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spring semester study tips: how to go to office hours

7 February 2012

“My workspace” by Hannah Swithinbank, shared with cc license, from Flickr

The title of this post seems a touch ridiculous — the way to go to office hours is to simply go when the professor reports s/he will be holding office hours. Then again, the preceding post titles in this series (how to read, how to take notes) also read as something college students should already know how to do. So I thought I’d offer some tips.

Disclaimer: this post — somewhat different from the others in the spring semester study tips series — will not be rooted in any evidence (can you believe no one’s done a randomized trial on the impact of attending office hours?!?), and instead be just my humble opinion, peppered with some tips colleagues of mine have shared.

First, I’d like to start with what office hours are. Professors (and teaching assistants) set aside time every week outside of class during which we expect to meet with students and answer questions they have about the material. We also typically offer advice, whether about how to do well on assignments, techniques you can employ to help you in college, or even what classes you might take (or jobs/internships to pursue) in the future. There is no structure to office hours: you come and ask questions, we try to provide some answers. When you run out of questions, we run out of things to say (though some of us can be windbags). In my experience, I’ve talked to students about difficult reading assignments (Crawford Young manages to find his way into ~20% of my student evaluations), graded work, what resources to use when doing research, what other classes they might take in the future, and how students can find ways to engage the issues learned in class outside of the classroom (i.e., internships, jobs, volunteering, fiction reading).

Second, why should you go to office hours? There are quite a few blog posts out there that give some reasons, but most are bad and flat out wrong (I refuse to link to them, they’re so bad; if you must: google “why you should go to office hours”). You should go to office hours any time you are unclear about course material. If you engage in a practice of reviewing your notes after class or after reading, you might realize that something you wrote was incomplete or unclear — you can come to office hours and ask again what was said in lecture or what the author’s point was and get some insight on why it is important. That last part is what students tend to struggle with. When I teach, it’s less about the facts (those are still useful), and more about why we’re learning those facts. I find it harder to teach ideas, but ideas are what college is all about. Office hours allow the professor to see one-on-one that you’re really getting it, and not just writing down a doodle in your lecture notes. And, if we see you’re not getting it, we can try alternative perspectives or examples.

Another good reason to go to office hours is to discuss graded assignments (including exams). You can do this both before they’re due and after you’ve earned a grade on the assignment. Before the assignment is due, you can ask questions about whether you’re approaching it the right way, what if any additional sources you could seek out, and some professors will even read drafts and provide feedback. As for after exams/papers are handed back, I’m not actually bothered by students coming to my office hours. That’s not to say  you should only use office hours as an avenue for challenging a grade you earned on an exam/paper. Rather, you should go to office hours to learn how you could have done better and what you might have missed. This is especially useful if the professor did not review the correct answers after handing the exams back, or did not provide detailed comments or a grading rubric on a paper you wrote. We learn a lot from making mistakes, which is why getting a “C” on a paper can actually be a good thing. You’ll learn what you did wrong so well that you’ll likely not do it again. But that only works if you recognize the opportunity and seek out strategies on how to do better the next time.

Finally, here are some tips for when you go to office hours:

  • Take notes. If for some reason you show up without something to take notes with, we’re even happy to supply it for you. But you’d hate to rely on just your memory after you leave the office.
  • Silence your phone and take out any headphones. Seems silly to have to say this, but you’d be surprised…
  • If you have something that needs to be signed, bring it with you ready to be signed (meaning the form is already filled out).
  • Don’t hover in the doorway if someone is already in the office. Ask if it’s OK for you to also join (many times it is) or simply sit in the hallway and wait your turn if you’re too shy to ask. Rather than twiddle your thumbs in the hallway, write down whatever questions come to mind that you’d like to ask in your notebook, or do some of the course reading (it might generate another question you’d like to ask!). I actually like it when more than one student is there because they get to hear the questions the other student raises, and the respective answers might also be useful. Of course, if the professor is discussing a grade, it will have to be one-on-one (FERPA and all that).

On a lighter note, here is an example of how office hours shouldn’t go:

Related Resources:

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This post is part of a series on studying in college.

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