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I generally don't have a lot of business in my dedicated office hours, but then sometimes I get a needy student who wants to use all of them -- every minute, of every day, in which I hold them. It gets physically tiring for me, and emotionally draining that they apparently have no capacity or confidence to follow along in class, read the book, or make connections on their own.

Granted that we have, say, 3 hours of office time per week (required at my institution), is it acceptable to set per-student limits on usage of that time, such as: 20 minutes per student per day?

Additionally, is it advisable to be forthright and tell the student that their behavior is unusual/a bad sign/an abuse of the office hours; that is, that they should be mostly responsible for the material on their own? (Often this same type of student will praise themselves aloud for being so proactive/smart with the office hours when others aren't using them.)

This is in the U.S., and I'm at a large urban community college. Assume that most of the time no other students are showing up to the office hour.

(This was mentioned in this question and comments therein; I'd like to see a canonical answer on just this aspect of the situation.)

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    I'm guessing this is that other thread you're mentioning, though my "related" sidebar suggests several others that might be relevant. Nov 27, 2016 at 7:59
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    @zibadawatimmy I really like the comments you wrote for that answer. I think you should rewrite it to answer this question. To the OP, I have the same opinion that you are supposed to teach the whole class, not just that student. However, I think you should not impose the time limit. Off-topic-ness (like we do here) may be a better way. For example, if the student becomes abusive, just tell him/her that it is off-topic or out of bound and then tell the student to stop. (I do hope that you do have the authority to do so.)
    – Nobody
    Nov 27, 2016 at 8:19
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    Is it truly a need of the student? I had some classmates at University that just feigned interest to had a free pass in some classes. Nov 27, 2016 at 8:28
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    What are you actually doing with the student during that time? If it's tiring for you, it also might not be the most helpful sort of activity for the student. (E.g. if you're explaining things and doing all the talking, maybe the student is not actually comprehending or having a chance to think about it for themselves.) You could start telling them "I think it would be most helpful for you to go now and read this / work that problem / etc. Come back in half an hour and we can discuss it some more." Nov 27, 2016 at 11:39
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    @massimoortolano generally (or at least everywhere I've been) in the US, we're required to have 2-4 hours scheduled each week (required number may vary) Nov 27, 2016 at 12:31

3 Answers 3

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I will argue that setting limits for a particular student is acceptable and in some cases necessary. It really is an abuse of office hours if one student is taking up all of them, every day. Let's say that proper usage is around 10-15 min for a particular question or issue. For a particularly weak student like this I may assert, "Let's say we have 20 minutes for this." Require that she ask about a particular homework exercise that she can show prior work for. Do not just regurgitate the lecture wholesale.

By default, students should be able to master the material via lectures, study, and homework, without constant additional hand-holding by the instructor. Part of the unfairness here arises from the fact that the student is effectively getting double face-time with the instructor, relative to other students; so the one student's success does not really represent the same level of proficiency as shown by other students. Some other students may possibly take note of this, and either avoid office-hours interactions (which would be more fruitful) because of the always-present student, or silently resent the double-attention.

If the instructor (like me) is becoming physically and emotionally drained by these constant interactions, then we should learn to be sensitive to that, and take that as a signal that some change or boundary needs to get set, lest we become burned out. There is, in addition, a possibility that the student thinks they are socially flattering or flirting with the professor for a better grade. It's probably a good idea to document these interactions, in case the needy student (or anyone else) is prone to complain later about their grade or some other matter.

Under the "honesty is the best policy" principle, it's probably good in theory to have a frank discussion of expectations for the course with the student around the second or third time this happens. (But: I don't think I've successfully executed that to date.)

The real tough case for me is a student who officially meets all the prerequisites to the course and points to the first day's lecture notes and says something like, "I have no idea what any of these words mean." Perhaps they got through all their prior courses in a state of acclimation to exactly this level of double-hand-holding.

(This answer largely restates my answer and comments on that issue from this question. Thanks to the commentators there for refining my thinking on the issue, and thanks to @scaaahu for suggesting I write them up as an answer here.)

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    I'm loathe to pick my own as the accepted answer, but it's a year later and it has the highest upvote, so here we go. Nov 12, 2017 at 3:44
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The issue here is not what proportion of the published office hours are being used by one individual, it's that "they apparently have no capacity or confidence to follow along in class, read the book, or make connections on their own."

You are this student's teacher. That gives you a special responsibility, not only to help the student master the material in your course, but also to assist in, and insist on, an improvement of his or her study skills. You are not obligated, however, to be his or her personal homework tutor.

Do not hesitate to make your expectations for independent work clear; of course, you should also be realistic, and start wherever the student currently is, in terms of study skills and ability to work independently.

Example:

Mr./Ms. X, I'm going to circle three things from the notes I made during our study session today, that I want you to follow up on, on your own. Let's review those now to make sure they're clear to you. Explain the three things to me now. (E.g. look up Topic A in the index, take notes on what the text has to say on that topic; go over the section of the textbook that was assigned in class this morning, and write an outline of that material, and highlight the parts that you were already familiar with, if any; in advance of our next class section, write down three things you want to get out of the lecture, and then highlight any parts of your class notes that address any of those three things. I just made this up, your assignment could be completely different, of course.)

You may at this point politely and cheerfully show your student the door, even if it's only been a five-minute conversation. Example:

Okay, that should get you unstuck. I look forward to seeing your progress with this assignment! I am going down the hall to do some xeroxing. May I give you a hand with your bookbag?

It is your job to make sure that you are bringing your student up, and that your student is not bringing you down.

Additional note: find out what homework help labs exist and make sure your student knows about them.

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Granted that we have, say, 3 hours of office time per week (required at my institution), is it acceptable to set per-student limits on usage of that time, such as: 20 minutes per student per day?

In order to evaluate this situation, I think it is worth starting with the "Devil's advocate" argument for why it might be okay for one student to take up all the time. One could reasonably make the argument that, so long as there are no other students waiting, the allocated consultation hours might as well be available to the one student who wants to use them. (Obviously if other students are being crowded out then an equity issue arises, and in this case it is reasonable to limit student time so that everyone gets some consultation time.) If the university requires a given number of hours to be made available for consultation then it is an institutional requirement for these to be available to students. While this may be tiring for the lecturer, if that is a job requirement, it is arguably a situation where the tiredness of the lecturer is irrelevant. Refusing to allow consultation in those hours to the only student who wants to be there is arguably a breach of the university's requirements for consultation time. Finally, the argument that there is an "equity" issue involved when only one student seeks to make use of an offered resource is weak --- if no-one else wants to use that resource then there is no inequity in him using the whole thing.

I think the above is roughly what would be a good argument in favour of the student here. But notice that even under this view, this does not mean that the student should have carte blanche to have the lecturer give them anything they want within the consultation hours. Consultation hours certainly should not be used to redeliver lectures and tutorials for a student who has not absorbed those sessions. It is reasonable to impose some structure on the consultation sessions and some requirements on student effort in order to ensure that those sessions actually advance the goal of student learning (as opposed to creating a perverse incentive for lack of effort in lectures and tutorials). The suggestion to confine consultation to help with problems on which the student can show a preliminary attempt/effort is perfectly reasonable, and it ensures that there is some focus to the session. It is also reasonable if the lecturer responds to these cases by giving further hints or suggestions for the student to go away and re-attempt the problem, rather than giving a long and detailed solution. (The latter may be required after several attempts, but it need not be a first response.) For more general inquiries about concepts, etc., one could again require preliminary student effort by having the student gread the relevant material and give their own explanation of the concept in order to get your feedback; you can then point out flaws in their reasoning and have them re-read the relevant material and come back to get more feedback later.

Even if one accepts the above argument that a student may legitimately use all the consultation hours, one can easily turn this stamina-competition around on the student --- this merely requires that the structure of the consultation assistance requires preliminary student work and the feedback on the work is quicker than the preliminary work required to gain that feedback. For example, if each preliminary attempt at a homework problem takes 10 minutes, and the lecturer feedback giving hints/suggestions on the problem then takes 2 minutes, then the student will need to spend five times as much time working as the lecturer. In this case the student will be the one who has to spend large amounts of time working and getting physically tired, and this is likely to yield a natural limitation to the monopolisation of consultation time.

Additionally, is it advisable to be forthright and tell the student that their behavior is unusual/a bad sign/an abuse of the office hours; that is, that they should be mostly responsible for the material on their own?

Monopolisation of consultation time is arguably not an abuse at all, so I wouldn't suggest taking this line. Similarly, telling the student they are mostly responsible for learning on their own ---when you are actually supposed to be offering consulation in this time--- is arguably contradicatory to the university's consultation requirements. However, use of excessive consultation time is often a warning sign of failure to learn the material properly in lectures and tutorials, and it is perfectly reasonable to be forthright about this.

If the student has no capacity to follow along in class, read the book, or make connections on their own (as you describe) then this is the core issue. If this is the case then it is reasonable to give the student feedback pointing out these deficiencies. In some cases it might be that a student lacks sufficient preliminary knowledge/skills for the course, in which case you could direct them to bridging courses and resources (e.g., study-skills center at the university, etc.). Alternatively, if they are close enough that the problem is fixable in the present session, then it might be worth "stepping back" to look at the meta-problem --- if they are not able to follow along without one-on-one consultation then perhaps the best use of consultation time is to try to assist them to develop this capacity, rather than spoon-feeding them with help on particular course problems.

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