Confession: When I started college, and I saw “office hours” on my professor’s syllabus, I was intimidated. Office hours sounded formal and high stakes. My high school teachers didn’t have offices, and when I met with them it was usually a quick drop in between classes. I occasionally visited the writing center (which was just a fancier way of saying the English teacher’s classroom), but that’s about as formal as extra help got.
Now that we are teaching online, virtual office hours are becoming part of the weekly school schedules for middle and high school. Chances are you’ve done your homework and checked all the boxes. You surveyed your students and found out what times work best. You decided how often, and whether students will drop in or sign up. So why aren’t students showing up? Before you give up and spend office hours answering emails, hear me out: we can make this work, and here’s how.
Here’s why virtual office hours are worth your time (and your students’)
Speedier and more efficient than an email, virtual office hours are as close to a face-to-face that we can get. In our brick and mortar schools, our check-ins with students happen organically when a student stays after class or stops us in the hallway. Unfortunately in distance learning, depending on your students’ schedules, there might be entire days where you only communicate asynchronously with them. When you do “see” your students, it’s likely to be on a virtual video conferencing platform where you can’t easily read their body language (not to mention hear from them if their Wi-Fi is spotty or times out).
As equity is top of mind right now, we need to provide times throughout the day where our students can check in. Our oldest students need flexibility as they take on more responsibility. Many are taking care of younger siblings and helping out more at home.
The case for why students aren’t showing up
Here are some of the challenges we are facing as we set up virtual office hours, and solutions to try to solve them.
Challenge: Students don’t know what happens during office hours
You told your students that office hours are a scheduled time throughout the week where they can meet with you virtually. Since everyone is learning online you expected students to show up with questions, tech issues, and honestly, a chance to just chat. So far, no luck.
Solution: Tell students what you can help them with
This friendly nudge is a scaffold to help your students see the value in working with you 1:1 or in a small group. Let’s say you are reading a whole class novel and students are working on a literary analysis essay. Share that during office hours you will be available to dig into the novel’s themes, support students to develop and refine their thesis statements, and re-teach how to connect evidence from the text to their overall argument. The hope is that students will opt to show up now that they know exactly what they can and will do.
Challenge: Your students are still getting to know you
We are all grappling with how to build relationships with students for the first time online. (Here are some ideas for how to introduce yourself to your students virtually). No matter how many bells and whistles you put on it, it’s just harder and takes longer when you meet across screens. Students might feel anxious or overwhelmed by the start of the most unusual school year they’ve experienced yet. Office hours may feel like one more new thing on a long list of firsts.
Solution: Rebrand office hours
Some ideas: Use your name and your favorite literary device! I called mine Mrs. Mason’s Monday Meetup (who doesn’t love alliteration?). Another idea: Lunch and Learn (you can eat and learn together). I also love Book Club because everyone knows that adult book clubs are an excuse to chat and be social. Whether you actually eat lunch, meet on Mondays, or discuss a book is optional! Once the kids show up, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Challenge: Your students are nervous they will be the only one to show
If you’ve ever been the first person to show up for something new that you’ve never done before and it’s just you and the instructor, it’s intimidating (and we are adults).
Solution: Put students into small groups
Students are likely to start showing up if you frame office hours as an opportunity for small groups of students to work with you rather than a 1:1 meeting. Use virtual breakout rooms (here’s how) so students can pair up and work on the same tasks. You can circulate from the main room to the breakout rooms and check in.
Challenge: They aren’t required, so students don’t see the point
No one wants to require their students to come to office hours. The whole point is to provide an open door (or open Zoom room) policy where students can seek out additional help, ask questions, and work with you 1:1 or in a small group. Office hours are where we differentiate instruction, help students fill in skill gaps, and create strong relationships with our students.
Solution: Build momentum and “talk up” virtual office hours
If students have a lot of questions, tell them you can answer them during office hours. If you are teaching something new, remind students that you can go over it again during office hours. Name drop office hours every time you can! We can only hope that the more they hear it, the more likely they are to join us.
How do you get students to show up for virtual office hours? We’d love to hear your tips in the comments.