July 30, 2020

Online is a good time to start calling the “office hour” by another name

Posted by Laura Guertin

It may seem ridiculous to have a blog post about office hours right now, as we move into a fall semester with a significant number of courses being taught through remote instruction, and many faculty members not planning to step foot on their university campuses – or, maybe this is a great time to revisit the “office hour” and its purpose.

Institutions such as Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have a tip sheets for students that explain what office hours are, and what office hours are not. Other instuttions such as the University of Washington and Duquesne University have advice for faculty on how to encourage students to visit and utilize office hours.

But let’s take a step back – how were office hours being used in the first place? The Harvard Gazette reported, “the reality is that not many students regularly visit offices, though more tend to show up during the weeks of midterms or final exams.” Some faculty make it a requirement to have students come by their office (see Richard Freishtat (UC Berkeley) and his assignment, and ths article in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

I’m required by my school to hold four office hours per week, with some on opposite days I am teaching (so the semesters I teach MWF, I need at least one TR hour). One semester, I actually tracked how many students came by my office during those scheduled hours – there were seven students, and none were from my class (most were asking to borrow a stapler). All of my advisees and students in my classes swung by during times outside of those scheduled blocks.

So why aren’t students coming by? Perhaps the name has something to do with it?



Is this rebranding of the office hour an option? Or will the name “student hours” cause only more confusion for students as to what is happening during those scheduled times? There has been alot of discussion about how the title of “office hour” is being interpreted by students.




Adding more of a description to the syllabus that explains the purpose of that time may help students understand how it can benefit them.



At Penn State, we have changed the name to Advising/Tutoring Hours. I don’t think we’ve fixed the name issue quite yet. One item we are discussing is where to have our “office hours” – perhaps in the Library, so we can walk over to books on reserve and I can show students resources available? Perhaps in our student success center, where STEM tutoring is taking place? Although I feel I have a very welcoming environment in my office, with everything from stuffed sports mascots to dinosaur figures, this still may be an intimidating environment for students to step in to.



Now, with social distancing in place and some university programs fully online, will even fewer students come to the office hours? And does calling it an office hour for incoming freshmen even make sense? With the shift to remote instruction, Columbia University and University of Minnesota have prepared a list of resources for faculty on how to conduct virtual office hours. But this still doesn’t mean that if we build it, they will come. There is alot to think about as we prepare for the fall semester – and we should not forget to think about office hours and what we will name them, how we will promote them, and how we will utilize them in a virtual environment.