Office hours can feel long, laborious, and lonely when no one shows up, especially in the beginning of a semester. One way I’ve found to increase my students’ use of office hours is to challenge them to meet with me.
During our first class, I tell students they have until the end of week three to come to my office and ask me a question. It can be a simple question or a complex one, as long as it relates to the course, it’s content, or it’s theme.
I usually get a range of questions. Some ask specific details about the course and express concerns about the workload or a certain type of assignment. Others ask me about me: where I’m from, how I came to teach, what I look for when grading. And then there are those who make a token effort with the challenge and ask an obvious question whose answer is in the syllabus (a teachable moment in itself).
But the best questions are those where students express personal and deep seated anxieties, concerns, or complications (which can appear later in the semester as answers to problematic behavior). I’ve had freshmen confess their feelings of inadequacy because they went to a high school with a bad reputation and so they felt they were at a disadvantage to their peers. Others have had a chance to explain their overloaded work and class schedule or additional familial responsibilities. Students in need of accommodations have been able to have longer conversations with me about how we can work together. While none of these conversations get them a get out of jail free card, they do allow me to clarify my expectations and make suggestions.
Regardless of the question, the Office Challenge physically gets my students in my office and this relieves some of the mystery and anxiety about visiting me when they need to. It also opens a dialogue between me and them that usually might not start until later in the semester after we’ve had several weeks to get to know each other. And for some students, usually the quieter ones, that dialogue might never start as the progress through the course almost unnoticed.
I’ve experimented with making it either optional or a requirement. When optional, the Office Challenge usually attracts two-thirds of students. When required, almost all students come but the percentage of thoughtful questions decreases. Regardless, what’s important for me is getting to interact with students one-on-one so that I can connect with them in ways I can’t during class periods.