Skip to main content

Handling Office Hours for a Large Lecture Course

Large lectures and digital classrooms have become the norm of continually growing colleges and universities. These teaching environments reduce the personal impact that a faculty member can have on individual students and creates a theater-like experience: watch quietly and rarely participate.  Although faculty members try to incorporate active learning techniques during a lecture, office hours continue to be the best place for faculty to get to know their students. With classes ranging from 200-600+ students, how can you make this experience helpful for the student without becoming too time-consuming?  Here are five best practices for productive and rewarding office hours.

  1. Establish office hour times that are fair to both you and your students.

One common complaint that faculty members receive from their students is that they are not available outside of the lecture time. While it may not be possible to fit the schedule of every student, it may be possible to increase your flexibility.

  • Variety

Do you have office hours at the same time throughout the week?  Suppose a student has a class during that time; it is best to have office hours at different times on different days.

  • Different Times

For the best availability, have a morning session, one session just around midday, and the third session in late afternoon scattered throughout the week.  This allows flexibility for the student but does not overextend you past the normal business day.

  • By Appointment

If an individual student still cannot meet during any of your scheduled office hours, you can always schedule a one-to-one meeting.

  1. Move one of your office hours out of your office.

Most faculty members have an office large enough for themselves and a few students. With classes a hundred times larger, how can you be inviting in a space so small?

  • Get Out of Your Office

Utilize a large conference room, meeting space, or unused classroom large enough for more students without becoming overly crowded.

  • Eliminate Intimidating Factors

Many students are intimidated by going to their professors’ offices. Meeting them in a different place is a compromise: no longer on “your turf” but still a very professional setting.  These “out-of-the-office” hours are great for material reviews before exams, essay draft readings and peer review, or post-exam reviews where students can work together.  You will be pleasantly surprised that these will become your most attended office hours.

  1. Have students write down their questions on note cards

One of the most frustrating things for a faculty member during office hours is when a student will come in and say, “I’m confused about the material.”Instructors usually respond with questions such as: “What about? Can you be more specific? What part of the chapter?” This is where the phrase ‘students don’t know what they don’t know’ originates. One proactive plan faculty establish is the ‘notecard’ rule.

  • Write It Down

Tell students to come to your office hours with specific problems or questions written down.  Having questions jotted down to allow students to identify their current weaknesses and be able to communicate them.  This might be as simple as a page number of a confusing essay, a homework problem they were struggling to complete, or a slide number from your lecture.  This allows you to handle the issue in a more efficient manner, see where they were making mistakes, and give the student a sense of accomplishment when they check it off their list.

  • Common Questions

If you keep seeing the same topic or problem written down by multiple students, it may be time to review how you presented the material in a lecture or how that problem is phrased in a question.

  • Put a Name to the Face

Having students leave the notecard with their name written on the top is another way to learn their names. When students come infrequently, you will be able to get to know them and break that impersonal barrier.

  1. Call in reinforcements

Many faculty members feel overwhelmed when large groups of students come into their office before exams or for help on difficult assignments. If you find it difficult to handle a large group of students with many different problems, ask for help.

  • Utilize TA’s

At schools with large lectures, ask teaching assistants to help out once a week.  Having another person in the room can help alleviate the anxiety and some students respond better to a different perspective. Most students struggle asking questions to their faculty member for the fear of looking bad, so having a TA present works better for them.

  • No TA's? Rely on Top Students

If you don’t have a teaching assistant, recruit your best students. You can always ask students who are doing well in your class to come in and help during office hours. This allows them to work with their peers, help you out, and it is a great discussion point about their leadership skills on any requested recommendation letters.

  • Implement Study Groups

In many cases, these top students can help create mentor several peers in study groups. Encourage them to consolidate their help with several of their peers. Make sure you find students who are able to communicate effectively. They should be able to explain the problem, not just give the answers. This should also help you effectively intervene or answer questions to several students at once; multiplying your time to offer personal assistance to a large class.

  1. Let groups stick around and listen

Due to the number of students and the size of their office, most faculty members want to answer questions quickly and get to the next student. It starts to make their office hours feel like a deli line, calling “NEXT!” While we want to make sure that we are managing the hours effectively and answering everyone’s questions, some students just want to sit and listen to other students’ questions.

  • Group Participation in Office Hours

If someone wants to discuss a concept or problem and others perk up because they struggled with that problem too, then make sure to ask if it is ok that everyone works together on the problem. 

  • Let Students Listen In

Some students do not want to discuss their issues in front of other students.  In many cases, students enjoy just listening to conversations about the material.  This might spark more questions and help a student feel more comfortable with you and the other students in the class. There need to be obvious rules about what is allowed during your office hours.  Due to FERPA regulations, discussion of any grade information, attendance, course performance, or other protected information requires those conversations to be confidential. 

While office hours can feel like herding cats and become overwhelming, having well-run office hours can be a very rewarding experience for both you and your students. Most students want a faculty member that not only listens to their concerns but is also able to fix issues in an efficient manner.  Faculty want to get to know their students, work on their academic weaknesses, and see them grow into more mature and educated individuals. The best place to accomplish this can be in the office hours setting. Building office hours that are helpful to your students can take a good instructor and turn them into a great teacher.

About the Author

Dr. Daniel Collins is currently teaching in the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 2012. He previously taught at South Carolina (2012-2013), Presbyterian College (2013) and the Florida State University (2013-2015). His current classes are the General Chemistry CHEM 101/102 series for the First-Year Program. Along with lecturing at Texas A&M, Dr. Collins has helped design and implement three programs focused on assisting students succeed as a first year chemistry student: The Chemistry Reinforcement Module, recitation program for the First-Year courses, and an improved teaching assistant training and observation program. Dr. Collins is also part of Aggie Honor Council, Texas A&M Faculty Senate, and the University Disciplinary Appeals Panel. Outside of his work at Texas A&M, he is an avid sports fan (GO CUBS!), runner, book reader and youth sports volunteer. Ms. Gabrielle Risica is a doctoral student for the Department of Chemistry at Texas A&M University in the lab of Dr. Michael Nippe. Her current research focuses on the synthesis of molecular magnets. In addition to her graduate, she has taught for the First-Year Program, including CHEM 111 lab as a teaching assistant and CHEM 101/102 lectures as an instructional assistant. Gabrielle is an elected member of the Graduate Student Association of Chemistry where she is the treasurer and chair of the outreach committee. She is also an event coordinator for the Texas State Science Olympiad. Gabrielle completed her B.A. in Liberal Arts at Sarah Lawrence College in 2017 where she helped found the Health and Science Afterschool Program and was a member of the varsity swim team.