If you’ve ever attended a college or university, you’re probably familiar with the concept of office hours: scheduled time outside of class where a student can meet with their professor to discuss course-related material. The student can seek help or clarification, discuss areas of study, career goals, graduate school prospects, or a whole host of related interests. So why don’t students actually take advantage of office hours?
According to TeachingProfessor.com, a survey of more than 600 students reported that 66% had never attended office hours. Parentology spoke with Aaron Caplan, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, to understand students’ hesitation to get face time with their college instructors.
Understanding What “Office Hours” Are
“I tell my students at the outset it’s mandatory to schedule at least one meeting with me during the term,” Caplan says. “It’s an opportunity for them to get to know me, and vice versa.”
Mehran Ebadolahi, Founder and CEO of TestMax.com agrees. “Office hours allow students to put themselves in a position to be more successful academically. It’s important to foster those personal relationships from the very beginning, so if you come back for, say a letter of recommendation, you get one that’s high quality because the professor already knows you.”
However, if the concept of office hours hasn’t been explained to students, there’s sure to be uncertainty around expectations. According to the National Public Radio (NPR), office hours constitute a “hidden curriculum” — a set of unspoken rules about campus life. Students often don’t know what they are or what they’re for.
Many colleges are now examining gaps in accessibility and the perception of office hours to accommodate students. Some have renamed them “Student Hours” to reduce intimidation, while others have moved meetings to less formal environments such as a library. These are small, but important, steps that help reduce the stress associated with speaking to an authority figure.
The Fear Factor
When meeting with professors, students are expected to drive the conversation, which can be intimidating for those uncomfortable speaking to people in leadership roles. “No one wants to feel stupid,” Caplan says. “If a student is struggling, there’s a fear of admitting to ‘failure’, when really it should be viewed as an opportunity for clarification and ultimately, academic success.”
Caplan tries to mix benign topics into the conversation to put his students at ease. “I’ll ask them what their hobbies are, what kind of law they’re interested in pursuing, etcetera,” he says. “I’m giving them practice in how to interact comfortably with authority figures, which is something they’ll need to do to have successful job interviews.”
Ebadolahi’s test prep site is starting to address the struggle many students confront when trying to get face time with their professors. “There are 23,000 undergrads at UCLA, it’s easy to get lost. You’re a needle in a haystack,” he says. TestMax is starting to roll out virtual ‘office hours’ to paying students, hosted on a weekly basis so that any student can attend, regardless of schedule. “We currently have a Q&A we open to the public, but this new concept will be leveraged for paid students.”
Conversely, many students may have been discouraged from seeking an audience with their professor. “I’ve had students tell me that when they were undergrads, they weren’t ‘allowed’ to talk directly to their professors, or had to mediate through a teacher’s assistant (TA),” Caplan says. “Our school has a much more ‘open-door’ policy, but some students believe not having access to their professor is just how it’s supposed to be.”
In the long term, fear of meeting with an instructor could have negative career implications. “As lawyers, my students will be talking to authority figures all the time,” Caplan says. “There will be a judge they have to address, or a client they’ll be reporting to. If you can’t do that, you won’t be a good lawyer, it’s that simple.”
Ebadolahi agrees. He’s now seeing the questions flood in from students as the college application process begins.
“’Who am I supposed to ask for a letter?’ ‘How do I get a good recommendation?’ What can we say after the fact? These are relationships they should have been building at the outset,” Ebadolahi says.
The Technology Gap
“Our interactions with people are heavily mediated by technology,” Caplan says. “Young people today rely so heavily on text and instant messaging, they feel adrift when asked to interface with a professor.” He says students often prefer digital communication to dialogue, a path that will pose serious career limitations once they’re out of school.
“After graduation, you’re going to have to interact and collaborate with actual people,” Caplan emphasizes. “Managing face-to-face situations that make you uncomfortable is part of professional life.”
The opportunity to meet with a professor outside of the lecture hall provides a window to success not only as a student, but as a future professional. Rather than thinking of office hours as an obstacle to overcome, Caplan encourages students to think of the meeting as an opportunity.
“Your professor has access to networks and resources that could benefit you during your academic career,” Caplan says. “You’re paying to go to college, so you might as well leverage as many assets as you can.”