Tag Archives: university life

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.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22082809@N00/2451798969″>120/366: ?</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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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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.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5537915034/”>opensourceway> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Stop Multitasking Already and Focus!

Time Lost

How many of you are proud of your ability to “multitask”?  How many of you would add this skill to your resume/cover letter or even share it as one of your strengths during a job interview?

If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, STOP IT NOW! 

Multitasking is not something to be proud of and should be avoided at all costs.

Study after study points to the dangers of multitasking in both the workplace and in everyday life.  Has anyone heard of the distracted driving laws in place all across Canada?  See Christine Rosen’s article entitled The Myth of Multitasking for more fascinating examples.

What if I told you that multitasking in the classroom or while studying is ineffective?  This is absolutely true according to my observations.  But if you don’t believe me (fair enough) you can check out the findings from a recent study conducted by researchers from York University’s Department of Psychology who found that students who use a laptop to browse the Internet while listening to a lecture performed poorly.  Get this.  It’s not just the offending Internet surfer who is affected.  The study also found that students sitting near the offender were impacted negatively.  This is pretty powerful stuff.

If you want to experience firsthand how you are personally impacted by multitasking, try this exercise I picked up about a year ago from a professional organizer.  In order to complete this exercise you will need a timer, pen/pencil and this sheet:Multitasking

This is what the finished product will look like:

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Follow these instructions:

  1. Read all instructions first (always a good idea).
  2. Set timer.
  3. Complete section 1.  Fill in the lines by alternating between the two lines (i.e. enter “M” first, 1 second, U third, 2 fourth, etc.).
  4. Document time to complete section 1.
  5. Set timer.
  6. Complete section 2. Fill in the letters on line one first and numbers on line two second.
  7. Document time to complete section 2.

What did you find?  If you are like the students who have completed this exercise in my classes, it would have taken you approximately 60 seconds to complete section 1 and 26 seconds to complete section 2.

What does this mean?  You could save a significant amount of time in your day by FOCUSING.  Forget about bouncing back between your textbook, email, text messages and phone calls.  Remove all interruptions (it is possible to close your computer screen and turn off your cell phone) and get the work done!

Try the 60/40/20 rule and see if it works for you.  This is what you do:

  • 60 minutes of uninterrupted work.
  • 40 minutes of email/voicemail/text checking and returns.
  • 20 minutes for a break.

Why is this so hard to do?  I don’t really know.  But I do know that those who focus will perform better both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Are you up for the challenge?

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Effort vs. Success

Long JumpThey are staring at me.  Wondering when I will give them some attention.  Waiting patiently for me to begin making colourful markings in green ink (my colour of choice for grading – much brighter and less harsh than traditional red ink).

They are a stack of reports sitting on a shelf.

Just like everyone else, professors can come up with many reasons and many ways to procrastinate.  Hey, I haven’t written a blog post in a while.  I better get on that today!

When it comes to grading, the one that gets me every time is the fact that I’m just not ready to face the disappointment.  Disappointment that some students didn’t do the work leading up to the testing point.  Disappointment that some students didn’t bother to ask questions when they were unclear about the material.  Disappointment that some students didn’t plan their time well leading up to the test/exam/paper.  And ultimately disappointment that some students simply didn’t understand that effort ≠ success.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some reports will be very well done.  Accurate calculations will be performed, insightful comments will be made and clear and concise writing will flow.

At some point I will take a deep breath, let out a big sigh, pick up my green pen and begin the work.

The grading will get done.  It always does.  But it doesn’t end there.

At least one student will visit me in my office after the report is returned.  Most often this student won’t ask for feedback (remember, there are lots of colourful marks on the paper) but will let me know that she just doesn’t understand her grade because she tried really hard.

What does “trying hard” mean anyway?  And what does “trying hard” have to do with success or a good grade?

The bottom line is that “trying hard” (whatever that means) doesn’t equal academic success.  Just because a student thinks she worked hard doesn’t mean she deserves an A.

How would you define “trying hard” anyway?

  • Does it mean doing what is required (and only what is required)?
  • Does it mean time spent on the task?
  • Does it mean being resourceful when problems arise (like asking questions, doing internet research, hiring a tutor, etc.)?
  • Or does it mean something else?

For the past number of years I have used an activity at the start of one particular course to help my students “recalibrate their excellence meters” (thanks to Keith Starcher for his article on this activity).  The activity forces the class to think about what success means and how it relates to “trying hard”.  Here’s what happens.

At some point during the normal introduction of the course I ask the class for volunteers to participate in a standing long jump competition.  I don’t actually teach phys. ed. by the way (I’m actually an accountant by training).  Most students look a little alarmed at first but then seem to warm up to the idea of doing something different.  I have at least six volunteers – three jumpers and three “coaches”, discuss their strategy for jumping the farthest before the competition begins.  Some teams decide that stretching first is a good idea.  Others decide that taking off their shoes will help them out.  Some take a few practice jumps and others take off heavy layers so they won’t be weighed down.

Then the competition begins.  There are usually lots of laughs and smiles.  I proceed to mark where the jumpers land and eventually send everyone back to their seats.  Instead of announcing the obvious winner I say something like “Although some students jumped farther than others, I believe that everyone put in a great effort.  Everyone tried hard so we will award a gold medal to everyone.  What do you think?”.

Most of the time the students protest this idea.  The one year this didn’t happen I was shocked but maybe more on that another time.  The discussion that follows is often about how success is defined in sports and then how that definition carries over to success in the classroom.  The class always reaches the conclusion that although everyone “tried hard”, clearly one student jumped the farthest and therefore is the winner.

I conclude this discussion by encouraging the class to focus on figuring out how to produce excellent RESULTS rather than being content with the illusion that so-called excellent EFFORT is enough.

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Does University Prepare You For the Workplace?

OpportunityGreat question.

An interesting young man recently started a discussion in a LinkedIn group for Students and Recent Grads by asking the question “Do you think university prepared you for the workplace?”.  I honestly expected to read multiple posts answering “Are you kidding?  No.  My university education did NOT prepare me for the ‘real world’.  I’m still looking for a job!”.

There were a couple of comments of this nature.  I’ve had my fair share of conversations with upper year (ready to graduate) and new alumnae who expressed shock and frustration over not being able to find employment despite being university educated.  I’ve also heard many rumblings in the halls of my institution over the years along the lines of “Where am I ever going to use [insert topic] in the ‘real world’ anyway?” or “Why do we need to know X?”.  This is why I assumed that most students would respond negatively.

I was surprised.  Very pleasantly surprised.

The majority of comments were really insightful.  Most posters agreed that the university experience (both inside and outside the classroom) provides the OPPORTUNITY for students to develop and refine essential life and workplace skills, gain new knowledge, expand networks and build relationships but it certainly doesn’t guarantee that this will happen.

The posters also expressed the need for students to take action, be proactive, take risks, and even do things that feel uncomfortable in order to get the most out of the university experience.

The bottom line is that a university education does not equal job training but it certainly provides the OPPORTUNITY to prepare individuals to do something meaningful after graduation.

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