What the Heck are Office Hours Anyway?

Why does every professor note “office hours” on the course syllabus?  Am I the only one who has no clue what they are?  Is this when the professor is working and if so what does she do with all of that other “free time”?

These great questions are posed by many first year and even upper year students who aren’t familiar with the office hours concept.  I’m going to use this post to reveal the mystery behind office hours so that students understand what they are and how they can benefit.

Office hours are designated times professors deliberately schedule in order to meet with students.  Whoa.  Hold up.  Why would my professor want to meet with me?

I’m going to be honest here.  Some professors could care less about meeting with you while others are quite open to the idea.  Most post-secondary institutions require professors to hold office hours at a rate of one hour per class instructed, or something along those lines, so it’s not necessarily coming out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.

On the other hand, many professors value the opportunity to get to know their students personally and to help their students in a number of ways.

Here are the four most common ways students utilize my office hours:

  1. Clarify course content by asking specific questions.  I love it when a student prepares a list of questions in advance of a visit.  These students are able to stay focused and make the most of the time.  I appreciate it when students don’t waste my time by spending the majority of the meeting rifling through their paperwork.
  2. Discover opportunities to learn more about future courses, program options, volunteering opportunities and work experiences.  Professors can be an amazing resource for all types of information.  If you have legitimate questions about program pathways or ways to gain experience, your professor just might have some answers.
  3. Ask questions about papers, tests or assignments.  Sometimes you just don’t know what the professor meant by writing “awk” in the margin of your paper.  If you take the time to clarify feedback, chances are you will perform better on the next paper or test if you can apply those lessons learned.
  4. Express concern over course performance or progress.  If things are not going well and you’re not sure what you can do, your professor might be able to provide some guidance that could help you get back on track.  You might even learn that this course/program is not for you and make some changes (caution: always seek a second opinion!).

Some of the benefits of visiting your professor during office hours are obvious from the above list.  Another obvious benefit is that the professor gets to know you.  This is a tremendous help if you ever ask that professor for a reference.  See the Will You Be My Reference? post for more tips on what it takes to receive a qualified reference from a professor.

Another benefit is that you get to know your professor too.  There might be some interesting clues in your professor’s office that reveal useful information.  During one office hour visit a student realized I was a past Chapter Board Chair of Kids Help Phone from the recognition plaque on my shelf.  It turned out that she was interested in getting involved with the organization as a volunteer and we were able to have a meaningful talk.

Most professors have specific guidance around preferred systems for managing office hours so pay attention the information she shares.  In my previous role, I managed my office hours using an advanced booking system because there were just so many students to accommodate.  In my current role I operate on a drop-in basis because it better suits my style and the students I work with.  Some professors operate on an open door, drop-in basis while others would give you the nastiest stink eye ever for not respecting their time.

ProfWhile we’re on that note, let me remind you to please respect your professor’s office hours because they actually have a lot more work to do outside of preparing for class, teaching and meeting with students.  See the What Do Professors Do Anyway? post for more on that topic.

I hope you’re better equipped to understand when and why you might visit your professor.  If you have any questions around office hour etiquette or purpose, please post below.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/93393982@N00/3909431214″>We trust you with the children but not the Internet</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

 

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This is What You’re Missing…

I hate to break it to you but class isn’t over when it’s over. At least it shouldn’t be.

If you’re like many students, the typical course cycle is something like this:

Class Cycle

But this process is flawed.

It’s missing the critical step known as reflection.

Reflection can be defined as both:

  • a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation, and
  • the consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that you take up the practice of meditation (although there are many benefits to that as well) but I am advocating for you to incorporate some intentional thinking after class is dismissed.

The bottom line is that nobody understands everything the first time. I have encountered my share of frustrated students because they just didn’t “get it” immediately after class. That’s not usually the point. If a student was able to completely understand all elements of the content, theory or practice after pre-preparation (assuming that even happened) and one class discussion, I would gladly welcome her up to the front of the room to run the class for the rest of the semester.

I challenge you to schedule some time after your next class to reflect on what just happened. Grab a tea, an apple, a chocolate bar or whatever floats your boat and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What were the key takeaways of that class?
  2. What do I still not understand after class?  And more importantly, what am I going to do about it?
  3. How does what was discussed or presented in class connect to what I am learning in this course or other courses?
  4. What over and above the course content did I learn today?

I guarantee you will get so much more out of your course experience if you build in an opportunity to reflect regularly.  I’d love to hear how this practice is working for you.

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My Daughter Got a C

My daughter Abbey is a good student. Her teachers tell me that she gets her work done on time, is a respected role model in the classroom and demonstrates great work habits. By the way, Abbey is in Grade 3.

Last term she came home with a math test in her blue assessment folder for me to review and sign off on (like it’s some kind of legal contract or something). I was shocked to discover that Abbey got a C on this particular math assessment. She knew when the test was scheduled and had spent time reviewing the content the two evenings beforehand without issue. Abbey usually gets A’s in math and has never scored lower than a B on any assessment or report card so I was a little taken aback with this result.

I could feel Abbey’s eyes on me as I opened the blue folder. She’s mature enough to understand the difference between an A and a C grade and she knows her dad and I expect good results. Our eyes only met for a moment before hers dropped.

“What happened?”, I asked.

“I don’t know”, she answered.

Sad

Abbey’s experience is no different than the experience of scores other students since the beginning of time. Abbey is not the first, and will not be the last, to be disappointed in a test result.

As a parent (and a teacher), I knew that this uncomfortable situation provided the basis for a great learning moment. I wanted my daughter to know that disappointments, mistakes, oversights and boo boos happen all the time but it’s ok under one condition:

YOU LEARN SOMETHING.

The great part about this experience is not only did my daughter takeaway some great lessons, I was reminded of what students go through when they receive a less than desirable grade.

Abbey learned:

  1.  It’s ok to feel crummy when you don’t perform to your potential. Go ahead and have your pity party, feel bad for a bit and then let it go (she loved me belting out the hit Frozen tune).
  2. It’s just one test in a series of tests that you will take over the rest of your life. Yes, it matters, but there will be loads opportunities to showcase your brilliance.
  3. Take time to figure out what happened. Did you perform poorly because you didn’t have the time or take the time to learn the content? Maybe it was because you didn’t manage your time wisely during the actual test. In Abbey’s case, she didn’t read the questions carefully or ask the teacher for clarification when needed.

 I learned:

  1. My students really do feel crummy when they get a bad grade. It hurts even worse when they know they could have done better.
  2. It takes time to rebound. I shouldn’t expect my students to spring into my next class all bright and eager when they’re just not there yet.
  3. It might take someone, ahemmmm, me, to help my students put it all in perspective and remind them that the point of this educational experience is to learn content, process, resilience, self-awareness, study skills, self-reflection, listening, writing, communication, and on and on.

Life, and school, would be pretty boring if we had all the answers all the time.  According to Richard Branson “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” Go on now and pick up some band aids.

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It’s Good to be Back

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, so today, which happens to be any old day, I have made a commitment to blog regularly and to enter a 10K race (why not?).

Blog topics have been coming to me in droves since I decided to spend more time doing, wait for it…

Staring

Nothing!

And by nothing I mean reading for pleasure, going for walks, watching my kids play, drinking tea while staring out the window, burying my smart phone deep into my purse where I won’t see it or hear it, and you know what? I’m feeling mentally refreshed.

And you can too!

Ok, I have to admit, the Christmas holidays helped make this practice a reality. It was a big advantage that my institution essentially shut down for a week and a half so no one was doing much work (unless you are the professor like me who failed to complete all grading).

Even though both students and faculty alike are back at it, I am taking a pledge to continue to incorporate my daily practice of “nothing” I introduced over the holidays for all of the many benefits it provides.

Research by Hallnäs and Redström has suggested that introducing slow technology, which involves incorporating pause and reflection as alternatives to efficiency, rationality, and productivity, may actually help individuals restore a level of calm so many of us desire.

A more recent study out of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, by researchers Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking boosts creativity (thanks Daphne Gray-Grant). Hey, I’m all for multitasking when it can improve my ingenuity and waistline at the same time!

The takeaway here is that we are not necessarily more productive when we are “busy”. Taking time for yourself can actually improve your efficiency, creativity and satisfaction levels so why not try it. You might really like it.

 

Hallnäs, L. and Redström, J. Slow technology: Designing for reflection. Personal & Ubiquitous Computing 5, 3 (2001), 201-212.

Oppezzo, Marily; Schwartz, Daniel L. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 40(4), Jul 2014, 1142-1152.

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Go Ahead, Give Yourself an “A”

Possibility

Students from across the country are about to begin a new academic year.  It’s natural that many will take a little time to reflect on past successes, near-successes, and far-from-successes to consider what it will take to earn better grades this time around.

I am encouraging every student to approach the start of the academic year differently this time.  Instead of waiting to receive a test score or graded paper from a professor mid-way through the course, begin the year with a mindset of possibility.  That’s right.  Go ahead, give yourself an “A”.

What does that mean?

The concept of giving an “A” can be credited to Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, teacher, speaker and co-author (alongside Rosamund Stone Zander) of “The Art of Possibility”.  Zander’s teaching practice involves telling all of his students on the first day of class that they are an “A”.  They really and truly are an “A” and that is the grade they will receive at the end of the course.  But there is one condition.  That condition is that each student must submit a letter the following day but dated for the end of the term explaining who they will have become by the end to justify such an outstanding grade.  The letter begins, Dr. Mr. Zander, I got my “A” because…

Giving an “A” comes with many benefits.  First and foremost, it has the power to transform relationships.  Students no longer see themselves in competition with others in their class, program, dorm, family, whatever.  There’s no more “I’m better than him”, “She’s better than me” thinking going on.  Instead students can start to focus on themselves and the possibilities that exist within and around them.

Second, it just feels better.  Being an “A” allows everyone to function from a much happier place.  It’s certainly a better place to be than in the 90% percentile, below the median, or 46 out of 50, for example.  Being happy has a funny side effect of being contagious.  Go ahead, see what happens when you smile at the next person you pass on the street.

Third, mistakes can be celebrated.  Recognizing that we all make mistakes and that mistakes are what help us learn and discover some amazing things can really open up worlds of possibility.  What if we weren’t afraid to share a point of view in the classroom, try out a different style during our presentation, say hello to the person sitting next to us, get involved in that start-up committee, and the list goes on.

The link below will take you to a 14 minute video of a Ben Zander speech delivered to an auditorium full of teachers on this exact topic.  Believe me, it’s worth the watch…

The practice of giving an “A”, whether “given” by the teacher or “given” as a gift to yourself, frames your efforts as a possibility to live into rather than an expectation to live up to.   From my experience in the classroom, more students need help with the former, not the latter.

I highly recommend all students (and teachers at any level) read or listen to “The Art of Possibility” with a particular focus on Chapter 4 – The Third Practice:  Giving an “A”.

The benefits of living in a world of possibility exist.  I can see it now.  A classroom where students are willing to let go of fears and try new things, where students truly want to grow and are willing to create and follow a unique path to get them there, and where students care about themselves and are capable of demonstrating empathy.

So go ahead, do yourself a favour, give yourself a gift and live like you are an “A”.

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August 27, 2013 · 12:58 pm

What Do Professors Do Anyway?

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I know I am not alone when I say that if I hear something along the lines of “You’re done work now, right?  What are you going to do with all this time off over the summer?” from another student, staff member, friend or even family member, I’m going to scream.

I have to admit that it has taken me some time to educate my own family about what exactly I do at the university when I am not doing the well-known work of prepping for classes, teaching classes and grading papers/exams/reports that most professors are known to do.  I don’t necessarily expect my students and friends to know exactly what it is that I do but this article is an attempt at a first step.  My intent in sharing this information is not to tell you how busy I am and how hard my life is – because it’s not.  I just want those of you who don’t really get what it is that professors do to come away with a better understanding and realize that we are all really quite different.

In most institutions, professors are expected to spend their time on three main activities:  research, teaching and service.  A traditional breakdown is something like 40/40/20 where 40% of the time is expected to be devoted to research, 40% to teaching and the remaining 20% to service activities.  Some professors actually spend much more time on research activities, especially if she has a major grant or is eligible for some type of course release.  Other professors spend more time on the teaching function, especially if research activities are not well supported or encouraged at her institution.

Most people think they understand the “teaching” portion of our work but there may be a few surprises.  It is important to know that faculty members are rarely handed a “course in a box”.  It would be amazing to receive such a gift with a complete course outline (including choice of text or other reading materials); assignment schedule; prepared lectures, including complete PowerPoint support slides with built-in relevant, appropriate and interesting videos, lecture notes and active learning exercises; and an evaluation list along with the evaluation tools themselves and grading criteria to boot.  In the real world this rarely happens.  There are some exceptions like the year I was one of seven faculty members delivering the same content to multiple sections of the same course where consistency was of the utmost importance.  We still met as a group regularly to develop evaluation tools and assess the course design but this was done as a group, rather than individually.  This has been my only experience in post-secondary education where the course development work was shared.  The bottom line is that there is a lot of work involved in designing a course and keeping it relevant.

In addition to the tasks related to course development and delivery, most faculty are also involved in activities like counselling students, curriculum reviews, transfer credit assessments, textbook reviews, articulation agreement consultation, and program reviews.  We are also expected to keep on top of the latest teaching and learning developments which can range from better understanding how new technologies might be implemented in the classroom to the state of academic integrity at the institution.  This information is often acquired through independent searches and reading as well as workshop and conference preparation and attendance.

So what is research anyway?  Well, it depends on the individual and on the discipline.  It’s no wonder that many outside of academia struggle to understand what this involves. I’m going to speak from my own experience so please forgive me if I leave anything out.

Some of the activities related to research include literature reviews (for me that included finding, keeping notes and organizing close to 50 academic and non-academic articles for my most recent publication); experiment/hypothesis design; hiring and managing research assistants; research ethics board(s) approvals (I had to seek approvals from two different boards for a recent study); data gathering and analysis; outlining, drafting, writing and editing; as well as meetings and correspondence activities with co-investigators and other related parties.   The ultimate end products of research tend to be published works and presentations.  Publishing may take the form of papers (or journal articles), books, textbooks, magazine articles, blog posts and case studies to name a few.  Presenting might take place at academic conferences where academics and professionals from various fields congregate to examine and share information on relevant issues but might also include presentations and workshops for other professional associations or groups.  Most faculty also act as academic reviewers for associations or journals and are expected to review the work of other academics and to provide feedback that is used in publication decisions.

The service work of faculty again varies very much by institution and often by academic rank.  More junior faculty are often trying to build up their CVs for promotion and tenure decisions and may get involved in more committee-related work than their more senior peers but again, that is not always the case.  The type of work that would fall under the service category includes both work at the institution (internal) and work outside of the institution (external).  Internal work might involve participating in hiring committees, program review processes, budget committees, awards committees, fundraising committees, faculty associations and student club advisory positions.  External work might involve using expertise to participate in various community initiatives or committees (for example, volunteer boards of directors), professional associations, judging business plan and speaking contests, delivering workshops or speaking events, participating in alumni events, and so on.

The point I wanted to make is that teaching is just one component of the work of academics.  So, next time instead of asking about our four month “holiday”, ask us about our research and writing work.  You’ll sound really informed and we’ll be really excited to share with you.  Just make sure you have a few minutes to spare.

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Reflection -> Awareness -> Improvement

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Wouldn’t you agree?

So why is it that so many students fail to make changes to their routines and habits when they are disappointed, stressed or unimpressed when they consider their academic performance over the past semester?

You know I have an answer.  It’s because they fail to reflect.

What is reflecting anyway? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reflection as both (1) a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation and (2) consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.

I like to think of reflection as a personal self-assessment.  For me, it involves taking time out of my busy schedule to purposefully think about a particular event, experience, encounter or exchange.  I honestly schedule in the time because that’s how I roll.  I think about what happened, how I felt, how others reacted and if I would change my approach or actions in a future situation.  And this my friends is the purpose of reflection.

So, why bother reflecting?

Reflection brings about awareness which can bring about positive change which is what continuous improvement is all about.  We all should be taking more time to reflect in our daily lives.  In fact if we did, I bet the world would be a better place.

Alright.  How do I get started?

Reflection isn’t something you should do only “at the end” of a project; however, that seems to be the most obvious time to pause and evaluate the event, activity or work performed.  At a minimum, students should be taking the time to reflect after receiving feedback (either in the form of a grade or actual written feedback) on each test, exam, paper, report or assignment.  I recognize that some evaluators rarely take the time to provide written comments so if they do, consider it a bonus.  Another even better time to reflect is before the feedback (i.e. grade) is provided.  This timing will remove any bias that results from an unexpected good or poor evaluation of the work.  Reflecting at the end of a semester or academic year is also an excellent time to pause and consider the timeframe as a whole.

If you’re not sure what you should be thinking about, here are some questions to get you started:

  • How did this experience differ from your expectations?
  • How did this experience make you feel?
  • What was the best and worst thing that happened during this experience?
  • What was your biggest challenge?  What enabled you to overcome this challenge or what prevented you from overcoming this challenge?
  • Was there anything which made you uncomfortable or discouraged during this experience?
  • What helped or hindered you through this process?
  • How did this experience challenge your assumptions and stereotypes?
  • What you would change if you had the opportunity to repeat this activity?
  • What skills did you develop or improve as a result of this experience?
  • How will this experience benefit you in the future?
  • What have you learned about yourself?

I highly recommend keeping a “reflection journal” which can take the form of a dedicated notebook or a simple Word document.  The act of jotting down notes will help you internalize your takeaways and apply what you have learned to the next experience.

Now you know what to do and how to do it.  Do yourself a favour and schedule in some time to reflect as this academic year comes to a close.  If you seriously apply the learnings from this effort to new experiences (i.e. new coursework) you should see results.

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