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I'm currently TAing a Linear Algebra class where a significant portion of the class is struggling, oftentimes getting marked down on homeworks or tests because they misunderstand some concept (rather than some trivial mistake in calculation). The students have the following out-of-class options for help available to them:

  • Office hours (both mine and those of the professor teaching the course)
  • Free tutoring available both day and night-time through the university

Very few students take advantage of these options (I'd say about 20% of an 80-person class has used any of these options so far), which leads me to a more general question:

  1. How do I encourage struggling students to go to office hours or available tutoring?
  2. What are some possible reasons they aren't coming to office hours or tutoring hours?
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I've added the struggling-students tag in contrast to the gifted-students tag. I think it's a useful tag, but I'm not sure struggling-students is the best descriptor. Feel free to edit the tag if you've a better name for it. –  Mike Miller Apr 14 at 15:51
    
Great question! –  Brian Rushton Apr 14 at 16:03
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I have observed that the number of students making significant use of office hours is roughly constant, independently of the size of the class. In a class of $20$, one can expect to see $15$ fairly often. In a class of $200$, it is still about $15$. The operational word is alienation. –  André Nicolas Apr 15 at 7:05
    
assign challenging homework –  Vic Apr 15 at 20:52

11 Answers 11

up vote 25 down vote accepted

When I'm the instructor for the course, I remind them of the time and location of my office hours by writing it on the board at the beginning of every lecture (if you're not the instructor, you can ask the instructor to do this). It sounds like overkill, but in my experience part of the reason students don't attend office hours is because it's just not a salient option to them.

I also find that attendance is much higher before an assignment or test. If there's a weekly assignment due on Friday, say, choosing to hold your office hours on Wednesday or Thursday will probably result in higher attendance than holding them on Monday.

Perhaps most importantly, some students don't attend office hours because they're embarrassed. This is the main reason why I typically didn't attend office hours as an undergraduate (a fact I regret to this day). Although in office hours the students don't have to contend with feeling stupid in front of too many of their peers, they are, on the other hand, less able to "melt into the crowd". A lot of students feel that to attend office hours they have to have "good" questions prepared, so if they're too confused or have fallen too far behind, they won't go.

How to counteract this? I try to be as open and explicit about it as possible. I say things to the class like, "If you're so confused you don't even know what question to ask, then office hours are for you. Chances are you're not alone," or, "You don't have to come to office hours with specific question; you can just come and tell me you're confused about a particular section."

Finally, depending on your grading scheme, the following can be a very effective inducement to attend office hours: I will work through and explicitly solve homework questions in office hours. More precisely, I work through specific questions that I'm asked to on the board, with involvement from the students, regardless of whether they're on the homework or not. Thus, students who attend office hours will almost certainly do better on the homework. I don't mind doing this because I view the assigned homework as an inducement to practice more than a way of assessing skill, and if students put in the time during office hours, that ought to count as practice.

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In my case when I was an undergraduate, I simply didn't have time for office hours. Taking 17 or 20 credits a semester, it's hard to go to office hours. –  staticx Apr 15 at 15:14
    
I totally agree with having office hours before assignments are due. I'm a adjunct teacher of physics and I usually have my assignments due at 6:30pm (the beginning of the class) and my office hours are from 5 - 6:30pm. I've had office hours with 60% of the class there and we had to spill out into the hallway where there's more space and a white board. It makes the faculty wonder how I get so many students to come to office hours. I tell them it's because I'm young and they can relate to me. :) –  Sean Lynch Apr 16 at 13:05
    
Your parragraph on emberassment precisely describes what I went through. On top of that I was very shy and rarely had any acquaintances I could turn to for help. Sometimes I'd end up stuck and confused, but felt I was lagging too far behind to turn to my professors. –  Doval Apr 17 at 19:51

As a TA, attend one of the class sessions and personally advertise your office hours. If the students see you in person, they may be more willing to come to you with questions. Also making yourself available outside of normal/regular office hours, giving them your email, and generally making yourself more approachable are all things you can do.

I feel like for a lot of students, especially students who found high school math easy, feel ashamed to be struggling once they are in college. Asking for help for the first time in something you usually excel at can be very difficult.

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To add to this: If there are students who have questions after/during your exercise session, you can answer their questions and mention the office hours if there are further questions. I even used to mention something along the lines of: At the time of my office hours, I will be at my office and actually waiting for someone to ask questions. –  Roland Apr 14 at 16:55
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I agree overall, but I worry about the "making yourself available outside of normal/regular office hours, giving them your email" part. In addition to being good teachers, TAs need to be good students, and part of that means not letting the TAship take over all their time. I tend to discourage my students from emailing me with course content questions for precisely this reason. –  Adam Bjorndahl Apr 14 at 17:19
    
In contrast to @AdamBjorndahl, when I was an undergraduate TA for a computer science class, I made my email available (although I didn't guarantee immediate response -- TAing was not the only thing I did with my time!) That said, my position didn't have set office hours and I was present in all of the lecture and lab sessions. Email was my only contact with the students outside of class with the exception of coincidence (such as meeting one another at the servery during a meal). –  Brian S Apr 14 at 17:57
    
(Addemdum: If a student needed to meet in person, I was more than willing to schedule a time that was suitable for both of us to meet.) –  Brian S Apr 14 at 18:01

When I teach courses, I usually see the majority of my students in office hours at least once a week. Here are some strategies for promoting office hours:

  • Get a room. My office isn't nearly large enough to accommodate 10 students, and students who have to wait outside don't feel welcome. By reserving a classroom or other large room, I make sure there's enough space for everybody.

  • Go at least two hours at a time. Students often have trouble making significant progress on difficult homework assignments, so you need to schedule at least a two hour block if you expect to be helpful.

  • Have lots of office hours. The more office hours you have, the more likely it is that students will be able to make it to one of them. I try to have at least 5 office hours a week, with an average of 7 or 8 when I'm teaching three classes. In some semesters, my office hours have been so full that I've gone up to 10.

  • Schedule your office hours for times that the students will find convenient. At my college, this means either the evenings or on Fridays. In addition, it's very important to schedule office hours for right when the students want to be working, i.e. the day before homework is due, or the day before a quiz.

  • Make sure that the students perceive office hours as helpful. Every student who attends office hours must feel like they got some noticeable help with the homework assignment. In many cases, this means that you have to give significant help with homework problems. Of course, talking with you about the course material is one of the best things a student can do, but students may not perceive the value in this, so the only way to make sure that they keep coming back is to give them hints, check over their answers, and do other tangible things to help them complete the homework assignments.

  • Announce your office hours every day in class. I usually write the times of my office hours on the board at the beginning of every class, and I leave them up for at least 10-20 minutes. I also mention my office hours verbally at the beginning of every class, as well as at the end of class if I remember.

  • Emphasize that successful students go to office hours. Especially near the beginning of the semester, I usually emphasize that it's hard to be successful in the class without going to office hours, that you should plan to come to office hours at least once a week, etc. I also like to say that the homework is made particularly difficult on purpose, because it really helps to get experience solving difficult problems, and that I'm expecting that students will get stuck and then need to come to office hours.

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Great answer! Though I'd be careful with too much office hours - all of us have a lot of things to do... At my university, I am expected to have 120 minutes of office hours a week - usually it's more than enough, since the students come very rarely... –  mbork Apr 14 at 21:19
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@mbork This varies a lot from college to college. I'm at a small liberal arts college, where the culture is that more office hours are better. My college doesn't actually require a lot of office hours, but I've heard of liberal arts colleges that require all professors to hold at least 8 office hours a week. –  Jim Belk Apr 14 at 21:21
    
I am required to hold 10 hours a week and... it's supposed to be 5 days a week and some in morning and some in afternoon. Even so, I rarely see students and I do give hard homework. I totally agree about the getting a room, I'm doing that for physics with one of my 10 hours and it does help draw in more of them. –  James S. Cook Apr 14 at 23:04
    
@JimBelk seems like our philosophies on this are quite similar! –  Adam Bjorndahl Apr 15 at 1:45

When I was a calculus TA last semester, I was able to recruit tons of students to my office hours. Here are some tips:

  • Hold test reviews just before midterms/finals. These were my best attended hours! Also, some students who came to these started coming to other office hours later in the semester.
  • At your test reviews, provide materials for the students to work on together (i.e. practice exams, extra problems.) That way, students won't feel responsible to come with their own questions. It makes it easier for them to come. Announce ahead of time that you are providing materials.
  • Evenings may be popular, especially if for more than one hour. My Wednesday 7-9 pm hours were very crowded.
  • Food. Sometimes I would advertise ahead of time that we would all pitch in and order pizza during the office hour. This was also popular. Dinner and a math problem ;)

If you can get lots of students in your office hour at once, they will start helping each other. Very efficient!

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One more point: One of my students seemed particularly lost. He was probably too embarrassed to come in to office hours. I emailed him inviting to come into my office privately for help. We only did this a few times, but I think it helped him a lot. –  kathleen Apr 15 at 7:24
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Welcome to the site! Your first answer and first question are both great. –  Brian Rushton Apr 15 at 18:25

Have you considered using a more modern solution? They might be busy, embarassed, or don't want to walk to campus again.

A few ideas:

  • Instead of having them come to you, what about having electronic office hours?

  • Use screen share on Skype, along with a pen input device, to go through problems. They can tell you which problems they missed in chat.

  • Ask the students, via email, which problems or concepts they're having trouble with. Then post a Youtube video of you solving the problems or explaining a concept in detail. If you have limited time, you can just do the most requested issues. You can also password protect the Youtube video, to prevent the public from seeing it.

  • Go through the tests or homework and see if there are some common problems that people are getting wrong, then do a video on just those.

  • Use Google Docs to post problem work-throughs and detailed explanations.

  • Send a weekly email update, or pass out a handout in class, about what you've posted online.

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There are resources for these "virtual office hours", as well. You mention Skype and YouTube. Also consider using Piazza, or Google Hangouts. –  brendansullivan07 Apr 15 at 5:43

I hope this answer isn't too short, but nobody else has yet mentioned one of the most obvious reasons why students won't seek extra help. They may be afraid that if they turn up and ask basic questions, then you, the instructor, will realise just how bad they are, and this will affect their final degree result.

You could try to counter this belief indirectly, by making it very clear how marks are awarded.

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If an answer makes a good point, then it's never too short, and yours makes a great point. Welcome to MESE! –  Mike Miller Apr 17 at 14:10

I have TAed several content courses for graduate students in mathematics education. In this respect, my interactions with students may differ from the scenarios faced by others who have served as Teaching Assistants, e.g., for undergraduate mathematics students/majors taking Calculus.

(The courses I have TAed: Abstract Algebra, Problem Posing, Problem Solving, Proof Writing, Real Analysis, Set Theory, Topology; I've also TAed a separate Proof Writing course for undergraduate mathematics education majors, and an Intro to Calculus course for undergraduate [mostly] math majors.)

Some of the techniques I have used include:

  1. Begin the semester by distributing an information sheet about office hours;

  2. Set up a discussion board (through Moodle) so that students can ask questions and discuss them with one another;

  3. Type up notes corresponding to what is covered in office hours - many students in education are also full-time teachers, so it can be especially tough for them to make the hours;

  4. Encourage students to email me with questions - as long as they include their own thinking along with whatever they are asking - and tell them that if they organize study sessions somewhere on campus, then they should feel free to let me know (but that I cannot guarantee I will be available to drop by).

With regard to 1, I will paste below a template of the letter that goes out to every student on the first and/or second class meeting. With regard to 2, I usually give students a chance to answer each other's questions first; if a question has stagnated for more than a day or two, then I will address it. With regard to 3, I will link to two examples from an Abstract Algebra course I TAed: generally, I go through the assigned problems one by one, but often I will get them to modify the questions (e.g., what if we replace "cyclic" with "abelian"?) or to provide alternative proofs; sometimes I will turns comments into theorems. Finally, with regard to 4, I have noticed that asking a student to include his or her reasoning along with the questions can vastly decrease the volume of emails, and give both the student and you an insight into where the difficulty lies.


Example CA (course assistant) notes: Intro to Group Theory and Intro to Ring Theory


Template.

To the esteemed students of [course name] --

I will be available as a TA for your class starting [date/time] at [location].

Here are some things I am happy to do:

-address lingering confusion from material covered in class

-discuss problems from the book: old, new, complex, basic

-review past exams, help prepare for future exams, create sample exam questions

-brainstorm about incorporating topics from [course name] into a class you teach or might teach

-play Scrabble, if you bring a board and no one else is around

Here is one thing I will not do:

-discuss anything you haven’t already given some thought to

My email address is [ ].

If you are planning on coming in, it would be best to email me first with what you want to talk about. If you haven’t emailed me but get a sudden urge to drop by, that’s okay too.

Official Hours/Location: [ ]

If no one has appeared within 15 minutes or emailed me to say they’ll come in later, then I will leave.

If other commitments preclude you from coming in at this time, then please email me to reschedule.

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For something like a freshman calculus class, I definitely would not say that I won't "discuss anything you haven’t already given some thought to". For a more mature student base, however, this worry would probably be largely irrelevant. Still, can you say a bit more about what you're trying to discourage with this? –  Adam Bjorndahl Apr 16 at 12:24
    
@AdamBjorndahl The remark about not discussing something they haven't thought about is specifically w.r.t. the assigned problems. Of course I am happy to vary the givens and explore, or to answer a question that suddenly arises during my hours; however, with respect to the problem sheets, I expect them to come in and say: I tried A, B, C but didn't get anywhere or I thought I could use Theorem T but then I realized it didn't apply. I simply expect some amount of engagement with the questions prior to their arrival. Otherwise it does themselves and the other students (and me!) a disservice. –  Benjamin Dickman Apr 16 at 12:40
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That makes sense. As I mentioned in my reply, when I was a student I often forewent office hours because of embarrassment: I was worried I would ask a "stupid" question about an "easy" exercise. I think it's fine to try to put some responsibility on the students (to try a problem before coming for help with it), so long as they don't fall into the trap I did, and vastly overestimate the meaning of "give some thought to". –  Adam Bjorndahl Apr 16 at 12:59
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@AdamBjorndahl Perhaps I should have emphasized more strongly that my "students" are, in large part, prospective (or current) mathematics teachers. Worries about asking "stupid questions" persist, but perhaps to a lesser extent. Plus, I can frequently rely on them to explain answers to one another - often in multiple ways. I should add that once a critical mass of attendees has been reached (the OP mentions 20%; I'd think this is high enough) the utility (or lack thereof) of a TA's office hours will be known among students, after which more people may attend (or read the notes, Moodle, etc). –  Benjamin Dickman Apr 16 at 13:10
    
Yeah, I was thinking of that when I mentioned that my worry would be less relevant for a more mature student base. Thanks for taking the time to clarify, I appreciate it! –  Adam Bjorndahl Apr 16 at 13:59

TL;DR: Make the rest of the course so interesting that the office hours will become appealing, too; or incidentally make yourself a very good viral advertisement.

Not being a teacher I can only give account on what motivated me in my student years to go and see my prof/TA during office hours. Now I wish I had used the oportunity far more foten, but hey, what looks like a mistake now I percieved as perfectly all right then.

Namely there were two noteworthy occasions when I enjoyed office hours.

  1. This story is kind of long but I need you to walk through it to see the big picture. In my introductory course for calculus, I was very lucky to have very talented and enthusiastic professor. He himself designed a very clever e-learning system on which even the tests were based, so chances were when you spend enough time and effort with it, you'd have a very good chance reaching a top score in the test. When tests were written, there were math books available at a makeshift desk on a grass patch in the middle of the campus, and when you needed a help from a book, you simply walked off the test room (where around 200 students were writing their tests), had a go with the book and then resumed with your test. On the desk, there was a big cardboard sign with F1 written on it (the course was meant for aspiring software engineers, you see). The lectures were superbly conducted and fun to be at, too. Yet the turnup for office hours (if I may call it so) was never below 150. Why? The biggest lecture room was booked so that everyone could come. There was the professor and his TAs, too, so that councensual advice and reasoning could be presented 'live'. The office hours took place at 20:00 to 22:00 on the night before every test. The e-learning system allowed for sumbiting problems directly to a database that would be looked through at the office hours. Once, when a very important football (or soccer, if you like) match collided with the schedule, the professor brought a projector (what an asset, back then, with the lamp costing two month's worth of students' accomodation!) ant let the students watch the important moments (and watched with them). To that he noted domething like You have books, seminars, our e-learning thing, online forum* with all the teachers, well, you have pretty much everything. My duty as a teacher is to motivate you, to get you to learning at any cost.
    *This was in 2005, when online fora and e-learning for maths was not as common as it is today.

    So, you see, the courses were not only very successful, enlighting and encouraging (some students even switched to maths from computers!), but also they were fun and inviting and adventurous (we all know here how adventurous maths can be, but then we were still virtually untouched). And, what I find very important - everybody from other universities envied us when we told stories about our calculus course, so we eagerly went in for more! And got a good calculus basis in the process.

  2. Once I failed an exam miserably when I had been very confident about my knowledge. I asked after the exam if I can come to the office hours. To this the answer was But off course, I had been waiting the whole semester for you to come! If you have time, we can look at it right now! I had time so I went for it. And as he reviewed my test, two things became apparent: I did really vastly overestimate my knowledge and understanding, and I wasn't a complete failure either; and at the end I got a grade acceptable for me. Word about that spread quickly - no one after me got his grade updated during the office hours, but overall the grades of those who went to consult were improved.

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I'd like to add a suggestion on location.

I currently hold my office hours in one of the student cafés. When I had students from a particular program and those students had a common room, then I held them in a corner of that room.

The idea there is to go where the students are. It can take a bit of courage to go to a lecturer's office, particularly if it is a bit out of the way (my office is on the 12th floor). But a café is neutral and with lots of exits, and places where one can sit and listen to others' questions. Also, it's possible to be sitting nearby working on the homework and only coming over for help when needed.

(Plus it gets me out of my office, and in the vicinity of decent coffee.)

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Thanks - I love this tip! –  Mike Miller Apr 19 at 7:59

If they don't come to the office, move the office to where they are.

As a TA, I used to go to the department's library during the time I knew my students will be there, working on my next assignment, and engage in some light reading (say, the latest issue of my favorite math journal). Pretty soon, someone will be over with "Sorry to interrupt, do you have a minute to answer this question?".

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Talk with your professor and suggest that extra credit be given to students who come for lab hours. If your professor agrees, then, he can advertise that in his class and I'd be great if you also ahow up in class and advertice your office hours.

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I'm not happy with the idea of giving credit for an optional activity. What are we rewarding here? –  Loop Space Apr 15 at 19:06

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