Summary: In this article we’ll explore strategies to manage expectations, promote access, and clarify value to students to drive successful virtual office hours.
Author: Brendan Lake, D.M.A., M.Ed., is a senior instructional designer with ASU Online and an instructional professional with the ASU School of Music.
If you’ve ever scheduled virtual office hours, the first time may have gone something like this: you picked a nice time slot when you were available, you shared a video conference URL with your students, you tidied up the background of your desk area, you logged in, eager to connect with your students to finally get to know some of them, and then you see… nobody. You may have thought, “The students will be a few minutes late. No one shows up to a party when it starts.” You answered a few quick emails, and then clicked back on the conference to see if anyone silently logged in, only to see your own face filling the screen, aging in real time. As you dejectedly logged off, you may have wondered if you should switch to “by request only” meetings if your time is so clearly unappreciated (more on that topic later).
Most online instructors have some variation on that story, leading to surprise and disappointment when they don’t get to connect with their online students and have some of the personal conversations and relationships they’ve enjoyed in their in-person classes. The good news is that there are many strategies that can produce some of the outcomes and relationships you may be looking for. Here are some effective practices for virtual office hours, organized into three goals: manage expectations, clarify the value to students, and promote access.
It’s important to remember that there are some seemingly inherent challenges to a warm, well-attended virtual office hour session. Students don’t often come to office hours in person either (if you haven’t already, please watch ASU’s video “FMOOWMP” or Andrew Ishak’s video “What are Office Hours?”) and the lack of classroom interaction can further lead to students’ reluctance to connect. Just as instructors don’t fully know what to expect when they open their virtual doors, students have even less clarity on what the experience will be like. Here are a few tips and considerations to manage some of these expectations:
Consider renaming your Office Hours to a more informal name, such as Student Hours, Coffee Chat, or Meet and Greet. Among the many barriers to student attendance in office hours is the expectation of a cold transaction of information, or worse, a situation where students might be shamed for not understanding the instructor’s lectures. If your intention is to connect with students around content or any other topics in an informal way, consider renaming your office hours to something like Student Hours to emphasize that students are in control of how time will be spent and what the goal might be. Another fun idea is to label the session Coffee Chats where students are asked to bring their favorite mug and a beverage. As students arrive, asking why each mug is the student’s favorite can be an easy start to a more casual conversation.
Consider using an appointment scheduler or sign up sheet to know attendance ahead of time. By using a sign-up tool, instructors will know if students plan on showing up or if they can cancel that particular session, and students will have a good sense of attendance and what the atmosphere will be like. Three popular tools to try include Google Sheets, x.ai, and Calendly. If it works better for your schedule, you can opt to “lock” the sign up sheet before the session so you’ll know ahead of time whether you can spend that time elsewhere.
Consider offering one-on-one appointments For some classes and topics, your sessions may be more effective if students know they can discuss challenges on an individual basis without the social anxiety of expressing confusion among strangers.
Recognize that low attendance can be a positive or negative outcome. As any instructor knows, a lack of questions can either mean that students completely and confidently understood the material, or it could mean complete bewilderment and a lack of psychological safety to express confusion. In the event of low attendance, consider reaching out to students to ask about their experience, review course analytics to examine student behaviors, and consider deploying one or more surveys in the course to ask students if they feel supported and collect ways to better support their learning.
Clarify the value to students
If you were to ask students how office hours might benefit them, what do you think they would say? How does that compare to the real potential of your office hours, and what language do you share in your course to help them shift their thinking? Here are a few considerations to craft your messaging:
Consider having a detailed office hours overview where you outline potential value for students. To get started, here’s a virtual office hours overview template with language emphasizing the value for students and helpful placeholders that you can copy and edit based on your course needs.
Consider focusing on a specific theme or topic. Depending on your course, you may receive more attendees and offer your students more value by structuring your office hour session around a particular goal. Some examples may be Term Paper Topic Selection or Final Exam Review, or you can solicit topics directly from your students on what they would find valuable.
Emphasize the importance of office hours for special circumstances. Some instructors require that students attend office hours if they need a letter of recommendation, honors contract, a regrade of an assignment, or other special circumstances. If these are expectations you set for students, be sure to express this in your syllabus and other locations where office hours are advertised.
Promote easy access
Another major factor towards successful office hours is the ease of access. Many online students specifically choose a more flexible online experience because they have other significant life priorities like full-time jobs or family care that make attending real-time meetings difficult. The following tips can help you maximize your access for these individuals:
Consider alternatives for those who can’t attend your scheduled sessions. Some ideas on this topic include alternating the times you hold office hours to accommodate different schedules and time zones, providing recordings of your sessions when it’s appropriate, or technological alternatives like phone calls for those without webcams and microphones.
Consider sending reminders to students about your office hours. This is a simple way to ensure that students interested and available in your sessions don’t get sidetracked among their other many priorities. If you use a sign up sheet, consider sending out an email reminder to those students an hour or two before your session with the meeting link.
Consider shifting away from “by request only” office hours. Due to low attendance in weekly sessions, instructors often deploy a model where office hours are only scheduled when students reach out to request them. The appeal is obvious – office hours only happen when students see value and no one’s time is wasted. The deeper problem with this model is that students can be reluctant to request meetings even when it would be valuable and appropriate for them, and this challenge appears to be more prevalent among those who need support the most. In “Why Students Don’t Ask for Help and What You Can Do About it,” Maryellen Weimer writes:
Sometimes cultural background and gender are factors—for example, students not part of a majority group may be less likely to seek help, especially if they feel isolated and “different.” Men sometimes find it more difficult than women do to admit needing help. And, sometimes the students most in need of help are the least likely to request it. They fear what others will think of them, that they are “bothering” a busy faculty member, and what seeking help will say about their abilities and likelihood of success.
Instead of “by request only” office hours, consider offering one or more scheduled times each week to prevent requiring students to ask you to take time out of your busy schedule to help them. The implementation of sign up sheets or other tools can help inform when students plan on attending, and you may find that you can cancel several of your sessions with no attendees.
Designing virtual office hours that students want to attend starts with meeting them where they are and continues with designing an experience that everyone can benefit from. If you have any additional ideas to support students and build better relationships through these sessions, please share them below.
Special thanks to DeAnna Soth, Taylor O’Kelley, Sarah Prosory, Erin Wilson, Renee Pilbeam, and all of the faculty I’ve been fortunate to learn from for their contributions to this article. Featured photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
Weimer, M. (2009, August 13). Why Students Don’t Ask for Help and What You Can Do About it. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/uncategorized/why-students-dont-ask-for-help-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/