The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence


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Office Hours: Meeting Students Where They Are

This post is drawn from CTE’s Teaching & Learning Tip on Effective Office Hours, written by Erin Rentschler.

Many students, especially freshmen, do not realize the value of one-on-one interaction with their instructors.  When done well, instruction during office hours benefits both students and instructors. Office hours help improve teaching and learning by:

  1. Facilitating deeper learning by sharing additional resources and engaging in dialogue with students, especially those who might be excelling in your course.
  2. Coaching students before they have performance problems to help them grasp key concepts or clarify assignment expectations.
  3. Working with students who are performing poorly to learn how to guide or assist them.
  4. Fostering  important “critical connections” between student, instructor, and material by providing an opportunity to get to know one another—not for the sake of personal relationships, but to create “a positive and productive working relationship” (Kreizinger 2006).connecting puzzle pieces

So…how to make this happen? Read on for some tips on effective office hours.

Get Them There

  • Explain what office hours are on the first day of class, but remind students throughout the semester where and when they can find you. Post your hours and location on the course syllabus and consider publicizing office hours on Blackboard and/or in your email’s “signature” so that students see this information regularly.
  • Group sessions can ease some pressure, establish rapport between students (increasing class time collaboration), and streamline providing feedback. Topic-based office hours model productive individual sessions.
  • Consider requiring students to meet with you early in the semester, especially if you have smaller classes. Once they surpass initial anxiety, students are likely to come on their own. While it’s wise to have students schedule these visits around a course assignment, a brief meeting to discuss their personal goals for the class can also be effective. Other ideas for required visits
    • Davis (1993) suggests that writing “see me about this during office hours” gets a 75% response rate. However, you can avoid making office hours punitive by centering the requested visit on both praise and constructive criticism.
    • Nilson (2010) suggests having students drop off or pick up assignments during office hours rather than during class time.
  • Consider alternative “office spaces
    • “neutral spaces” may alleviate anxiety, and meeting in a working space, like the library, provides space to model learning or disciplinary practices.
    • Walk and talk. Requests for general information or clarification can be addressed “on the fly,” as you walk from one class to the next.
    • Supplement office hours with technology. Email, discussion boards, twitter or other online spaces “are most efficient when communications are brief and to the point and offer ‘easy answers to easy questions.’” (LASTA).
  • Allow time spent in office hours to count toward the course participation grade.
  • Plan office hours carefully. Avoid what James Lang calls “the Early Bird approach” (or variations of it) by
    • waiting, if you can, until the semester begins and polling your students to see when  a majority of them will be free. When teaching in one of Duquesne’s Learning Communities, for example, it doesn’t make sense to schedule office hours during the time slot during one of the other courses.
    • Holding office hours after class, so that “questions and concerns can be  addressed immediately” (LASTA).

      Office-hours

      What not to do when scheduling office hours. 

Be Productive Once They’re There

  • Instruct students on how to prepare, and ask them to reschedule if they haven’t.
  • Segment your office hours and ask students to come during a particular time slot; the new Starfish calendaring tool in Blackboard could be helpful in managing time slots. Set clear guidelines as to what can and cannot be accomplished within the specified time frame.
  • If students come to office hours eager to inform you of their latest dormitory exploits, set clear boundaries without dismissing the students entirely. LASTA suggests “reflect[ing] on the role you can play in students’ lives.” Remember that your primary responsibility is to foster learning, but be empathetic. Provide students with additional campus resources (Writing Center, Wellbeing Center, etc.), but make certain that they understand you aren’t ignoring them or denying a request for help.
  • “To maximize the value of your consultation, make it as student-active as possible” and make it clear to students that office hours are not a condensed version of class (Nilson 2003).

Get them to Come Back

  • Follow up with students on issues raised during office hours. Send an email with an additional resource that might be of interest or ask about an exam/event mentioned in passing.
  • Make students feel welcome and comfortable: “Interact with students with intentional time and depth” (Robertson). Close your books, silence your phone, and turn off the computer.

  • Validate the points students make in office hours. In Tools for Teaching Barbara Gross Davis (1993) suggests bringing students’ outside comments into the classroom: “If they make a good comment, check with them first to see whether they are willing to raise the idea in class, then say: ‘Jana, you were saying something about that in the hall yesterday. Would you repeat it for the rest of the class?’”

Learn from Students during Office Hours

While taking advantage of office hours to work on research or grading may sound appealing, not meeting with students can actually put you at a disadvantage. Once you have students visiting your office hours, you’re likely to learn from your students. Use the time to solicit feedback about the course and instructional materials. Ask students what they like about the course and what confuses or challenges them. Students are more likely to be honest if you demonstrate genuine interest in hearing what is working well and what needs improvement.

Resources
Davis, Barbara Gross (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Kreizinger, Joe (2006). “Critical Connections for the First Day of Class” The Teaching Professor. 20.5
Lang, James M. (2003). “Putting in the Hours: You Can Tell a lot about Faculty Members by How They Set Up Their Office Hours.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Liberal Arts and Sciences Teaching Academy (LASTA). University of Illinois. “Making the Most of Office Hours”
Nilson, Linda (2010). Teaching at its Best. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Robertson, Douglas (2003). Making Time, Making Change: Avoiding Overload in College Teaching. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.


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Preparing for “Exploring Race and Pedagogy at our Predominantly White University III”

 By Erin Rentschler, Center for Teaching Excellence

In preparation for CTE’s upcoming workshop on Race and Pedagogy, I’ve been reflecting on how the role of comfort has emerged in prior years as a key theme. Last year, for example, Darius Prier encouraged the participants to “get comfortable being uncomfortable talking about race in the classroom.” The previous year, participants and I discussed how growth comes with discomfort and I emphasized the potential of productive vulnerability.  But now I’m wondering how productive that vulnerability is if, leading up to this third annual event, I still feel the same sense of discomfort (maybe even more so in this political climate) about engaging in this dialogue.  Does this mean that I haven’t grown?  Is it that race and racism have gotten more complex? Or is it because we’re not really talking about theories or concepts in this dialogue, but instead talking about human beings and very real lived experience?

I would like to think that it’s not me, but I know that it’s a combination of all these factors. I still have growing to do, and that’s one of the reasons that we’ll turn to student voices again this year: if we are going to help our students to learn, we need to know who they are, what they care about, and what empowers them in their learning. I hope you’ll join us on March 21 with open ears and a willingness to be a little vulnerable. 

For now, though, I want to focus on how we can apply some of the theories and practices that enable us to be better at teaching the humans in our classrooms.

The authors of How Learning Works remind us that student development and course climate contribute to powerful learning. They maintain that as much as we prioritize fostering the creativity and intellect of our students, we must also be mindful of how the social and emotional dimensions of learning “interact within classroom climate to influence learning and performance” (156).  They emphasize research that points to social and emotional growth of college students being considerably greater than intellectual growth, and as such claim that “if we understand [students’ developmental processes], we can shape the classroom climate in developmentally appropriate ways” (157). Specifically, the authors point to Chickering’s model of development, which posits seven dimensions in which students grow during the college years.  How Learning Works examines development theories, treating social identity as something that is “continually negotiated” rather than fixed (166).

Students’ ability to balance the various aspects of their development can be hindered or propelled by classroom climate. In reviewing the research on climate, the authors suggest that most classrooms fall at the midpoint on a continuum of climates that ranges from explicitly exclusive to explicitly inclusive. I’m not sure that the midpoint is a good place to be on this particular continuum.  The authors draw upon four aspects of climate and how these impact student learning. I outline briefly some of these below to help us think through ways we can move our classroom climates to the explicitly inclusive end of the continuum.

  • Stereotypes: Most of us know that stereotypes can alienate. Stereotype threat, however, addresses the complexities of marginalized groups’ feelings of tension and discomfort when they fear that they will be judged according to stereotypes of their identity group. Students who are exposed to even unintentional stereotyping show lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.  Fear of living up to a stereotype can distract or even paralyze a student in his/her academic performance. Promoting an open mind-set about learning can be beneficial for all students, particularly those facing stereotype threat.
  • Tone: How welcoming and inclusive is the language used in course documents and conversations? Is feedback focused on the work or on the student? Approachability of the instructor is key in students’ willingness to take risks and to seek help.
  • Faculty-Student and Student-Student Interactions: Again, students are more willing to learn when they see that their instructors care about their progress and treat students with respect and dignity. Students are more likely to persist in challenging situations when faculty intervene in a positive way in individual students’ learning and in interactions between students, especially in moments of tension or controversy.
  • Content: To what extent do students find a representation of themselves and their interests in course content (readings, examples, images, etc.)? Relevance of material to students’ sense of identity can empower students or marginalize them in their learning.

The research on race and learning is more complex than this, of course. But I hope that reflecting on where learning, student development, and climate intersect can help prepare us for working with our students at the 2017 Race and Pedagogy session.

Resources:

Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). “Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms.” College Teaching

Branche, J., Mullennix, J. W., & Cohn, E. R. (2007). Diversity across the curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. (2010). “Mind-Sets and Equitable Education.” Principal Leadership

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice.

Guerrero, Lisa (2008). Teaching race in the twenty-first century: college teachers talk about their fears, risks, and rewards.

Killpack, T. L., & Melón, L. C. (2016). Toward Inclusive STEM Classrooms: What Personal Role Do Faculty Play?

Shaw, S. (2009). “Infusing Diversity in the Sciences and Professional Disciplines” Diversity and Democracy

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Sue, D. W. et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice.

Tochluk, S. (2010). Witnessing whiteness: the need to talk about race and how to do it

Thomas, C. (2014). Inclusive teaching: Presence in the classroom.

Yancy, G., & Davidson, M. G. (2014). Exploring race in predominantly white classrooms: scholars of color reflect.