Office Hours Again

I wrote about office hours three years ago, and I have noticed that my office hours less attended than my colleagues’ (some of them, anyway). I used to have packed office hours, but that slowed to a trickle a couple of years ago.

This concerns me a bit. While I am happy that students might be learning on their own, I have somehow internalized the message that “being a good professor means having a lot of students at your office hours.”

But then I learned of something that might make me feel better. I had the pleasure of meeting Andy Rundquist (and Matt Wiebold) for lunch last week, and he commented that has not had many students in office hours recently, either. We talked briefly about why this might be. Here are some possibilities:

  1. I am somehow intimidating, and students do not want to come to my office hours. Or, even if I am not intimidating, I am sending some message that students are not welcome.
  2. Neither Andy nor I collect homework that is graded for accuracy.
  3. Both Andy and I use something akin to Standards-Based Grading.

I never realized it before, but my conversation with Andy makes me wonder if SBG and/or a No Homework Policy might naturally lead to a decrease in students coming to office hours.

For instance, I have found that while I have a smaller quantity of students in my office hours, I typically have a much higher quality interaction during the office hours. Students tend to come with specific questions about why they are stuck on a problem, or (better yet) specific questions about something they are just curious about. I remember this happening a lot less previously. Before, it seemed like there were mainly requests that I do homework problems (or problems similar to homework problems). So it seems like the No Homework policy got rid of students coming to office hours for the sole purpose of finishing busy work (I think this is a good thing).

[Edit 10:38 pm CDT: This is not just a matter of “the course is easier because there is no homework,” which was my first thought of how to explain this. The students have closed notes quizzes on the SBG topics, so students still need to understand the material; they just demonstrate it on quizzes rather than on homework, which is harder to do.]

A plausible explanation for why SBG might lead to fewer students attending office hours is that students are being supported just enough to learn independently. When I used a Traditional Grading scheme, it likely was not clear what the most important ideas of the course were. I could see a student wanting more guidance if every detail in the course seems as important as every other detail (it probably did not help that I would typically respond with “Everything” when students asked what they should be studying for an exam). My hypothesis is that SBG gives students just enough guidance that they can determine what to study on their own.

This is a balancing act, of course: I do think that most everything that I do in class is important, and that students should know it. However, I would be willing to sacrifice students learning some of the course topics if it resulted in students learning the most important topics more deeply and becoming more independent learners. So I hope that this is what is happening.

Have other people noticed that office hour attendance is correlated with how you structure class? Can anyone think of any other explanation for the change in office hour attendance?

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11 Responses to “Office Hours Again”

  1. Xuyang Tang Says:

    Not sure about SBG, but No Homework Policy definitely takes a toll on the number of students showing up in office hours… I TA-ed for a professors with or without extensive homework now, and I don’t get anyone from no-homework professors’ classes… The classes with a lot of homework always FILLS my office hours. Every office hour.

  2. Joss Ives Says:

    Hi Bret. Quick story. When I started at UFV in 2009, I would have help-desk-style office hours (booking a small classroom where the student could come to do their homework with me there instead of having to go to the prof’s office when you have questions) one or two times each week. I would usually have a few students (out of a class size of 36) there, but I always noticed that my colleague, who was also teaching the same course, would always have significantly more students at his than I would at mine. Eventually I had a chance to see his homework assignments. They were extremely long and full of torturous questions that very few middle-of-the-pack students could solve on their own. Boom! Just add water and you have instant office hours attendance.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Joss,

      Great observation. Do you think that having enough middle-of-the-pack problems allows students to do the long and torturous questions? Maybe they build enough of a foundation to be able to do them?

      Or do you just leave out extremely long and torturous questions from your homework assignments?

  3. TJ Says:

    Packed office hours may not be a goal you want…
    I definitely have empty hours this term. This is a symptom of how my lin alg course is broken! The students have understood the message that it is their job to do the work, but not the message that I expect them to get stuck and I am willing to help them get through it.

    But in classes with pleny of discussion time there will be less need for office hours. Why wait to ask a question, when you can ask in class?

  4. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    I do wish people stopped by more often for the deeper conversation that I think would help them understand the material better. I get that a little with my asynchronous video submission with my returned screencasts with comments.

    Of course, in the past, having those deeper conversations were difficult because some “just wanted the answer” and then would make to pack up and leave.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      For the record, I like having those deep conversations, too. I am happy that they now are a larger percentage of my office hour interactions, although I wish that the absolute amount were higher.

  5. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I have lines out my door for office hours, but not from the students in my classes. I’m also undergrad director and de facto adviser for students in 2 majors, so most of my office hours are taken up by students wanting to declare the major (it takes about half an hour to go over their plans with them and make sure they are choosing the best electives) or replace a required course with some substitute, or just wanting general course advice. I’ve even had students from *other* majors coming to talk to me, because the faculty in their department aren’t doing any advising.

    My students generally ask questions in class or in lab—I’m seeing the students in my circuits class 9.5 hours a week already (more if the labs run overtime), so they probably don’t feel the need for still more time with me.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I suppose that certain service jobs could create chaos in office hours, too. You are evidence of that.

      You also give further evidence that providing class time for questions might lead to fewer students in office hours.

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