Using Office Hours Effectively
There are many times throughout college when you will benefit from meeting with your professor in office hours, including when you have questions about class content, are confused about practice problems or readings, or want to review a paper or exam. Attending office hours, whether in person or online, can give you valuable time to better understand your class content and your professor’s expectations and can have a big impact on your academic success. Office hours can also be an opportunity to get to know your instructor or teaching assistant better, especially in online courses and in larger courses.
At a large university such as UNC, many courses are significantly larger than high school classes, and most professors do not have as many opportunities to interact with or get to know students personally as high school teachers do. These differences can make it difficult to connect with your professors or feel confident approaching them in class or office hours.
This handout discusses why, when, and how to effectively use office hours to maximize your success in college.
Reasons to attend office hours
Clarify and ask questions about course content. If you are confused about class material, ask your professor to explain it differently or walk through it slowly with you. Ask questions that you have about the text or what has been covered learned in class.
Get study ideas. There are many strategies that can be used for any class, but some subjects have specific strategies that work particularly well for that class. Your professor may have tips about ways to tailor your studying towards that particular class.
Ask questions about the syllabus, upcoming assignments, and due dates. After carefully reading the syllabus and any assignment prompts, confirm important dates and information with your professor if you are still not certain about them.
Prepare for an upcoming assignment. Many assignments will require you to practice new and developing skills. If you have an upcoming project or paper, office hours can be an appropriate place to discuss your ideas and your instructor’s expectations.
Review an exam or a paper you wrote. Many students do not do as well as they expected on papers and exams at least once in college. Office hours is an appropriate setting to talk about what you did wrong, what went well, and how to improve on your next paper or exam.
Talk about grades. If you are unhappy with your grade or have questions about why your grade is what it is, office hours are the appropriate place to talk about it.
Work through practice problems. Ask your professor to go step by step through practice problems with you and verify the correct answers. If you are having trouble solving them correctly, use this time to ask your professor to show you where you are making errors.
When and how to attend office hours
Preferably, visit early in the semester, not a few days before the exam. Visiting early and often rather than waiting until last minute will enable you to benefit more from office hours, better understand content, and prepare better for exams.
Before the appointment:
- Ask yourself why you are going to see your professor. Have a clear purpose that you can convey to your professor so that your time is meaningful and used well.
- Check your syllabus and Sakai to find out when and where your professor holds office hours.
- If the professor’s office hours conflict with your schedule,if your instructor is available by appointment only, or if you cannot locate their office hours, you may need to ask to make an appointment. Note that doing this in person (before or after class) is likely to be more effective than hoping your professor reads your email (with all due respect to faculty, some professors are not great at responding to emails). If you do email your professor, offer a range of days and times you are available. See our handout on emailing your professor for other tips.
- If your professor’s office hours are being held on Zoom, you may find tips for using Zoom helpful in feeling prepared.
- Prepare questions and an agenda beforehand. Even if you feel generally lost in the class, your professor will be better able to help if you offer specifics. An example might be “I understand two parts of this problem or idea, but don’t know how to connect them.” This question not only shows that you attend class and read the material, but gives the professor direction.
- Bring whatever materials are appropriate, including your book, laptop, or notes.
During the appointment:
- Be respectful. Arrive on time and introduce yourself if you have never met the professor personally. Address the professor by his or her last name with the appropriate title (Professor, Dr.)
- Take notes. Record suggestions, information, and strategies that your professor shares with you so that you can refer back to them later.
- Ask for clarification. If you are confused or not following your professor’s explanation, don’t be afraid to ask him or her to repeat the information or restate it differently. It can also be helpful to try and repeat back what the professor is saying to check for understanding. Ask to work through a few more problems if you are still having trouble solving them.
- Be honest. Speak up if you aren’t following or need more examples.
- Ask about supplemental readings or resources that may help.
- If you want to discuss an exam or paper grade you disagree with, use a respectful tone. Discuss questions you missed on the test or what was lacking in your paper. Ask “How can I improve my next test or paper grade?”
- Sum up your take-away or action plan at the end of the meeting.
- Thank the professor at the end of the meeting.
After the appointment:
- Follow through on any commitments or plans you made during office hours.
- Incorporate any suggestions or tips your professor gave you.
- Attend office hours again if you think it will be beneficial.
- Make an appointment with one of the Learning Center’s academic coaches. An academic coach can help you apply any of the strategies that your professor recommended and can work with you on any academic issue.
Holschuh, J. and Nist, S. L. (2000). Active learning: Strategies for college success. Massachusetts: Taylor & Bacon.
Kuh, G. D. and Hu, S. (2001). “The effects of student-faculty interaction in the 1990s.” The Review of Higher Education, 24, 309-332.
Vermette, P. J. (2000, December). Improving understanding and increasing grades: 4 tips for fall freshman Columbus Day, an open letter to my son at college. College Student Journal, 34(4), 611-615.
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