Office Hours

by Gina Schouten on January 6, 2023

As I prepare my Spring semester courses, I’m wondering how people handle office hours these days.

For my entire pre-Covid teaching career, office hours were a drop-in affair. I encouraged students to make an appointment outside of office hours if they wanted to be sure they could talk to me without the chance of another student popping in. But the posted office hours could not be reserved; they were for anyone who happened to show up.

Then, during Covid, I worked with a wonderful grad student teaching assistant who encouraged me to reserve half of my office hours each week for student appointments. She told me it would make me more accessible to students.
I asked: How will I be more accessible if I reserve half of my office hours for plan-ahead appointments, when under the status quo I have a full slate of drop-in office hours and encourage students to make appointments outside of office hours?

Her answer: Students use appointments as a commitment mechanism, and the most timid students also feel more authorized to come if they’ve alerted you in advance. You’re giving them a protocol for doing that. And it’s more effective than just encouraging them to make appointments, because asking for an appointment without have a designated mechanism for doing so takes more boldness and more self-assurance than simply signing up for a slot on a calendar.

I pitched a couple of ideas for other ways to address these issues while still maintaining the status quo with respect to office hours: I would provide an email script for students to use to ask me for an appointment. I would respond enthusiastically when students alerted me in advance that they were coming to office hours. (Previously, I’d said something like, “great, but just for future reference, you can come even without telling me in advance.” Now, I would say, “great, I want to hear more about that point you made today…” or some such thing.) The grad student liked these ideas, and I’ve since implemented both. But she persuaded me that I should still try by-appointment office hours, too.

She was right. Almost nobody came to my drop-in office hours, whereas my by-appointment office hours were so full that I had to regularly open up more slots. She also split her office hours between drop-in time and by-appointment time, and she reported the same results. And we both thought we noticed a trend: that the antecedently most confident students were the ones likeliest to drop in.

This occurred during a remote instruction semester, and I doubted her reasoning would translate back into the in-person teaching context. She predicted that it would, and she was right, again. I’ve since polled students, and they overwhelmingly report both preferring by-appointment office hours and believing that they are likelier to utilize by-appointment office hours compared with drop-in office hours. I’ve talked to some teachers who do only by-appointment office hours; they report no loss in terms of positive classroom vibe or student engagement or student bonding.

I’m reluctant to give up on drop-in office hours entirely. But when I consider why I want to retain drop-in office hours, I don’t find my own case persuasive.

I want students to run into one another in office hours so they can bond, so they can see that others share their questions and frustrations, and so they can learn to learn from each other. But if I want students bonding, sharing confusions and frustrations, and learning from each other, I should make those things happen in class so that they’re not only available to those who come to office hours.

I want students to find themselves unexpectedly at my office door, having wandered around awhile in a stupor because philosophical questions are blowing their minds and they want to talk about them. But it’s self-aggrandizing and probably a little snobbish to want this, and anyway it’s little likelier to happen with scheduled drop-in office hours than with by-appointment office hours.

I want students to have as little barrier as possible to coming to see me. But my wise grad student and my recent experience suggest that formalized appointments counter-intuitively remove more barriers than they create, perhaps especially for the most timid students.

For myself, I want to enjoy watching the dynamics of students’ social and intellectual engagement. But that’s a weak reason for arranging office hours in a way that’s sub-optimal with respect to students’ needs. Especially if I can find other ways to get this enjoyment.

If you teach: Do you still do drop-in office hours? Is it because your students use them more than mine do, or is there some reason to preserve them even if students make more use of appointment slots? If you’re a student: What kinds of circumstances are likeliest to get you to office hours?



engels 01.06.23 at 9:22 pm

I think “accessible” normally means that people with disabilities can participate.
Maybe there’s a wider/metaphorical sense that covers other “marginalised” people but you seem to be judging this a success based purely on absolute numbers, which doesn’t seem to be the same thing at all.

Hypothetically 25% of your students might hate making appointments and find themselves completely excluded by this even while the other 75% were more likely to come.


Brian 01.06.23 at 9:35 pm

Never tried by appointment office hours. Always had plenty of students come in to a room with 4 or 5 instructors. But those are very good points. In sciences, students come, but way too many of them do terribly, particularly in early classes. In sciences this tends to be accepted as a given, which, thinking about your post, could be reconsidered.

I read it initially, because as a man, the biggest issue is young women making moves or leading comments. From the deep lean-over and smile, to whispering they’d like “personal at home” instruction pretty please, because “it’s hard,” it’s been thrown at me. I am sure that more than a few men take them up on it, because… face it. We are human beings and mating is one of the most important things conserved by evolution. (I’m not one of those that has.) I’m reminded of an incident a colleague discussed with me at a very well-known university with a budget larger than 40 nations. Three professors were the start of a syphilis outbreak, and 12 coeds were diagnosed with it the first week. This fact of teaching at universities will not go away. Of course the administration didn’t want to air dirty laundry by investigating, and given the confidentiality of HIPAA, they could have been accused of violating the law.

In sciences, as a rule, the practical aspect is that it would have to be group sign-ups rather than individual, just because of the numbers. It occurs to me that this could be helpful with the “making moves” issue. Groups of 4 or 5 is fine, and perhaps young women will keep each other in check if they are scheduled together? Hmm. Open door only, of course. Or perhaps a cam to record all the sessions, with a sign saying it’s happening. Sorry to say this, but this is how men think these days. We need to be defensive, always.

Thanks for a good piece. It has made me rethink office hours.


Sashas 01.06.23 at 9:37 pm

Fascinating! I will have to try this. I still use drop-in office hours and provide a protocol for scheduling meetings with me outside office hours time. (Protocol is email me, name three times that work for you–I’ll pick one. But I’ve observed that students have a LOT of trouble with my protocol so while it makes sense to me on paper I’m not recommending it!)

I’ve found that I have had a lot more luck getting students to show up in my office when I order them to. I’ve taken to leaving a single comment “Please see me in office hours” on homework when I feel the student and I are not on the same page about an assignment and this has worked wonders. The students show up, since their grade is on the line, and it is much easier to sort out misconceptions that are “early” in an assignment through conversation than by trying to write things down right away.


engels 01.06.23 at 9:45 pm

It could even be consistent with the “trend” that confident students prefer dropping in that a minority of shy students are completely put off by appointments (or confident students, whom you still don’t want to exclude altogether I assume).


Kevin 01.06.23 at 10:39 pm

I am not entirely surprised by these results, but I think there is another huge cost. My students, in trend before the pandemic and especially after, are much more socially awkward than students used to be. Many are incredibly averse to ambiguity, have much less social connection (very evident in empirical data on young people), and do much less impromptu socializing. In some sense, making it easier for “timid students” to move through society holding their timidity constant seems worse than pursuing policies which push students out of their shell, cause them to have to sometimes navigate office hours with another student listening, and so on.

(I suppose there is a meta-comment about the institutional focus, especially at universities, on mental health – at the same time as the focus on accommodating students on these grounds has increased, the observed mental health of young people has absolutely tanked in every possible measure, and thinking about evidence on exposure therapy and other empirically well-founded ways for handling things like shyness, agoraphobia, etc., it perhaps isn’t surprising that the focus on accommodation has made the state of affairs worse. Again, declining mental health was the trend pre-pandemic, but has gotten worse since 2020. The fraction of students who speak in my classes was never 100%, but has gone way down since the pandemic. This strikes me a societal problem which we really need to address.)


Matt 01.07.23 at 6:23 am

I haven’t yet taught in a fully “back in person” term yet (at my university we are fully back in person, finally, this coming term, but I won’t teach until the next term) but when I did have “normal” office hours, the reason why I generally opposed having indivdualized meetings was that it was often the case that lots of students had similar questions, so it was a waste of time to answer the same question a number of different times, and also sometimes students would think they understood something, but only realize they did not when they heard others ask questions about it.

(The repeated answers to the same questions issue was the reason why I always insisted that students ask question on a class discussion board, rather than email me with the question, assuming that it wasn’t a purely personal issue.)

The other steps taken to encourage students to come to office hours sound very good, and I may give them a try, but I otherwise worry about individualized hours becoming a big time sink, an inefficient use of time, and a missed opportunity to learn from others, as well as a chance to learn to be more organized and overcome small anxieties.


PhilippeO 01.07.23 at 8:53 am

My suspicion is that drop-in office hours is product of pre-Handphone culture where people spend lot of time loitering in campus and accidently meet people. Post-Handphone culture is that you contact people for meeting and when you happen to be in someplace with someone you notclose with, both would be busy on screen.


Ben 01.07.23 at 5:07 pm

Pre-pandemic I switched to appointment only office hours and found my student engagement immediately increased. Drop in office hours were underutilized and had a hidden cost in terms of my productivity. When I held drop in office hours I was hesitant to work on anything meaningful in case I was interrupted by a drop in student. I use Zoom and an automated scheduling tool to make about 20 hours a week available for office hours, significantly increasing the likelihood of a student finding a convenient time.


Scott Anderson 01.07.23 at 7:43 pm

I’m interested in a bit more information about the logistics of how you do the scheduling of appointments. Do you have a site where students can sign up for appointments, and see what times are/aren’t taken, or do you have to do it by email or other interactive means where you have to keep the schedule yourself?


Moz in Oz 01.08.23 at 12:37 am

As a student I only had a few teachers that cared about published office hours, and back when most university staff either did not use or barely used email (dinosaurs roamed the earth!) it was much easier to visit their office and leave a note if they were not present. The ones who cared about office hours would generally have a note on their door so you had to go there anyway to find out. But some departments were notorious awful to deal with, I had to contact the secretary in Economics to find out when I could come in to make an appointment to see the person who could then discuss with my supervisor whether I would be permitted to attend lectures (boggle all you like, that’s what they did. Meanwhile I was ‘involuntarily enrolled’ in a sociology course because the lecturer deemed that handing in essays was the price of attendance (formally “any student may attend but lecturers may impose such restrictions as they deem necessary”))

I suspect that these days being available online would be much more useful, to the point where being on your official chat channel and available for video calls would be more meaningful than “let’s share breath”. But I haven’t been on a campus since before covid.


M Caswell 01.08.23 at 2:39 am

I have neither office hours, nor an office.


Gina Schouten 01.09.23 at 2:32 pm

Thanks for the thoughts and ideas, everyone! It’s helpful to read about other people’s experiences. I agree with Kevin and Matt about some of the costs of individual office hours–namely, instructor time and missed opportunities to help students overcome social awkwardness. The latter is a cost only if those students could otherwise be cajoled to drop in, which I think they could be–Sashas gives one idea of how.

Scott: I use an appointment slots function on my google calendar, but I’ve used other (free) calendar programs too. I seem to remember that the appointment sign-up function on google calendars is only available because I have an institutional gmail address, so maybe it’s not a part of the free version? If others are reading this and have favorite free programs, could you let us know?


Neville Morley 01.09.23 at 8:03 pm

I struggle to get students to take up my offers of individual consultation; I have two hours a week where they can either book appointments (via a shared online sign-up sheet) or turn up on the off-chance – rule is that pre-booked people get precedence, but since this time is never booked out that’s not an issue – and they can have in-person or online chats. I also make it clear that they can contact me to arrange an alternative appointment. Many seem to prefer just asking me questions by email – and I’ve tried to get them to use discussion boards and the like, so everyone can see relevant answers rather than me repeating the same thing multiple times, and they still insist on emailing, perhaps because they hope they might get a slight advantage or inside scoop…


Matt 01.10.23 at 3:40 am

On email vs discussion boards, I note the strong peference for posting to the discussion board several times during the class, but of course students still email questions. I usually assume they have either forgotten (or didn’t pay attention) when I stated the rule/preference, or are (wrongly) embarrassed to ask a question “in public”, or, as Neville suggests, are hoping to get an “inside advantage. Of these, I think the first is the most common, but I’m not sure. But, when this happens, I make of point of either telling the student to just ask it on the discussion board, and then answering there, or replying by telling them that I will post it to the discussion board (as being from “a student”, so as to avoid possible embarrassment) and answer there. I almost never respond in email, both because it encourages bad behaviour (doing something I explicitly asked them not to do) and avoids the benefit of the public answer.


Neville Morley 01.10.23 at 11:16 am

Thanks, Matt. I’ve tried posting queries on the discussion board and answering them there, with no noticeable effect on increasing discussion board use. Yes, if I more actively discouraged or forbade email queries that might have more impact, but we’re given very strong guidance by higher authority to make sure we’re available for email queries – and, given I know I have students who are intimidated by the thought of asking anything, I’m reluctant to put up additional barriers to contact.

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