Why are so few students attending professors’ office hours?

Professors’ office hours can be an important engagement opportunity for students struggling with work, a way for instructors to get to know their students better, and a door to potential mentorship opportunities, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Office hours, baked into just about every course, are probably the most universally available form of academic support,” The Chronicle writes. “And they can be among the most powerful.” 

Attending office hours can also lead to opportunities to build social capital, especially for first-generation students and those from historically underrepresented groups, says Pamela Cheek, associate provost for student success at the University of New Mexico.

“Office hours are a conduit to jobs on campus, to research on campus, to community engagement on or off campus, to internships off campus, which can then lead to jobs,” she tells The Chronicle.

Yet many students, especially first-generation students and those from underrepresented groups, hesitate to take advantage of office hours, having limited context for their purpose and potential benefits. Attending office hours, however, is one way for students to better acclimate themselves to the college environment and build supportive academic and professional networks for the future.

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Selling the importance of office hours to reluctant students

Experts say there are complex reasons why students do not attend office hours: they may hold a narrow view of the purpose of office hours, be overburdened by juggling academic and work schedules, or be afraid to ask busy professors for help. 

Forty percent of students said scheduling conflicts prevent them from attending office hours, according to a Spring 2021 survey of students and instructors at Chapman University. However, only 16% of surveyed instructors cited scheduling conflicts as problems for students, and over a quarter of them said students didn’t attend because of a lack of effort. Students said office hours were only for struggling students, not for those interested in discussing internship and research opportunities and career goals or getting to know their professors better, according to the Chapman survey. A perception that office hours are only for students who need help can be a deterrent for students who are too intimidated to seek academic support or see asking for help as a sign of weakness.

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Experts say that, to highlight the value of office hours, higher education leaders should not only reduce the stigma associated with seeking support but also emphasize how asking for help is a habit of highly successful students. Professors can schedule office hours in common areas closer to students’ residences and reach out to students before class even begins, while campus leaders can also provide more support to faculty, especially those who are teaching large classes, and emphasize the importance of connecting with students.  

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Reaching out to students is an essential part of student success, says The Chronicle. “One conversation with a professor can change the trajectory of a student’s life.”

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