent about the course. Others will come to talk to you about their personal problems. Do not let the student anger put you on the defensive. Start by setting the tone of the discussion. Demonstrate a willingness to help the student. Listen, be supportive and understanding, but remember you may not be qualified to help the student. In matters that relate to the course, engage the students as much as possible and together find a solution to their frustrations. For example, if the student is afraid of talking to the course instructor, offer to accompany them to the meeting or forward their concerns. If the issues are beyond course materials, you may want to refer the student to counseling services or other services available at UNBC or ask them to go talk to the course instructor. It is also recommended you keep a record of such incidents.
  • Learn from what you see and hear during your office hours. If students are coming with similar problems, it may suggest to you that the topic, concept or assignment requires further clarification or the students misunderstood the assignment. In such instances, talk to the course instructor.

Common problems and complaints associated with office hours:

  • Getting an office: You may start your teaching assistant duties before an office has been assigned to you. If you find yourself without an office, act quickly and inform the course instructor. He/she may be able to book a temporary space for you to conduct office hours. If this is not possible, select a public space such as the library, or find an unused classroom where you can meet with your students. Announce to the class when and where you will be meeting the students until you find a permanent place.
  • Student with personal problems: Refer them to a qualified person and sometimes, it may be useful for you to walk them over to the appropriate office.
  • Student who come and sit and just want to chat: Assess why the student just want to chat with you. If you find that they do it because they have nothing better to do, be frank and firm with such a student. Tell them that although you would like to talk with him/her, others students should have the opportunity to see you. Remind this student however, that he/she is always welcome to come see you to discuss course issues. If you suspect the visits are due to an emotion/personal problem, refer them to the appropriate office.
  • Students that show up outside of your set office hours: Use your own judgment to assess the student needs. If you are flexible with your schedule and not busy, you can help the student right away, otherwise, you can suggest another mutually agreed upon time when both of you can meet.
  • A student could not find you: If you have a genuine reason why you cannot make it to your office hours and you know it ahead of time, arrange for an alternate time with your students and remember to announce the change to the class. If your absence is due to an emergency, notify the course instructor immediately. If there are several TAs in a course, you can ask one of them to substitute for you. Ensure somebody lets the class know about your absence in a timely manner.
  • There is always a huge line up during office hours: If this is a recurring problem, you may want to add an extra session to meet your student’s needs.