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Making the most of office hours

Attending a professor or TA’s office hours is probably one of the most underutilized success strategies at university.

Many students are aware that office hours exist but don’t fully understand how visiting their professors and/or TAs during office hours can help to improve their academic results. Further, students may feel intimidated, embarrassed, shy, or anxious about approaching their instructors for help. However, making use of office hours can have a huge impact not only on grades but also on the university experience as a whole and on future career opportunities.

Here are some strategies to make the most of office hours:

Know that these hours are set aside for YOU

It may be a bit nerve wracking to admit that you are struggling with, or even just have questions about an assignment; however, office hours are designed for you to get your questions answered and deepen your understanding of course expectations, assignments, and course content.

Instructors (including both professors and TAs) typically wait in their offices during these hours for students to come in with their questions. Take advantage of this valuable opportunity to speak with your instructor one-on-one. 

If you’re unable to meet your instructor during their posted office hours, you can contact them to ask if they can meet with you at a different time or conduct virtual office hours. Taking this step shows initiative and your commitment to doing well in your course.

Come early

Don’t wait until the day before the exam or the assignment is due to ask for help. Come early in the term to get your questions answered. Come at the first sign of any issue, before real trouble has arisen in the course.

Try to arrive in the first few minutes of office hours so that you get your chance to talk to the instructor. This is especially important during busy times of the term (e.g., right before a paper is due, right after a paper has been returned, and in the weeks before an exam).

If you do find yourself waiting outside the office, make sure you signal to the instructor that you have arrived and are interested in speaking with them. 

Come prepared

Visiting your instructor with a short list of specific questions is a lot more helpful than simply saying, “I’m confused.” Explain what you do understand about the assignment and show the attempt you’ve already made in tackling it. Providing this background can help your instructor understand what you are finding challenging or perhaps not understanding about the assignment, and offer helpful clarifications. Once again, showing the work that you have already done to  understand and try to begin your assignment shows your initiative and dedication to doing well in the course.  

Visiting your professor before an exam may give you an opportunity to review the material that will be covered. Take note of what your instructor emphasizes during your meeting. Let your instructor know how you have approached studying for the exam so far and where you have focused your studying efforts.

Ask the instructor if you’re on the right track in your areas of focus. Taking this step can help you cut out material that may not be important, saving you valuable study time and brain space. 

Arriving to office hours prepared demonstrates that you are taking responsibility for your learning and that you value your instructor’s time.

Take the opportunity to review graded material

It is okay to meet with your instructor if you are disappointed with the result you received on an assignment or exam, especially if you feel you were graded unfairly. Before you meet with your instructor, however, you should take a close look at where you lost marks and read any feedback you were provided. When you visit your instructor in their office hours, focus on seeking clarification on any parts of the feedback that you do not understood and ensuring that you fully understand how you were assessed.

Students who take the time to learn from their mistakes perform better in subsequent assignments and increase their confidence as learners.

For questions about how to appeal a grade, contact the SFU Ombudsperson.

Build a relationship over the course term

Office hours are useful even beyond the opportunity for support and academic help they offer. Use this one-on-one time with your instructor to learn more about them – their research, awards and committee involvement, for example. Undoubtedly, your instructor will have many valuable insights to share about scholarly pursuits and career development. You can also contribute to the conversation by sharing your interest in the course material and your ideas about the career path you hope to take.

While building a professional relationship outside the lecture halls takes time and effort, it ensures that you stand out from the crowd. And you will want to stand out when it comes time to ask for a reference letter or recommendation for a job, promotion or grad school. Furthermore, if you are on your instructor’s radar, you may be the first person they think to recommend for any special research or employment opportunities they hear about, which can help you to build your resume, expand your professional network, and even earn an income!