April 14, 2016

Office Hours: A Hidden Learning Experience

by Meryam Gharbi, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate 2018, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Picture from: https://pixabay.com/

It’s 4:00pm. You had clinic for 6 hours this morning and taught a 2-hour class in the afternoon. As you relax into your office chair, you grab your second cup of coffee and take a gulp as you check your calendar for the day. You see “meeting with Jill” scheduled for 4:15pm. You take a deep breath and eye the clock. You open Jill’s email that she sent the other day:

“Hi Professor, I would like your advice about how to deal with some issues in pharmacy school. I hope we can meet soon! Thank you! Jill”

Exhausted, you close the ambiguous email and wait for your student to enter your office.

Whether it is something you enjoy or not, if you are an educator, it is inevitable that one of your students will request a one-on-one appointment with you. The truth is, students run into road blocks from time to time, and naturally, you are the one they trust to help solve problems.1 Students initiate office hour visits for many reasons including to ask questions about course content, make up an assignment, seek advice, or simply to socialize.  Regardless of the reason, there are hidden learning opportunities in an office hour meeting – not just for the student, but also for the educator! 

Office hour visits can help enhancing problem-solving skills. Many times, students are entering your office because they need help solving a problem. Using your expertise and experience, you teach learners how to go about looking at a problem from a different perspective. The office provides a quiet and calm setting to slowly evaluate the problem and bounce ideas off of one another to solve it. Sometimes the problems students present can be quite unexpected and may challenge you as an educator to think outside of the box. Indeed, both the student and the educator learn from one another and enhance their problem-solving skills. The student can use what he/she has learned from the educator to apply to future situations, and the educator can use the experience to advise other students who may face similar issues.2

Jill frantically enters your office. “I am failing your class, Professor! I have studied for hours, I went to tutoring and I keep failing the tests.”

You think deeply. “Okay, Jill. Let’s think about why this is happening and ways to improve your performance.”

With that, you write down Jill’s troubles with learning the material and offer new ways she can study. As you consider Jill’s problem, you consider how to apply this to other students who may be struggling in your course.  You consider new strategies that might help all students.

Office hour appointments encourage metacognition. Metacognition is the process of thinking about what you are thinking. Talking over students’ problems related to academic performance or problems faced in their personal life should prompt them (and you) to think about thinking and evaluate how best to approach situations. By developing an awareness of their own thoughts, students become more successful during assessments and problem solving in real life situations. Having this conversation also encourages you as the educator to think about your own thinking. Understanding your own thoughts allows you to communicate your advice effectively and clearly to your students.3  Problem solving and metacognition go hand in hand. Without understanding how you think, it will be significantly more difficult to solve a problem.

“Have you thought about the way you study, Jill?”

Deep in thought, Jill analyzes the way she studies. “I guess I’m more of a visual learner. I understand things better when I read. However, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the recordings of your lectures. That’s what my classmates are doing and it seems to work for them.”

Office hours are an opportunity for students to Learn from Feedback. Office hours give you the opportunity to give personal feedback to your students that they can use to improve their performance in the future. But feedback during office hours is a two-way street. As an educator, you are learning what motivates your students, what they struggle with, and what they are confident about. It grants you the opportunity to get a glimpse of how well you are teaching your students, which will encourage you to constantly reevaluate yourself and improve.2

You smile at Jill and ask her “Please, be honest with me, is there a better way I can teach you this material?”

Jill smiles back and says, “maybe assigning more reading material could help me learn better.”

You nod, “Will do. You’re doing a great job by coming to me for help early. Come back whenever you are in trouble again, or just to say hello!”
Jill grins and thanks you profusely before stepping out of your office.

Although it can seem a nuisance, especially for a busy educator, office hours can be a rewarding experience! It not only allows you to get to know your students, but it also gives you the chance to teach them and learn from them too! Despite the potential benefits of meeting students one-on-one, a study found that only 76% of faculty actually keep their stated office hours.4

So next time a “Jill” visits your office, have an open mind and be ready to not only teach, but learn!

  1. Barry, E. Using office hours effectively [Internet]. APS Observer. 2008; 21(6): 37-40.
  2. Acitelli LK. Learning and teaching during office hours [Internet]. Ann Arbor, MI.: Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; 2000. [cited 2016 Apr 12].
  3. Tanner KD. Promoting Student Metacognition. Cell Biology Education. 2012; 11(2): 113-120.
  4. Pfund R, Rogan J, Burnham B, Norcross J. Is the Professor In? Faculty Presence during Office Hours. College Student Journal. 2013; 47(3): 524-528.

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