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Get the most out of office hours

Get the most out of office hours - Scott Aiken

Posted on: February 10, 2020

Go to office hours.  It pays huge dividends.  Half of life is just showing up, and you already know that.  Consider the following parallel thoughts.  Making it to class is useful for obvious reasons: course material is explained, answers are given, you take notes and have more time with the content.  Well, the same goes for office hours: you get one-on-one instruction, you get to ask questions, and your professor is more likely to remember your name.  Those are all upsides you probably already know, but there are other upsides you may not already know.

First, consistent class time and face-to-face interaction with experts gives you communication and thinking skills experts have.  You get them by just thinking along with them.  When I was a student, I found myself talking like my professors, and not just with their mannerisms, but with how they’d think about something.  I’d not only learned some material, but I’d learned how to approach it.

A second upside with office hours in particular is that your regular engagement with the instructor creates a micro-community. You give your instructor the impression that you’re serious about the material, and that impression has consequences – they’ll treat you like you’re an excellent student.  And that also has consequences for you.  You’re now invested, part of a conversation, and that provides significant motivation to really do the work, to have something to say, to master the material.  This looping effect – where how you’re seen influences how you see yourself, which then influences how you perform – has significant payoff.

A third and final upside to office hours is that you, after all these classes, will most likely need a recommendation letter.  Having this connection makes a big difference in the letters instructors write.  You instructor has a story to tell, with details and a personal touch.  That makes for very strong letters.

So what should you do when you come to office hours?  Here are a few pointers:

- Write out a question before you come in.  You’ll have a better grasp on it by writing it out.  And it will give a very strong impression that you’re well-prepared.
- Ask about things you’re unclear about.  It’s OK to struggle with material – every teacher is a teacher because they value helping others master something difficult.  And once you’ve got it down, let the instructor know about your progress.
- If you see connections between the material for the class and what’s happening in another class or in something you have some knowledge about, share it!  Let your instructor see that you’re making connections and understanding.