Emphasis on Teaching
by Marshall Brain

Make Your Office Hours More Productive

Your office hours are extremely important to you as a teacher because they give you the opportunity to work one-on-one with your students. In order to make the most of your office hours, you need to: 1) pay attention to the psychology of the situation, 2) understand your students' problems, and 3) manage your time effectively.


Because office hours are so personal, it is important to pay close attention to the psychology of the situation, as well as to the material being covered. Many students are extremely intimidated by the idea of going to a professor during office hours.

Imagine that you have assigned a homework problem, and a student you do not know has shown up during your posted office hours to ask some questions. Here are two things to think about:

  1. Who is this student? This is an adult human being, so if you don't know the student introduce yourself and ask his or her name. Offer the student a place to sit. Treat the student as you would any other colleague walking into your office for the first time.
  2. Make the student feel comfortable. If the student has come during your posted office hours, then s/he certainly isn't intruding or wasting your time. Try not to give that impression. Is there a huge desk separating you from the student? This can be extremely intimidating.

Find out the student's problem. The student informs you that s/he is having trouble with the homework. Psychologically, it is extremely important here that you do not immediately say, "This is easy. The answer is 12." First, the problem is not easy to the student, or s/he wouldn't be in your office. Second, telling the student the answer destroys the learning process.

Understanding the Student's problem

Ask the student to show you what s/he has tried to do. This is important--you need to know what the student already understands. Let's say you find yourself in the following situation:

This is an incredible opportunity for any teacher. You have a student who has attempted to do the problem, but is obviously having difficulty. That student is primed to learn. The student has opened a hole and is ready to receive this knowledge (see the EoT on Knowledge Holes). In my case, I may have assigned a piece of programming, and the code the student shows me is a total disaster. Perhaps you have assigned a math problem and the student shows you a derivation that is hopeless. Whatever. You must do two things at this point:

  1. Find something to praise. The student is in a very vulnerable position at this point. If you scream, "YOU IDIOT!", (or even if you subtly suggest this), you are guaranteed to lose that student forever. Whatever you say will make a strong impression, so make that impression a good one. In the situation above, the student has the diagonal line correct, so focus on that. Say, "This portion of the problem is perfect. You did a really good job here. However, the rest of the problem could use a little work...."
  2. Find out what the student is thinking. Ask the student to explain to you what s/he is trying to accomplish, in English.

There are two levels in any learning process: an understanding process, and a translation process. The student must first understand, in English, what is going on. Only then can the student translate that understanding into the correct language for your subject.

In computer programming, the student must first be able to understand, in English, what s/he is trying to make the computer do. Then those ideas can be translated into the correct programming language. In chemistry, the student must understand the goals and steps of a chemical process, and then translate that into a set of reactions. In writing, the student must understand what s/he is trying to say, and then translate that into words and sentences.

Ask the student to explain to you what s/he is doing, in English. If incorrect, then focus on and improve the student's understanding of the problem. This can often be done by backing up a little and giving the student simpler problems and examples to work with. In doing this, separate the student's understanding of the problem from the translation task--go over the simpler problems and examples in English, so that the student is able to see what is happening.

If the student understands the problem but is having trouble with the translation, then work on that. Review for the student the tools and/or vocabulary that are available for doing the translation, go through a few examples, and then let the student try it on his or her own.

In either case, it is important to give the student the opportunity to work toward a solution on his or her own, with your help and guidance, without actually telling the student the answer. Learning takes place only when the student does the work.

Time Management

If you do all of this with every student who has a question on a homework problem, it could consume a huge amount of time. Three techniques can help this time crunch.

First, your best students don't need this much assistance. They might get stuck on one small detail, but once they get over that hump they are ready to move again on their own. Giving them enough information to "prime the pump" causes the rest of the problem to fall into place.

Second, you can let students teach each other. If you have 10 people waiting in line outside your office, and if you know your students, you can pair up excellent students with slower students. For example, if Mary is an excellent student and John is having problems, introduce Mary and John. Ask John his problem, and then ask Mary to go over a simpler example of this problem, in English, with John while they are waiting. John will have a much better understanding of things when he gets into your office.

Finally, when a student comes by during office hours with a question or problem, chances are very good that half of the class is having that same problem. Go over the question at the beginning of the next class for the benefit of everyone. This will reduce the traffic on that problem, and will often cause other questions and problems to be brought up as well. Encouraging questions during class often reduces traffic during office hours (see the EoT on Questions).

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