Margot Besnard: Making the most of office hours

Updated: Feb. 17, 2015 at 1:14 p.m.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and John Sides is working at the computer in his office. The door is open. His regularly scheduled office hours started an hour ago. If a student drops by, he’ll close the email he’s typing, invite him or her to sit down, and ask how he can help.

Sides is exactly the kind of person GW prides itself on calling an associate professor. He’s highly accomplished in his field – the author of influential academic papers and co-founder of The Monkey Cage, a political science blog now on the Washington Post’s website. This semester, he’s teaching American politics to a class of 180 students and public opinion to a class of 40.

Political science is one of the most popular majors at GW, but often, afternoons like these pass with few or none of his 220 students stopping by Monroe Hall to ask questions.

“I think the vast majority of students don’t come,” Sides told me. “Of course, it picks up when assignments are due – but yeah, it’s not busy.”

This is the sad reality at GW, especially – as I’ve seen in my own classes – in the social sciences and humanities: Every semester, most students don’t go to their professors’ office hours.

Media Credit: Cartoon by Juliana Kogan

With recent investments in areas like career services and, just last week, mental health, it’s clear that GW is working toward making students feel more supported. As we boost services, we also need to reflect on how to improve systems and practices that already exist but that may be underutilized. We should start with office hours.

When we make the decision to learn or teach at a university like GW, our ability to communicate in person is the single greatest advantage we have over non-traditional forms of education.

Most professors, like Sides, try to seem approachable and talk about their office hours at the beginning of the semester. Students should be more proactive about attending, and it may be time for professors to try new approaches to encouraging in-person interactions.

A 2012 IDEA report suggested ways faculty could make office hours useful, like requiring students to make a brief visit early in the semester, asking them to come in pairs or small groups, and meeting in alternate locations like coffee shops or the library. Even a change as simple as more frequent reminders could make a difference.

Between teaching, grading and conducting research, professors are responsible for much more than meeting with students outside of class. But conversations with students during office hours throughout the semester have the potential to make professors’ jobs easier if they get a sense of what to emphasize before exam time.

Professors who are not already interacting regularly with students outside of the classroom should try holding themselves accountable to specific, time-sensitive goals for how many students to see each week. If they repeatedly fall short of their goals, they know something needs to change.

A good starting point might be to ask colleagues what strategies they find effective.

“When I first got here, I held my office hours in my office and I almost never saw students,” associate professor Brad Marshall, the director of the French language program, told me. Now, Marshall holds his office hours in the classroom before and after most sessions and encourages faculty in his program to do the same.

As students, we know going to office hours can help us better understand a subject, and we shouldn’t forget that professors value it, too.

“For me, you get a sense of who they are as people,” Sides told me. “Frequently, you like them. They’re pleasant, they’re charming, they’re interesting, and it just makes it a more rewarding experience to be teaching them.”

“I’ve also had the experience when students have come to me to explain challenges or difficulties they’re having in their life,” Sides added. “And that, to me, is a very helpful thing because it helps me be able to work with this student who might otherwise really struggle.”

Connections between students and faculty play a crucial role in our success and present an opportunity for growth. If stressed-out students meet with professors one-on-one, faculty can help connect them to academic resources or health services.

“The community itself would be stronger if more people [were] having more interactions,” Sides said. “And that includes student-faculty interactions.”

The top two frequently asked questions on the Division of Student Affairs page are “How do I withdraw from classes this semester?” and “How do I withdraw if I have a medical or mental health problem?”

Students who do not feel connected to GW, students who are struggling to keep up with classes, students who feel intimidated – those are the people who would benefit most from meeting with their professors. But from my experience in classes, I know they usually are the least likely to do so.

When it comes to student success, education experts agree on the value of in-person interactions with faculty: It can improve a student’s sense of belonging and confidence. If both students and faculty accept poor attendance at office hours as the norm, we let encounters that would strengthen our experiences slip away.

Last spring, I was one of the many students in American politics who never went to Sides’ office hours. I was interested in the topic and found the assignments engaging, but I didn’t think my questions seemed important enough to warrant a one-on-one conversation.

“He’s probably busy,” I thought. “I wouldn’t know what to say. It might be awkward. Maybe I’ll go to office hours if I have questions before the midterm. Well, I think I’ll just email the teaching assistant.” I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

But if we’re taking four or five classes each semester and feel no desire to engage in the material by talking to a professor, we need to ask ourselves why we’re here. Every class we take without interacting with a professor is one we could have completed online at a fraction of the cost.

GW is growing – look at the new academic and residential buildings on campus and read about the recent investments in student services. As we invest and build, we also need to find ways to improve outcomes with the resources we already have. If students and faculty are proactive, we can strengthen connections without constructing another building. The voices coming from the professor’s office down the hall sound a little more pleasant than the jackhammer drilling on H Street, but both are sounds of progress.

Margot Besnard, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported Brad Marshall’s title. The associate professor is the director of GW’s french language program, not the “French program.” The Hatchet also incorrectly referred to the French language program as a department. It is actually a part of the department of Romance, German and Slavic languages and literatures. We regret these errors.

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