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Making the Most Out of Office Hours

Having in mind the theme of our upcoming Annual Teaching and Learning Conference, “Full Contact Teaching: Making the Most of Class Time,” I reflected on what other student-faculty contact opportunities there are that could be used more effectively. I realized that in my experience more often than not office hours tend to be used non-effectively, or even worse not used at all by students. I firmly believe that office hours are a unique opportunity that I have to get to know better my students’ weak and strong points in the learning process, and then provide my students with proper and timely feedback. That is, office hours are certainly one avenue that a student has to provide me with valuable information that I can then use to help him/her better individually, and then the entire class at large. I thus decided some time ago to consider strategies that could help drive purposefully more students to my office hours. Of the many strategies that occurred to me, I will talk in this blog about one that I implemented with great success in the second quarter of general chemistry that I taught in spring of 2009 (CHE113, now known as CHE132).

Sign that reads "Yes, we're open"

Image courtesy of Leonard Chien (Flickr).

In this class, I had students present once a week, what I called Homework Exercises Reports. These reports accounted for 15% of the overall grade in the course. As stated in the syllabus of the course, one major purpose of the homework exercises was to help students engage in an active and reflective manner with the course material. One very important and mandatory component in the report was a self-assessment analysis. In this meta-analysis, students indicated briefly what the strong and weak points they thought they had with respect to a certain topic in the assignment, the estimated time needed to work on individual problems, and the estimated level of understanding on each one of the assigned problems. My course assistant and I went over the individual reports (over seventy each time), which allowed us to identify what seemed to have been the most common set of issues for the class in a particular topic. I then posted on the course’s website feedback for all students in the class regarding the issues encountered in the assignment.

One striking positive result of this approach was that the number of students making use of my office hours and those of my course assistant increased dramatically compared with previous years. Moreover, by the time students came to office hours they had already reflected on the assignments and were therefore able to be more intentional and purposeful when they asked for help on very specific topics. As a result, during office hours students and I were able to work more effectively together to strengthen his/her weak points and make sure his/her strong points remained strong or became even stronger. Not surprisingly, I was also able to use class time more effectively (making the most of class time!) by explicitly addressing those issues that appeared more frequently and consistently across all the students’ reports.

The Homework Exercises Report approach that I adopted in CHE113 touches base on many of Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, as well as some of those listed in the Teaching Center website at Carnegie Mellon University. I would encourage you to take a look at these teaching principles, and perhaps you will find them as useful as I did.

Some additional resources specifically addressing effective use of office hours can be found in the links below:

Finally, for those interested in knowing more about what I did in CHE113 in spring of 2009, please visit the course website.

Please feel free to share with us any of your approaches to make the most out of office hours. I am sure we all can learn from each other.


2 Responses to Making the Most Out of Office Hours

  1. Ann Taylor March 11, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Online homework systems such as MasteringChemistry, give you actual stats on how students performed and time on each problem, and are a much faster way to gather the information (like, if you have the homework due at 9 pm, you can look at the response times and error rates and immediately address it in class). It also is MUCH less labor intensive for the students. However, this removes the meta-cognition by the students. I suppose you could add a reflective question at the end of the assignment, but what is your thought about immediate feedback (and easier) vs. student meta-cognition?

    • Ruben Parra March 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

      I agree that MasteringChemistry or similar tools like ALEKS are very good tools and time effective. I am currently using MasteringChemistry in the organic chemistry class I am teaching. I have also used ALEKS in general chemistry. I see that both tools are quite beneficial and also drive students to office hours. Having done the metacognition approach was particularly important for me as a teacher since what I learned from my students’ report helped me shape the way I teach some concepts in gene chem today. Nowadays, I am more aware of other tools that can help me achieve similar results with less effort. I am certainly growing in the field. Thanks many for your valuable comments!

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