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In the past I have included the following statement on my syllabus:

Office Hours: Mon 1-2pm, Weds 3-5pm, or by appointment

However, I am beginning to get too many requests for appointments. Appointments are really inefficient. They waste both of our time trying to schedule them, and with multiple appointments per week in addition to office hours, even holding them takes a lot of time away from research. How do you accommodate students who can't make your office hours without devoting too much time to this task?

I thought about setting up a class message board where they can ask each other and answer each other's questions - anonymously if they wish - (I can also answer questions on the message board) and put on the syllabus "All content related questions should be posed in class, on the message board or in office hours. I do not reply to questions about content via email. Please schedule an appointment to meet with me if you are having difficulty getting a question answered after trying the above options"

Some Background: I'm a graduate student lecturer. I teach 2 sections of calculus, so about 60 students. Since classes are small (~30), there are about 10 lecturers (some are faculty and some are grad students with masters degrees) and we all have office hours. Mine tend to be very crowded, about 5-10 students showing up (some from other sections). I tell my students to go to other instructor's office hours, but they say they aren't as helpful.

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    Don't you have teaching assistants? – Ben Bitdiddle Feb 13 '15 at 4:24
  • Along the lines of Patricia's answer, if there's a tendency for OH requests around a given time, or by a select group of students, possibly another well-placed OH will improve efficiency. – Kimball Feb 13 '15 at 10:21
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    Don't say "or by appointment". Students who really need your help will still try to schedule extra time, and students who don't won't. – David K Feb 13 '15 at 13:38
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    @BenBitdiddle I've added some background. My university has grad students actually teach their classes to reduce class sizes. So I am effectively both the TA and the lecturer. – WetlabStudent Feb 13 '15 at 23:21
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    When your schedule is full, say no. – JeffE Feb 13 '15 at 23:23
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What an interesting problem to have. When I saw the title, I thought, "This must be hypothetical, because this problem never, ever occurs." But I was wrong.

Anyway, I don't know how to deal with having too many students try to schedule office hours, because I have never had that problem, even when teaching 60 students.

I do, however, employ the message board tactic that you mentioned, which probably helps cut down on office hours (and dramatically reduces the number of emails I get). I suggest the free (and extremely slick) service Piazza. Students can collaboratively (wiki-style) answer each others' questions, and instructors can edit everything in sight, as well as create their own answers. When posting questions, students can also appear anonymous to their classmates, but not to the instructor, which eliminates any embarrassment they might feel.

tl;dr: Try Piazza.

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    +1 for recommending Piazza. This has definitely helped me, in part because it minimizes duplicate questions. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 13 '15 at 4:45
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    +1 for Piazza, too. I installed the iPhone app and turned on badge alerts, so I get notified when there is discussion; makes it super-easy to stay on top of things. – Blair MacIntyre Mar 6 '15 at 22:02
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I poll students at the beginning of the term. I pick 3-4 possible slots for office hours and then post a poll on Piazza (or your favorite course management system or by show of hands in class) for the preferred times.

This gives students a sense of input into the schedule, but also maximizes overlap of office hours and student availability.

Before I did this, I found many students might have conflicting classes (e.g., they take my class in chemistry, but take another class in the major or a math or physics class) at the same time as my arbitrarily-chosen hours.

Update:

Also, for setting up ad-hoc meetings, I use doodle.com which connects to my calendars and lets students suggest times that work for them and me. It will anonymize your schedule and just indicate "busy" blocks. Highly recommended.

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    The website doodle.com provides a useful resource for attempting this. – Jeff Feb 13 '15 at 18:53
  • Yes, good point. I use a "Meet Me" page to let students find appropriate times. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 13 '15 at 18:59
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I agree with the message board idea. This is in addition.

If you have a lot of students not able to make your office hours, there might be an issue such as conflicts with other courses they are taking.

Maybe begin any appointment scheduling with "Why can't you get to my Monday or Wednesday hours?". That encourages thinking of the appointment approach as an exception, and also collects potentially useful data. It may be possible that rescheduling the office hours to a popular time for appointments would improve the situation.

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I think adding more office hours based on student feedback is obvious.

However that does not seem to cut into the real issue that you are having, which is - Why do your students need so much help outside of class?

I am not sure what kind of system is available to you but you need to find a message board clone that students can ask their initial questions. It is highly likely that you may not have been explaining either the "homework" or the topic clearly and the students are confused a bit. With a message board something is asked once, answered, commented/viewed by many.

And I didn't mean the above to be a knock on your teaching style. We have all not explained something clearly and I have dealt with a barrage of phone calls from students when I did. When I switched to an online format (I have even used twitter) it was much easier to deal with.

The only other time I have had the issue of too many appointments was when the female students believed that I was on the market. I then started dressing shabby and talked about my wife more. If this is your real problem, good luck.

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    -1: this answer seems to assume a lot of information not provided in the question ... women hitting on a professor? (women being nice can often be interpreted as flirting by males when it actually isn't, assuming they want you is presumptuous at best). Also at my school, bad teaching leads to the opposite problem as students will simply go to someone else for help. When you go to conferences is it the great talks that generate more questions or the incomprehensible ones. I'm not so sure why you think undergrads are any different. Good lectures stimulate interest in the students. – WetlabStudent Feb 13 '15 at 23:24
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    @WetLabStudent re: your parenthetical. See Abbey, A. (1982) Sex differences in attributions for friendly behavior: Do males misperceive females' friendliness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 42(5), May 1982, 830-838 tl;dr: The answer is "yes". – Corvus Feb 13 '15 at 23:45
  • @WetLabStudent - I just mentioned that as a possibility. I didn't infer anything at all. I could be wrong but you never know if they are wanting help or social interaction. – blankip Feb 14 '15 at 0:09
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Give them a strict time limit (e.g. 15 minutes or 10 minutes). Let them know that they must be well-prepared with their questions during the appointment. If it's a highly productive 15 minutes, I don't think you will mind too much either.

Also, feel free to say no, especially to those who keep asking for appointments.

You are probably not contractually obliged to have all these additional appointments. And if you are like most grad students, you are paid pretty poorly and so there is certainly no moral obligation either.

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