Office Hours: In Need of Better Branding?

Getting students to take advantage of office hours remains a challenge. Most of the time only a small percentage of students show up and often not those most in need of help. When students don't take advantage of office hours, they lose the chance to get assistance from someone able to provide good help, and they lose the opportunity to establish an individual relationship with the professor.

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Getting students to take advantage of office hours remains a challenge. Most of the time only a small percentage of students show up and often not those most in need of help. When students don't take advantage of office hours, they lose the chance to get assistance from someone able to provide good help, and they lose the opportunity to establish an individual relationship with the professor.

Why don't they come? We graciously invite, we encourage, sometimes we incentivize or require them to show up, but usually with mixed results. Is it because they don't really understand what can happen during office hours? Or is it the stigma of asking for help, of showing the person in charge that you don't understand? What if the instructor offers an explanation and you still don't understand? Now you've looked stupid in front of the expert. Or is it the awkwardness of a young person trying to connect with someone older and wiser who occupies a more powerful position in the relationship?

It's probably all these reasons and more, and they aren't reasons easily dismissed with assurances. “I'm used to helping students who don't understand.” “Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness.” “Not understanding something isn't an indication of stupidity.” If students believed those assurances, more of them would show up during office hours.

Maybe the solution is different branding, starting with a new name. That's what Amanda Joyce did. She scheduled two of her office hours for alternative Monday evenings and dubbed them a drop-in time for tutoring. That doubled the number of students who showed up. They didn't come alone but in twos or threes, more than once, and they asked more initial and follow-up questions. “Tutoring sessions have a different atmosphere” (p. 92). When a student raised a question, Joyce often asked the other students to explain how they understood the concept. (In another article in this issue, read about an optional homework help room that 70 percent of the students reported they took advantage of.]

It's also possible to change the location. The instructor can hang out in the campus café where the space is neutral and the atmosphere is more relaxed. Maybe they aren't office hours but topical sessions that focus on a designated chunk of content. You can tell your students in class, “If you'd like to better understand the Attribution Theory, consider joining us for 30 minutes in my office on Thursday. Be sure to bring your questions. We can figure out the answers together.” Note how that tone is different than announcing, “If you don't understand Attribution Theory, you are welcome to stop by my office.”

And I've never forgotten this creative approach—an office with a cookie jar. “This afternoon just before my 2:00 p.m. office hour, I'll be filling the jar with homemade chocolate chip cookies.” There was a line at the door; some were there just for the cookies, but the professor handed them out and not without exchanging personal greetings.

It's a challenge getting students to make use of office hours, but we shouldn't give up and we should consider creative alternatives.

Reference: Joyce, A. (2017). Framing office hours as tutoring. College Teaching, 65(2), 92–93.