The traditional patterns of behavior in instruction are hard to break, especially by somebody who is an outsider to the class. We in learning technology, who frequently play that outsider role, may get frustrated from time to time because the instruction remains strongly “teacher centric” in spite of our best efforts to make the classroom experience more student-driven. Traditionally, office hours were the place where students took control and drove their own learning by querying the professor. Of course, most students who attended office hours did so because they were struggling with the material, and hence while gaining control of the learning is an obvious plus for them, doing so came at the cost of exposing their ignorance or lack of understanding to the instructor.
Most people are uncomfortable in showing weakness, especially before a trust relationship has been established, so there is incentive for students who are nonetheless struggling to avoid the admission of that and forego the opportunity that office hours affords. Heroic students overcome this discomfort. An alternative that doesn’t require quite as much heroism is to recognize strength in numbers – if all the members of a study group are struggling with the material then they can attend office hours as a group and can provide mutual support, so the experience is less painful for any one of them. When I was a junior faculty member teaching intermediate microeconomics that is typically how students would show up to office hours.
Of course it may well be that quite successful students also want their private time with the instructor and office hours are for them too. Yet my sense is that these students don’t generate coattails with regard to the behavior of their classmates and, hence, if one wants to seriously think through the issues in modifying how office hours should be conducted, it is reasonably safe to ignore this type of student at first pass and then work through their needs at the end.
I believe that at many institutions of higher education office hours are a mandated component of instruction and further that the instructors are required to clearly communicate when those office hours are held (though I confess that in searching through my own university’s Web site I didn’t find any specific mention of such a requirement while, in contrast, I did find such a requirement regarding final exams). Even if office hours are mandated, however, I suspect that in many instances they are not well attended and if that is right it is a critical for the following reason.
In talking about teaching reform with actual instructors and those who interact with them at an administrator level, the notion of what is a fair work level to ask from instructors inevitably comes up in the discussion and norms regarding fairness invariably have a historical basis. In other words, the instructors have made at least an implicit commitment to work hard with students during the time allocated for office hours even if, in fact, they currently use that time for doing their research or other non-instruction-related work because office hours are not well attended. While I’m still new to the College of Business in my role as Associate Dean for eLearning, I’ve now had a sufficient number of conversations with faculty to understand that there is a kind of gridlock with regard to teaching innovation because all the time the instructor devotes to other activities is locked down, which leaves essentially no time to experiment with new teaching approaches. In particular, any type of teaching modification that is seen as taking time away from research and moving that time to teaching can’t really happen. Time can be taken away from other teaching (in the form of course buyouts). That works incentive-wise for faculty, but it comes at a high price in terms of both the cost of the replacement’s time and also in identifying suitable expertise in the candidates who might serve as replacement instructor. Thus the course buyout approach, while incentive compatible, is likely infeasible because it breaks the bank. And in the absence of funding for a substantial course buyout program, reform on office hours may be the best game in town. Further, if that reforms works it may lead to reform in the traditional class setting, because the instructors will then have experienced in a substantive way the benefits from a student-centric approach, and hence may begin to see how to transfer that approach to the classroom.
Now here is a diversion on my own teaching experience and how I’ve come to view office hours as a consequence of that experience. The last couple of times I taught I had a small class of honors students whom I’d divide into teams for doing the two projects, which were done in the latter two thirds of the course. The course met twice a week, two hours per session. During the first third of the course we’d go in ensemble mode for the entire session. Then later in the course we switched to an hour in ensemble mode and then an hour in office hours mode where I met with each project team to chat with them for a few minutes about their project – roadblocks, progress checks, underlying economics issues, other things they might read, etc. And some of that would tie into an email thread (even though these kids were all really bright they didn’t necessarily know how to converse with teammates, especially if they didn’t take other classes with them) partly to make sure that everyone on the team was part of the conversation. From an instructional mode point of view my students felt first that this was an entirely different from their experience in other (mostly engineering) courses and I believe they appreciated the approach a great deal, in part because of the contrast, but second they felt somewhat inadequate through the entire process partly because of the level of economics they were working on as well as the writing activity that was behind their project. (I’ve written about this latter issue in my post, Killing the Puppy.) So the office hours approach was a necessary component of them working through the projects.
If all our classes had 15 students or fewer (what one can do when starting a sentence with “If”) I would advocate for the type of approach I took in my Campus Honors Class because of the good experience I’ve had with it. But in a class with 50 or 60 students, that approach is not feasible and even in lecture-discussion classes where the recitation section may have 25 – 35 students (we have some that are larger) the TAs typically cover several sections and only meet the students in a particular section for an hour per week. In those cases office hours really do have to occur outside the normal class meeting. But still they must be tied strongly to the work in the course and, in my view, an appropriate incentive structure must be put in place to encourage them to be utilized.
When I did my SCALE Efficiencies Project on Intermediate Microeconomics (ultimately in a course with 180 students) office hours became the key feature, but they were online, done in the evening (between 7 and 11 PM Monday through Thursday and on Sunday from 3 to 11 PM), staffed by undergraduate TAs who had taken the course previously and who also graded the online homework, we had a good incentive mechanism for getting the students to engage in office hours and indeed the office hours were heavily utilized. But, truthfully, much of this we stumbled into; the design didn’t emerge simply from a grand gestalt.
I instituted a requirement that early in the semester the students had to attend a mandatory one hour training session done in a computer lab at night. I supervised the session and had some of the TAs act as assistants, instructed to give special attention to any student who appeared to be struggling. This session was partly about the technology itself, but mostly about how we’d use the technology in the course. In the discussion board they had to read a (not too) personal post I made about my family and then they had to write something about themselves in that vein – an icebreaker and a way to learn about their classmates. I’d read those and give some response, but that was afterwards, not during the session. Next during the session we’d cover the homework submission process and how they could get help. Some time was reserved for doing a practice quiz in Mallard with two questions – When did the Illini last go to the Final Four and What is Professor Arvan’s favorite Professional Basketball Team (those questions are a bit dated now). The real purpose was for them to get the questions wrong the first time and see that Help links would emerge that if followed would steer them toward the right answer. So there was a mixture of personal touch and learning about functionality. But I only found that approach after teaching a couple of times without the training and seeing the students struggle with the technology at the beginning of the semester. While clearly not identical to Barbara Ganley’s practice during the first two weeks of the semester, certainly the context of our respective courses is quite different, it is interesting to me how at root there is much similarity in concept between what she does and what emerged from these training sessions – there was a certain bonding that occurred at the start of the semester, in this case between students on the same team and also with the online TAs.
The other aspect of the incentive was to allow students to revise their homework problem solutions (someone else on the team had to submit the next version of the solution and they could keep revising and resubmitting till the due date), we promised a relatively short lag in regarding and commenting on the revised problem (and these revisions were submitted on a problem by problem basis). The students wanted help with their revision (and with the original submission) and that gave them a good reason to attend the online office hours. The mechanism was not perfect – some of the students sandbagged during the first submission in an effort to get the TAs to do the work for them, but even with that it did achieve one of my core goals, which was to have the students talk (online) with the TAs about the economics. And the TAs posted an archive of that discussion for other students to read.
My conclusion from this experience is not about my particular mechanism and the reliance on undergraduate TAs, but rather that any mechanism that promoted the use of office hours requires two basic components, an up front bonding experience that is functional regarding further performance in the course and an ongoing evaluation of student work component that is fair but stern on the grading and builds in the tie between attending office hours and ultimate performance on the student work.
Instructors who otherwise don’t spend their time thinking about learning technology give, without much reflection, too much credence to the technology itself and that it will solve the problems all on its own; a schema for integrating the technology into the course is not necessary and even if it is they don’t have the time to design such a mechanism. I believe we’re witnessing some of that now in my college, with faculty who are encouraging their students to use Skype for office hours. If the issues around office hours were purely logistical – the students are otherwise scheduled during office hours and/or it is a long schlep for them to attend, then adoption of the technology (and scheduling some of the office hours in the evening) might in itself address the issue. But I would predict that there would be low uptake with such an approach for reasons I’ve outlined earlier in the post, because the issues with office hours are psychological as well as logistical, indeed logistics are a secondary or tertiary concern.
I wish I could say that I’ve thought through a generic mechanism that instructors can try to make online office hours vigorous. In wireless classrooms where the students bring in laptops, one might use the screen sharing application Unyte, a helper for Skype 3.0, to show the desktops of some of the student computers in the class and in that way begin to orchestrate in the live classroom the type of interaction that might occur during the online office hour. So there is potential that such an activity would fit the bill for the bonding component of the mechanism. I’m more at a loss with regard to the ongoing student work piece and making office hours instrumental for that. And if design of this piece is left up to the instructor, those who are fearful of becoming tougher graders negatively impacting their student course evaluations simply won’t do it.
So there is still some serious work to be done here to have a tried and true approach we can all believe in and embrace. In the meantime, I hope some of you out there will experiment with various approaches to online office hours. We need to make that a functional element of instruction.