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Emily SchillerTaking Advantage of Office Hours

By Emily Schiller

“This is the first time I’ve come to an office hour.” “You’re the first professor I’ve ever met with one-on-one.” How many times have I heard this from students . . . from graduating seniors! They’d spent four or five years at the university and not once taken advantage of one of the most valuable learning tools we offer. Certainly some of those students were just too busy with complicated class/work/family schedules. Others felt shy about going to a professor’s office hours, worrying that they would be “bothering” a busy man or woman. Of course there were always a few, concerned about getting enough letters of recommendation for graduate school, who would drop in constantly with little or no preparation as though the office hour were a kind of “happy hour” without the booze. But most students met with professors and/or TAs only if conferencing was mandatory.

Office Hours are the posted days and times a professor can be expected to be in his/her office available to students. This is a job requirement for all instructors. In effect, students pay for those hours and, therefore, should feel free to use them. However this is not a social open house. Most professors expect that students who show up for those hours have specific questions or concerns related to the class they are taking. If the conversation becomes more casual over time, great. But the purpose of office hours is to give busy students access to busy teachers.

Big lecture classes where TAs teach discussion sections present more options. It is not feasible for the professor to handle meetings with 300+ students,
but TAs are usually responsible for two sections of 25 students each and have more time to offer. So if you are having trouble with the work and need further help, maybe more detailed explanations, go to the TA’s hours first. Their job, in part, is to help students with the lecture material. If you find that you need more time and personal attention, think about looking into your school’s tutoring program. It’s usually free, and you can probably schedule weekly appointments.

Although it is tempting to use an office hour visit as a kind of confessional moment, declaring yourself hopelessly lost and incapable of saving yourself, this is not the best approach. Your professor will then need to spend precious time trying to find out exactly what is confusing you and why. By the time he/she has figured out which concepts you understand and which you don’t, your time’s up and nothing has been accomplished. The same goes for getting help with papers. Showing up empty-handed saying “I don’t know what to write about,” gives the professor nothing to work with. It also gives a very poor impression. Are you saying that you don’t know the material well enough to come up with ideas? Or are you admitting that you haven’t done any work yet and time is running short? Worse yet, are you declaring, “I don’t really want to spend the time myself, so I’d prefer you do my thinking and writing for me”? None of these may be true, but if you come in unprepared you leave the impression that they are.

Professors and TAs have time limitations and other students waiting to see them, so the more prepared you are when you go to an office hour, the more you will get done. Here are some suggestions:

1. Begin any appointment prepared with a pen and paper, ready to take notes. Always, always, ALWAYS take notes. Students worry that they are being rude, but, remember, this is not a social occasion. There is no way you can remember everything (or even anything) from these meetings. This means there will be periods of silence while you are writing things down. That’s OK. You are not there to be entertaining. You are there to get help with your work.

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