My first semester of teaching, I had office hours at some time during the day that worked for me. A very few, dedicated students were able to come to the office hours. I got to know these students really well. I think many professors would say that they really get to know the students who frequent their office hours. And, I did too, but I was troubled by how few students were able to come to office hours. I realized that daytime office hours were difficult for students because many had classes at the same time.
I decided to make a significant change to my office hours in order to reach more students. I decided to have evening office hours that I called homework sessions, so that more students could attend. Instead of my small, camped office, I had a classroom assigned to me that could hold the entire class. The classroom had desks that were moveable, so that students could work in small groups. When students arrived, I asked them which problem they were working on. I put all the students working on the same problem together, so that they could problem-solve together and peer-educate each other. Plus, this allowed me to help several students at once. Often one student would get it, and then explain further to the rest of the students in their group in their own words.
This system worked better than expected in that more students were working together on their homework. Plus, I had more direct access to the students and their thought processes as they actively solved problems. When I taught, I was in a huge lecture hall with seats bolted to the floor in stadium seating. These homework sessions enabled me to meet, chat with, and directly educate many more students than my normal class periods. The students felt more comfortable with me, and were more open about what they didn’t know, also allowing me to teach them individually and better.
Here is a specific example: During one HW session, I was watching a student solve a problem, and I realized that the student was struggling with fractions. We talked about it, and the student was able to get extra tutoring.
I was able to directly mentor students on how to get into a research lab, what a science degree is supposed to teach you, how to get into graduate school, what graduate school in science was like and that it was free!, and many other topics. The students really liked the homework sessions. I was told that they continued to work in these groups through graduation, and that many of them had never worked in a group on homework before my course. They weren’t communicating with their peers about the course before this course!
One more thing. My homework problem sets were due on Fridays, so I made my homework sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays to encourage the students to start early. Some, very motivated students would come to the homework sessions with most problems started and many completed. Most other students would have nothing started, but, by coming to the homework sessions, they would start their homework on Mondays instead of Thursdays. Some students complained that they wanted the homework sessions on Thursdays. I would explain, as I explained the first day of class, that I had these homework sessions early to encourage students to start their homework assignments early, which they really needed to get into the habit of doing. Having them on Thursday would defeat the purpose of the session. By the end of the semester I would have 50 – 75% of the course attending one or both homework sessions each week! And, my evaluation scores went from 3.5 out of 5 to 4.9 out of 5!
I understand that evening office hours probably won’t work for everyone, but having them at a time that is better for students (afternoons, maybe) in a big classroom and not your office could be the key to unlocking your students’ learning gains. And getting better evaluations! Although it seemed like I was spending a lot more hours, it wasn’t any more than regular office hours. Further, these office hours were a time saver. I didn’t have to have special individual office hours for each student who couldn’t come to my normal office hours because they could all come to one or the other homework session.
So, this was one way to teach better through direct engagement with the students. Do you have other good or better ways to hold office hours? Share with a comment or guest post!