Many students, especially those at large universities, never have the chance to form meaningful or lasting relationships with their professors. However, developing these connections not only has positive impacts on students academically, but it can also improve students’ overall well-being, and provide opportunities for growth in the future. The relationships formed in office hours with professors can assist students in many ways, such as, helping you get into graduate school, providing the connection to your first research job, not to mention visiting with professors is likely to increase your overall letter grade when it matters most. Most of the students we talk to understand that going to office hours is useful, but even with this knowledge, most don’t go. So what keeps students away?
Some students don’t feel like they have the time to spend in office hours between classes, studying, spending time with friends, exercising, being involved on campus, etc… However, even spending 10-15 minutes, even virtually with a professor can be an incredibly meaningful interaction. I recommend students add their professor’s office hours to their calendar so it is easy to see when they might be available and how it fits into their schedule. Another timing hurdle arises when professors’ office hours conflict with another class. In these situations, it is always appropriate to email a professor and ask to schedule a meeting during another time. The best way to do this is to provide specific times and dates that the student is available so that the professor can easily look at their calendar to figure out an available time.
What do I talk about?
Students often tell us that they don’t know what to talk about when they go to office hours, and if they do go to office hours, they usually wait until right before an exam or after they earn a poor grade. I suggest going to talk to a professor within the first few weeks of class. Meeting early provides an opportunity for the professor to get to know the student and makes it easier to go to office hours again when questions do arise. Some great questions to consider asking a professor include:
- How did you know you wanted to study [insert academic discipline here]?
- When did you decide you wanted to become a professor?
- I’m really interested in learning more about [insert a topic from class]. Can you recommend a good article or book I could read to learn more?
Students can also do their homework before going to office hours and spend some time on a professor’s webpage to come up with specific questions about a faculty member’s research. Coming prepared with a list of questions about course material is another way to approach office hours. The most important thing is to show faculty members that the student values their time and wants to learn from them.
A Previous Bad Experience
Sometimes having one bad experience in office hours is enough for students to decide it’s not worth their time. However, each professor is different and even if a student has one bad experience with a professor, I always encourage them to try again; we all have bad days. Coming prepared with questions or specific topics to discuss is the best way to counter a negative experience.
Additional Reasons for Using Office Hours
Developing a relationship with a professor and gaining information and insights about course material are the two most important reasons for using office hours. However, I would add the following additional benefits:
Recommendation Letters: As an instructor, it is hard to write strong recommendation letters for students who you only interact within a large class. However, when students came to visit me in office hours, I got a chance to learn about them, their interests, and their strengths. The letters I wrote for students who came to visit me in office hours were always more detailed, personal, and substantive.
Research Opportunities: Sometimes professors may need help with their research. If they have had the opportunity to meet a student who is passionate and interested in their work, they may ask that student to assist on a project. Or if a student is considering an honors thesis or their own research project, they may be able to ask a professor they have visited in office hours to be a member of their committee.
Border-Line Grades: Each faculty member handles grading differently, so this is not always a guarantee, but I know many professors (myself included) who consider class participation and office hours attendance when they have a student who is on the border between letter grades.
Office hours are important and can have many positive outcomes. I encourage all students to take advantage of office hours early and often and, if nothing else, watch this awesome video which highlights how effective office hours can be for you!