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When we were all forced to move to open-plan shed post-earthquake, I switched entirely to office hours by appointment. Costs on colleagues of students dropping in just too high. Office hours attendance has dropped a bit.

I only want to go to office hours for help if I can't figure out a concept or question on my own or with classmates. However I only know I won't actually be able to figure out a concept or question when the assignment deadline arrives; too late for help. Catch 22.

This is very different than my academic experience. After first year shyness, we'd always go see all our professors, all hours during the day (even office hours by accident, I'm sure).

We even got to the point in some classes where someone in the computer lab would announce "I am going to go see the professor about a question" and we would get up and follow, without even finding out what question the person wanted to ask, just to hear the professor give another explanation. We were that lost.

Even weirder still, in one class, the students, as a majority, would ask for more tests to help raise our marks.

I've found professors that are in another building or that have appointments are the ones I would go see least. The one professor that had appointments was the one I never wanted to go to (though I didn't care for her class, not because she was bad but I wasn't interested in the subject matter much). When I'm at school doing homework and I have a problem, I sort of want to go down the hall and be like "Am I getting this right?", rather than "I will schedule my confusion for later".

I did run "help desks" for a couple course (including a first year course), where I just made myself available as a TA to help anyone with the assignments in the course. I always had people show up, even if they just wanted to sit there and do the homework or if they hadn't done any homework at all and just wanted to hear anything that might help.

I think with upper year courses the students are more comfortable engaging TAs or professors or maybe they're just aware what big help they can be. For the third year course I TA'ed, basically everyone showed up to the help desk.

One interesting thing I've seen is professors who record videos of themselves walking through the homework problems. I've heard it's much more comfortable for students to rewind a video than ask a speaker to repeat themselves.. especially more than once.

Alastair - very familiar.

Eric, KV - it sounds as if you're both in environments where profs spend time on campus outside of office hours. Is that really the norm?

KV, which reminds me, I have to post my video...

Not that it'd be an issue with Prof. Woolley, but the few times I was desperate enough to go to see one of my engineering profs during office hours, I ended-up being made to feel like I was such a hopeless idiot that I resolved never to subject myself to it again. A lousy grade was easier on my ego. I suppose it was in part because the profs resented being made to teach undergrads; no doubt their earth shattering research was *much* more interesting.

Frances - that's been mostly my experience, yeah.

Patrick - that's a shame. Honestly, I've also had times where I didn't go ask for help because of looking really stupid but on the other hand whenever I've had people ask me for help I'm just super thrilled that someone wants to talk to me about things that I think are awesome.

What kinds of tea and what type of biscuits do you serve?
I would go to get a semi-lunch. (Most students haven't even had breakfast).

And why not have a pre-essay or before-big-essay meet to get to know them and to show them that you have quality biscuits, Peek Freans, Fig Newtons, Chocolate Digestives etc.

More teachers need to assign pre-outline writing and require a first meeting. They would get better papers and other profs would say that those better-prepared students come from Prof. Wooley's class.

Of course the temptations of Ottawa take many students off campus during the day.

(And what drum medley do you like?)

When I was an undergrad at Western, a little over 20 years ago, I don't think I had a clue where any of my professors' offices were. I don't remember any of them even mentioning office hours, though that could simply have been my inattention. I remember being lost in calculus and having no clue about who to turn to for help, I was asking everyone I could think of and nobody said "go see the prof."

I teach at Humber College. We're a teaching institution, so the full-time profs here spend more time in class, and likely on campus, than your typical university types. Most teachers here are on contract though, and many of them dart in and out barely passing through the office as they run off to another gig elsewhere.

I flog office hours relentlessly, but few students come. Maybe that's because I'm lucky to have small classes, and, as a result, students can get their questions answered in class. My colleagues in our shared office have no more visitors than I do.

I've never tried doodle.com for booking times though.

My undergrad profs (starting in second year) had formal office hours because they were obliged to but the real rule was always this: "Come see me whenever you want except the hour before lecture. That is my prep time and I am under no circumstances to be disturbed." And yes - they were at work 40 to 50 hours a week. These classes were small.

The first year engineers at Queen's had a physics tutorial session (3 hours long every two weeks). After midterms(!) they were well-attended and they were free-flow Q&A periods. They mostly worked on problems and when they got stuck, they asked for help. If enough people started asking about the same problem I'd do it on the board. For all that the engineers sometimes get a bad rap, they study very well together as they do not see success as a zero-sum game. Many pre-med students did see others' success as their loss and working with them was harder.

I teach in a Canadian b-school and have been using Doodle for two years to coordinate office hours. Students are happy, I'm happy, all is well. Some students are disappointed that I do not have open office hours 5 days a week, but when I gently explain that our university is a research & teaching institution, they get it (I think).

I believe office hour attendance has increased since I started using Doodle, but I cannot prove it! My experience has been that students are unhappy with traditional, fixed office hours, and on the other hand, faculty like me don't have the time to manage appointments by email on an ad hoc basis. When you teach 400 students, there is way too much email going around...

Jack - interesting. I'm with you on appointments by email - even though I have far fewer students than you do, I just can't cope with them.

Chris J - "they were at work" - when was this? My sense is that there's been a decline over the past 20 years in the amount of time faculty spend on campus, for a whole load of reasons - internet, electronic journals, changing family structures (people with spouses and young children at home seems to be more likely to come onto campus!), increased publication pressures in many schools - so there's less of a dropping by culture.

Bill - no drums! Haven't tried cookies in office hours, but last year instead of bringing the usual box-of-chocolate-at-Christmas into the admin office I brought boxes of clementines. Now those go over well.

KV, Patrick, "I ended-up being made to feel like I was such a hopeless idiot" Some people are genuinely unhelpful, many others lack social skills (I did a post a while ago on autistic economists), or don't know how to help. E.g. if someone comes to my office and is struggling with how to plot an equation, how to read a graph and interpret it, I really don't have much to offer them.

I would have been a big fan of scheduling. Like others have said, one reason for having an aversion to office hours is the fear of feeling like you're a hopeless idiot. Now I for one can handle that kind interaction...one on one. Add in a room full of my peers...forget it! For me, the appeal of scheduled time is knowing that I'll get to ask my naive questions in private without making myself to look like a fool in front of a crowd. I also hope it forces students to prepare a little and come with better questions.

I've had profs offer office hours by appointment, but never office hours by Doodle. I have never taken advantage, and I've rarely taken advantage of scheduled hours, either. I could see that Doodle would make a difference in my behaviour, though.

- I have an overactive sense of disturbing people (or maybe I'm just more conscientious than most?), and would feel guilty emailing or dropping by, as I'd feel like I was disturbing the prof. I am more likely to make an appointment with an impersonal computer scheduling system, and once an appointment is made my guilt would require that I attend. And if I'd managed to answer my own question in the meantime, I'd come up with a new one.
- In general "by appointment," whether by email or doodle, offers more flexibility, and so it's more likely there will be a slot that works for me. Many prof's scheduled hours have been at times when I have conflicts.

@Chris J - "except the hour before class" surprises me, as I've often had profs specifically schedule office hours for the hour before class, since that's when they'll be on campus and in their offices.

I wonder if lab-based academics behave differently from book-based academics, since the lab would require more time on campus, but that on-campus would be less likely to be in the office.

When I was a graduate student I scheduled my office hours for 9am Friday morning. Not coincidentally, Thursday nights were pub nights on campus. I had a lot of free time to work on my own stuff.

Frances: when we were in our proper building, most of us were there almost all of the time. Now, a lot of people work from home. Because open plan offices are terrible. It's still less terrible than trying to work from home for me, so I come in to the office. And, I like my colleagues!

I'm really interested by the number of "I'm worried the prof will think I'm stupid" comments. From the prof's side, this seems such a crazy worry - 90% of problems are ones I've seen dozens or hundreds of times before: "Yes, this supply curve is horizontal, I know they were never drawn that way in Econ 1000, but that's o.k., in a small open economy real world supply curves often look like that." Odds are - despite being a unique and wonderful person - a given student is going to have the same questions and concerns as last years' students, and the ones before, and the ones before.... (This is worth a separate blog post.)

Eric, sorry to hear about your working conditions - if I ever get down to NZ perhaps I can get a tour?

Frances, in my experience as a TA a lot of undergrads questions ARE stupid. But this does not mean that they are bad!

It is good that they ask them, but often with a little bit of prodding in the right direction it becomes clear that the student did already know the answer, but just hadn't thought through the problem yet.

And I think that this is the key to making the students not FEEL like they are stupid - if you can lead them along to reach the correct conclusion via their own mental steam power then they feel simultaneously like the learnt something yet were clever enough to work it out on their own.

Also probably it's the more direct contact you're making with them - students feel more as if going to extra sessions with you is something they ought to be doing as part of course participation, once you send them a personal reminder. Kind of like how SMS (and even Facebook) has been so effective in organizing political turnout...

Frances: It is my experience that physics profs are in their offices or labs working. There is work done at home in the evening but it tends to be writing work (proposals, grant applications, papers). Experimental apparatus needs to get built. As for theorists - they do work too. I was lucky to visit the Perimeter Institute and the offices are full (after 10AM) the coffee spaces are full, the chalkboards in the public spaces are full of scribbles made in discussions.

Neil: class prep can go on indefinitely; you can always make it better. Doing the prep immediately before lecture has two plusses: you limit the amount of time spent on it and the tricky bits are in your head as you walk into class.

Of course, what would make this a real experiemnt, rather than an accidental one, is to run several iterations of it, possibly using alternative methods of dealing with office hours for different classes (or in different semesters). It is, after all, perhaps most likely that you just had a non-random set of students this time around.

The professor across the hall from me puts up a sheet on his door at the beginning of each week with 15 min. slots during his office hours. Students come by and sign up. He often has more students using his office hours than I do. I just state that I'll be there for specific times. We frequently teach the same courses.

Ross - interesting, sounds like confirmatory evidence (and begs the question - why do you prefer not to have a sign-up sheet?). The advantage of doodle for me is that if the spots aren't filled I can come into the office a little later or plan to leave earlier.

Donald, I think in future I might do a mix of drop in and sign up office hours. There's probably better ways of organizing the sign up office hours too i.e. get people to sign up as a group for particular questions e.g. question #4 of the homework assignment.

Try making yourself available on an instant messaging service during scheduled office times (or, for that matter, out of regular office times). Reduces the effort of communicating with you to close to zero.

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