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Students often find it difficult to approach instructors for help or to ask questions. Given that some professors have been known to start a three-minute egg timer when a student enters the office, or to purposely choose inconvenient times (e.g., 7 a.m.!) to discourage all but the most determined souls, this is not all that surprising. Even without such game playing, though, some students are reluctant to come for help. So what can you do to make the most of your office hours?

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Prescription for Success
Your ability to make your office hours productive and helpful lies in knowing how to handle the problems students will approach you about, and in having a good "bedside manner." Generally, students come to see professors for one of three reasons.

Confusion about assignments or policies. These are the easiest questions to answer—provided you know what you meant!—and student feedback is very useful because the entire class may be similarly confused.

Help with solving specific problems. This is a judgment call. Is the student simply missing one small fact or data point, or is he or she totally confused? The best way to tell, though time-consuming, is requiring that the student work the problem, with help from you as needed. In cases when more than one student comes for help, you may have them work together to save time.

Requests for special privileges. Politely require that students propose specific solutions for conflicts, such as taking the test a day early when he or she has a plant trip, religious holiday, or some other commitment on exam day. Remember to observe legalities for students protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and work with your institution's offices to meet the letter and spirit of the law.

Be fair. If one student is allowed to do extra credit, all students should have the privilege. Always consider the context: Did the student miss a test because of hospitalization or oversleeping? Finally, give yourself time to reflect on the request, if need be.

Good For What Ails 'Em
The benefits of office hours are many. According to Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson's highly influential article "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, March 1987), good teaching practices address the following areas: contact between students and faculty members; reciprocity and cooperation among students; active learning techniques; prompt feedback; time on task; high expectations; and respect for diverse talents and learning styles.

Office hours complement lectures and ensure the entire course package satisfies these learning principles. For example, educators can make their expectations of students clearer in one-on-one interactions than in a lecture setting, and office hours also provide opportunities to individualize instruction for specific learning styles.

During your office interactions with students, remember to listen carefully, because students' misconceptions often provide valuable feedback. Compliment them on their successes both in and out of your course. Learn and respect cultural differences. For example, many students from Asian, Latin American, and southern European cultures may expect some initial visiting and discussion of non-work matters before talking about problems or questions.

Finally, what about those students who simply will not use regular office hours? Some other methods to consider include e-mail for questions and answers, "hall tutoring" (answering questions anywhere), informal office hours in a student lounge, help sessions before exams, drop-in office privileges for students, and telephone or visiting privileges for students at your home. Of course, you should rescind privileges if they are abused.

Properly used, office hours and other informal interactions with students will increase rapport and student learning, and improve your course in the process.

Phillip Wankat is a chemical engineering professor at Purdue University; Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. The authors welcome readers' feedback. You can reach them via e-mail at wankat@ecn.purdue.edu and oreovicz@ecn.purdue.edu.

PEANUTS reprinted by permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc.


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