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Office Hours

Office hours are a standard part of academic life. However, many instructors complain that students rarely come to their office, or come only to complain about grades.  Some tips for successful office hours:


  • Try to make your office attractive. Students draw a lesson from everything they observe about you, and an undecorated office sends a message that you are unengaged with what you do.  Alternatively, your choice of decoration sends a message about what kind of a person you are and can also teach a value. Opera or modern art posters send a message that there is a world of culture out there, a full book shelf suggests that you read, etc.

  • Having a useful policy for complaints about grades can also reduce unproductive grade-argument discussions.

  • Making appointments.  If individual students are making appointments, it is often a good idea to get their cell-phone number as well, in case you have to change your schedule. We also have a good approach for using wikis to schedule appointments with the whole class (for example, to review a paper).

  • Keep a box of tissues in your office, close to where students will be sitting. Students will cry, and offering a tissue is the most comforting thing you can do, and it is a lot safer than offering to hug the person.

  • Have a clock behind where the student sits, so you can gauge your time without looking at your watch.  Also have a clock where the student can see it. They have busy schedules as well, and they will be more relaxed if they know what time it is.

  • Whether to close your door is always an interesting question, especially given concerns about sexual harassment.  TΦ101 likes to keep the door closed for privacy, but just ajar enough so that people can see you are in there.

  • One of the factors that most contributes to positive student survey responses is a perception that you are available for help. You should frequently remind students that you are available for office hours.  For example, when students e-mail you a question, you should always close your e-mail by reminding the student that you are available for office hours and give the times. Even if students do not actually come to your office you are stressing your availability.

  • Remember what the psychologists teach us, that the "presenting problem is not always the actual problem."  So, if you have time, gently probe to look for broader issues, and then be knowledgeable in how to refer trouble students to campus resources.

  • Change the location of your office hours.  Linda Nilson, in her outstanding discussion of this topic, recommends holding office hours in less formal locations. One instructor (presumably in California) held office hours on a campus bench. 




Predictably, the best discussions of this topic are to be found in those two invaluable resources. Several of the suggestions above are taken from this books.

Davis, Barbara Gross, Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, pp 491 ff.

Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2010, 89 ff.


Author: John Immerwahr
Update: July 5, 2012

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