Shawn Orr is faculty in the Department of Communication Studies and the Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Ashland University.
Virtual office hours. That phrase likely conjures up one of two images in your mind: (A) hours of boredom and clock watching while you wait in solitude for students to take advantage of one-on-one time with you, or (B) the five hours of the week where some of the deepest student connections, content engagement and learning happens.
The truth is most office hours probably fall somewhere between the worst image and the best image; however, we’re all cognizant of the increased importance of our office hours this fall.
Most of us are looking at a fall semester that will see more online and hybrid classes, social distancing inside and outside of the classroom and fewer opportunities for students to connect face-to-face with their faculty and with each other. This increases the importance of the opportunities we do have to engage students one-on-one—and at the heart of this is the faculty office hour.
These hours, traditionally held in a faculty office but likely held virtually this fall, are reserved to provide student support, feedback, advising, and opportunities for deep conversation and rich dialogue over the course content.
We know it’s difficult to get students to take advantage of our office hours right after class and when we’re right down the hall; how are we ever going to get them to take advantage of these hours virtually?
Let me share a few of my best ideas and tips for holding virtual office hours that are sure to have students lined up at your (virtual) door, ready to engage!
Consistency is key.
Be consistent with how you’ll hold your virtual office hours. Have the link to your virtual office hours listed on your syllabus, on your office door, in your LMS, at the end of your PowerPoint slides or other lecture tools each week and remind students of the link in your weekly announcements.
The more opportunities students have to see when you are available, the more likely they are to jump on and join.
One final note: if you have some flexibility, consider asking your students when they would prefer you be available to help them outside of class. Once students have a stake in selecting your office hours, they’re more likely to take advantage of those times.
Take advantage of technology.
Find a great virtual tool to hold your office hours. My favorite tool for this is Zoom. I can set up one link at the start of the semester and use the same link throughout the term. Zoom allows me to have students placed in a “waiting room” so I can work with students in private, and then admit or meet with the next student one at a time.
Zoom also fosters collaboration with features like a whiteboard; students can share their screen with me (and share their work), and then I can take control of the screen if I want to highlight or show students something.
If you want to learn more about using Zoom in these types of collaborative environments, this article, Tips and Tricks for Using Zoom for Teachers, offers great ideas and how-to guidelines.
Give students an incentive to come. Students are more likely to attend virtual office hours if you’re doing something they enjoy and value.
I often use my office hours to play games with the course content, and then give away small prizes to the “winners” like a point of extra credit, or a voucher for something they value. I have written these award vouchers for things like “turning in one assignment up to 24 hours late with no penalty” or a “50/50 question” where students can ask me one question during a quiz or an exam and I’ll mark off all of the answers except two.
Games create a fun, competitive environment and encourage students to join in. It’s easy to create games by using resources inside your publishers’ materials (like adaptive case studies).
You can also utilize digital quizzing tool like Kahoot, where students can deeply engage with digital content like videos, pictures and web links, but my students also love traditional games, like bingo using key terms or concepts.
When I play bingo, I use a tool like Free Bingo Cards to create the cards, and then distribute these electronically to anyone that attends my office hours. During the game, students hear questions such as, “If you want to organize your speech by how things fit together in a physical space, which speech design pattern would you be using?” Students would have to know the answer is “spatial design,” then see if they have it on their bingo card.
I let students use their books and notes during these games so they’re actively engaging in the content. Then, I often ask a student who had the correct answer on their bingo card to share the answer and provide an example to the other students.
These types of games are not only fun for exam reviews, they’re great formative assessment activities to see where your students are with the course content.
Make it relevant.
Another way I use my office hours is to have an “Article of the Week” that will be discussed during this time. Once or twice during the semester, I select an interesting and relevant article and provide a link to the students telling them this article will be the focus of my office hours.
For example, last semester when the PRSA Silver Anvil Awards were announced, I shared the link and said we would be looking at some of the best campaigns in the world during my office hours. I had nearly half of the students from my Public Relations Campaigns course drop by for the 30-minute discussion. They were excited, and it was not content I had time to cover during the synchronous class sessions.
As a note, I always record these discussions for students who cannot attend in person so they can watch later if they choose.
Lastly, and this is a big one, be proactive during your office hours to reach out to students and engage. If no one shows up, I consider that hour a gift of engagement.
Did a student answer a question in class in an exceptionally insightful way? Send the student an email acknowledging the great contribution made during the class discussion.
Did a student miss class? Send an email telling them their absence was felt and remind them the lecture was recorded and is available in the LMS (if applicable).
Do you have an athlete/performer/musician that recently had an event? Send them a note of congratulations and recognition.
Is it almost time for advising? Send students individual reminder emails and tell them about a course they have to look forward to next semester.
Is there a big paper coming up? Send a note to a student who struggled with the first paper and ask if they’d like to schedule a time to discuss their concept.
Finally, I also use this time to reach out to students and ask them to “help” me during the next synchronous class session by having an example ready to share when we discuss a specific topic or describe a concept in their own words. This builds engagement during the synchronous session, as well as creates a connection with the student—all by taking advantage of my office hours!
Looking for simple tweaks you can make to improve your online instruction? Check out our webinar, “Life Hacks” to Enhance Your Online Course Today.