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I find that a not-so-insignificant number of my students could benefit from coming to talk with me during office hours about homework assignments, their exam preparations, etc., and I'm looking for ways to encourage them to do so. I am a big proponent of students being proactive, and figuring out on their own that they need to seek out help, but I am not seeing enough progress on this front and am, thus, looking for alternatives.

One of the main problems I am observing is that, on homework solutions, some students clearly don't know what they are doing, and coming to talk to me about how to proceed could potentially be very beneficial for them.

Since good students already utilize office hours, when needed, what are some effective ways of getting the relatively weaker students to attend office hours?


One idea I am toying with at the moment is to make office hour interactions with me grade-able, and worth a certain percentage of the grade. As an example, consider the following:

Say a homework is assigned, student W is the "weaker" student, student S is the "stronger" student, the homework is worth 10 points, and the "interaction-with-me" component is worth some amount of points, say, 10.

Student S turns in a solution, which is correct/mostly correct [say, 85% or more correct]. In this case, student S would receive anywhere from 8.5 to 10 points on the homework grade and, since their score on the homework is greater than or equal to some threshold, say, 85%, they also score 10 points on the interaction component, whether or not they utilized office hours.

Now, consider student W: If student W utilizes office hours, and it seems like they are really trying to understand how to tackle the homework assignment, then this student would receive 10 points for the interaction component [student W's homework score, though, would reflect their performance on the homework]; else if student W does not utilize office hours, and they scored below some threshold on the homework [again, say, 85%], student W would then receive whatever they earned on the homework and zero points for the interaction component.

The above is just one idea I have at the moment. One thing I don't like about it is that it increases the documentation burden on my end. One possible solution to that would be to require students to document their office hour interactions with me on their solutions such that it would be a relatively quick check for me at grading time.

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    I was a good student, but only saw one of my tutors outside class on one occasion, and was ashamed that I'd had to do so. I saw it as cheating and a de-facto failure on the assignment I was asking about, even though I ended up with a great grade. Is it possible that your students don't realise that seeking your help is not cheating and that their peers who perform well are already doing so? Perhaps you could give examples in class of the type of thing you have helped other students with? – Significance May 31 '16 at 4:45
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    As a student, who normally performs well, I don't see it as cheating per-say, but rather an embarrassment. It is admitting failure on my part to do something (whatever that may be) to bring myself up to the level the course expects. I think many students don't feel any given course is literally too challenging for them, but rather they simply haven't put their best effort into the course. Going to office hours not only subjects one to the same lecture again, but also admits they may not being paying attention in class. It also opens the door for more undesired professor "attention" in class. – SnakeDoc May 31 '16 at 16:44
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    In addition, going to office hours may expose more shortcomings in the student's understanding of the course, which may make them feel worse off than before. The student may have barely coasted by on their own, but now they feel the added pressure of feeling like a fake, in the eyes of the professor. Or, the student may deliberately be blowing off assignments, and on paper appear to the Professor as-if they have little understanding of the course. Most students, in my experience, don't want to stand out in any way, but would rather just remain a last name and student id number on a grade sheet – SnakeDoc May 31 '16 at 16:50
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    In my uni lectures are optional, and are attended very little (I attend all the time except when ill, or if lecture is early in the morning 8:00am). For me lecture is the most important part of study because I try to communicate with lecturer "on the fly", or If my question is complicated I write it down and ask immediately after lecture, and that's when I also ask questions about assignments (written down before lecture). I've never had need to see lecturer in his/her office. – Kyslik May 31 '16 at 20:42
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    The idea of grading office-hour-time sounds horrible. First, it can only lead to an unhelpful guessing game on the part of the students. How can a student know whether or not they understand the material before their work is marked? Surely the point of the assignment is to test their understanding. If they do badly, then they should come to see you, but this can only happen after they know their score. Second, and in conjunction with the above, the idea fails to account for the needs of students who suffer from, e.g., anxiety or autism, and struggle with social interaction. – Will R Jun 1 '16 at 17:40
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I have found personal (email) invitations to be very effective at getting certain students to come to office hours. (After attending once by personal invitation, they seem to be much more likely to come again without an invitation.)

The emails typically look something like this:

Hi Jane,

I noticed that some students, including you, had trouble with the theoretical basket weaving questions on Homework 3. I would be happy to review this topic with you during my office hours this Monday, 3-6PM in room 901. If you have class or other obligations during that time, you can email me to set up an appointment at another time.

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    Good idea, thanks. I admit that something like what you suggest seems preferable to the idea I am toying with since your's doesn't involve the willy-nilly giving away of points. – Mad Jack May 31 '16 at 4:18
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    It rely needs to be personal though. I had a lecturer that I hated, and couldn't be asked to even attend his lectures let alone go to his office hours. He sent out an email asking me to visit him to discuss my poor attendance. There were ever so slight hints that it was a mass email so I didn't go as it wasn't targeted to me specifically, thus I remained unnoticed. – Иво Недев May 31 '16 at 8:48
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    I'd be careful about this. Students - especially students who have jobs - may already have a full schedule. Yes, you'd offer to reschedule. But given the power imbalance between a professor and a student, such an invitation can easily suggest that attendence is somewhere between strongly encouraged and mandatory, and this would put additional pressure on students. Not good. – Stephan Kolassa May 31 '16 at 9:18
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    @Kyslik A lot of students have to work to support themselves through uni. If they're working in order to afford essentials like food and board, it's hardly fair to tell them to drop out... – sapi May 31 '16 at 11:20
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    @Kyslik "uni is free" ...Wow, I think I might have figured out why a lot of us have differing opinions than yours on working during college. – rw-nandemo May 31 '16 at 19:58
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In Comp. 2, our first graded assignment was rough. (Spelling errors counted as significant grammatical errors so I flunked it.) Prof. told everyone who got an F to schedule time to see him.

I did and it was quite helpful. He explained his grading rules, his view on what he wanted, and so on. He pointed out that people like me really need to spell check and use any tools that help. The biggest benefit of that meeting was that we got to a comfortable place to discuss the course material which made in-class discussons actually work.

I suggest something along those lines, then: just tell those below a threshold to come see you.

You might even consider asking the strong students to come by and explain where they are struggling and what kind of backgrounds they have on the topic. In that case, you should just ask every student to come and note their responses. You might discover useful patterns.

Another thing to consider is how to get the strong to help the weak.

In-class discussions or group study can help. That depends on material a bit. In the comp class, prof. had us edit select errors from our submissions as a group and discuss alternatives. An engineering prof. once told us he expected us to work our homework in groups so we should form teams. I normally flew solo, even in classes where hardly anyone did so, but I found a partner immediately after that class session.

Don't underestimate the power of declaring your preferences/expectations.

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Sometimes students are intimidated at the idea of going to a teacher during office hours. I think we have all been "cross-examined" during such an experience even though we know it was beneficial.

Instead of inviting them one-on-one perhaps requiring them to come in pairs or small groups would be helpful. This saves a lot of your own time as you work with several students at once. In addition, it removes some of the discomfort of having to go alone to the instructor's office for the students.

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    One thing you failed to mention is also the practical benefit for students coming in smaller groups: I would often come to office hours with other students and it would quite often happen that there's a thing which is unclear for all members of the group, but only one member actually figured out that it is unclear and asked about that. Afterwards all members would benefit from the explanation and quite often engage in discussion about the unclear thing. – AndrejaKo May 31 '16 at 8:04
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It might not apply to you, but here's my 2 cents.

One reason I rarely come to a teacher's office is that I take too long to figure out that I'm sinking - and coming in the day before it's all due resulted in a "You should've started earlier" lecture, which was not the least bit helpful. Like I don't know what I should have done, I'm asking what's now that's in my control...

The embarrassment tends to outweigh any help I might receive. I never mind the cross-examination regarding my knowledge, but cringe at the mere mention of "Why didn't you [do it earlier, come to me before, ask in class, etc...]?" and "Didn't you listen to the lecture?" (I might've missed one sentence out of the thousand you've spoke, which, alas, turned out to be the key one - or I might've missed the sentence in question because I was late. I can't tell what I've missed if I've missed it!)

So, if you find yourself asking one of the above "Why?!" questions in sheer exasperation ("Why do you do something so silly?" is the general gist of things), please don't. Unless it looks like the answer is along the lines "my life is hell and I think of running away from home", of course. However, if you're certain you'd just get a shrug of similar exasperation ("As if I know!"), I'd recommend ditching moralisations and "should have"s and focussing on the assignments themselves. That won't help with people coming the first time, but it is likely to improve repeat visits. Students are timid creatures and might take failure over "making a fool of themselves".

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    Thanks, and I do appreciate the answers/comments from everyone here, including from the student point-of-view. – Mad Jack Jun 1 '16 at 3:02
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I agree with the two top answers: invitations, of one sort or another, are the most effective way. However I've noticed a large variation in how many students come to office hours by course, by instructor and by school, and I suspect what techniques are effective will depend on your situation, so it's probably good to experiment with different things.

Here are a couple of other ideas, not exactly covered in other answers:

  • Most obvious: try to make your office hours convenient for as many students as possible, based on their schedules and when assignments are due. This may involve scheduling more office hours, having office hours Sunday nights, or having office hours in a different building from your office.

  • One thing I have done for some classes, has been somewhat effective, is to try to make office hours like a study room (which may be a different room from your office, or organize a study room close to your office). Let them know they can come and work on problems there, solo or with each other. Then, since you'll right there or nearby when they're working, they'll be able to ask questions right then (similar to group work in class). A lot of students don't realize they'll need help, don't start the homework early enough, and don't want to come without a question in hand. This also alleviates some intimidation they may feel about coming to OH.

  • Something a colleague has done, and found somewhat helpful (I have not tried it myself): make all students visit you in your office within say the first two weeks (scheduled appointments, just for a few minutes, which can be in small groups), to help encourage the habit of getting students to see you in your office. I do think building a habit and a culture is important. Many students don't even know where their professors' offices are, so at the least, they learn where your office is, and increases the chances they will drop by if they have a last minute question, say.

  • Make reminders about OH in class, with sincere encouragements to come try it out.

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I will try to put forward a heretical suggestion. Why would you want to?

Having TA'd a number of math courses in the US and obviously had many office hours I've learned one thing. If a person doesn't want to spend time and effort on learning the material no amount of forcing them to do so will help.

In general you have two types of weak students. The ones that have really bad foundations and the ones who aren't willing to put in the effort. These might overlap but essentially if the student can't be bothered to show up to your office hours without being penalized/rewarded in some way then chances are they will just end up wasting both their and your time.

Worse yet they will end up wasting the time of the students that showed up for the office hours and are actually trying to learn something!

In summary hold office hours. Announce it in class at the beginning of the semester and make sure to point out these are both for catching up on what the students want to learn and for learning things beyond the curriculum (this has the effect of both getting the good students in so they can learn more and mitigating any possible feelings of "If I go to office hours it will look like I'm a loser who can't learn it on their own") and leave it at that. Don't waste anyone's time by forcing them to do something they don't want to.

  • Don't waste anyone's time by forcing them to do something they don't want to. — Good point, thanks. – Mad Jack Jun 3 '16 at 2:37
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The purpose of office hours are to help struggling students and to see everyone get the most out of the class. In my experience, when a student is struggling they do one of two things. They either give up entirely, or they fight for any point they can to pass the class. To help them aim for the latter, I would offer just a few points of extra credit. I know not everyone feels the same way I do about extra credit, but it can be a great incentive to help those who struggle. On top of that, you will get the students that aim for %100 to come and visit with you because they want every point possible.

  • I've experimented some with extra credit, and I think it has made some difference for going to a help center, but not too much difference for coming to my office. Do you have any evidence of how effective this was for you? – Kimball Jun 1 '16 at 18:44
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how about you announce a policy where, if a student receives below a 70% on an assignment, they are required to attend your office hours. When they attend the office hours, they receive 50% of the missed points (for example, raising a 70 to an 85). To me this is an effective solution because students are able to understand what they missed about the assignment as well as raising their grade on the assignment which will help them to stay motivated and increase engagement in the class.

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    Office hours should rarely (if ever) be "required." – J.R. May 31 '16 at 15:31
  • Maybe then, remove the 'stick' (of requirements) and only offering the carrot of allowing 50% of missed points if a student attends office hours? – J. Roibal - BlockchainEng May 31 '16 at 15:43
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    A colleague at another institution attempted something similar, by requiring students to come to office hours, regardless of whether they needed to or not. I don't think it worked out too well. – Mad Jack May 31 '16 at 17:33

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