Allison M. Alford
Have you ever considered that the term office hours may be a barrier for students wanting to connect with their professors? While many in academia see office hours as a time for students to approach them with questions or concerns, students—especially those inexperienced with higher education—can perceive it differently. What is more, students taking courses online can confuse office hours events with a physical location that is inaccessible to them in a virtual environment. Like many other professors, I decided to make a shift in the terminology within our course. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic shift to online teaching, I rebranded my student-professor communication events to increase Faculty-Student Interaction (FSI) in an online-only, asynchronous business communication course. Synchronous communication events, termed Student Hours for one-on-one Zoom calls, and Coffee Connections for weekly one-hour synchronous sessions, were renamed and broadly advertised. To analyze students’ perceptions of this rebranding, I employed a short survey at the end of the semester to capture students’ satisfaction with the course, the professor, and the synchronous communication events. Below, I present 1) the need for enhanced Faculty-Student Interaction (FSI); 2) the problem of office hours; 3) the barriers to virtual office hours in an online environment; 4) strategies for rebranding; 5) the details of the current study; 6) tips for other instructors who aim to better connect with their students.
1. Students Need Faculty Interaction
Faculty can serve as a resource to students navigating the difficulty of college life, although students are often unaware of how greatly they can benefit from these interactions (Cotten & Wilson, 2006). Though students can interact with professors through many communication channels such as small-talk before or after class, or email, research has shown that students who attend office hours improve in academic performance (Guerrero & Rod, 2013). When students have concerns about grades, confusion about class material, or are simply seeking guidance, they may reach out to professors for support. FSI is clearly beneficial to students (Delaney, 2008; Hathaway et al., 2002) and faculty alike. Unfortunately, barriers to effective FSI persist in some institutions (Briody et al., 2019), and often this is a product of the failure of the machine called office hours.
2. Reasons Why Students do not Attend Office Hours
Unfortunately, students are often reluctant to participate in professors’ office hours for various reasons (Chang, 2020; Guerrero & Rod, 2013; Johnson & Price, 2019; Smith, 2017). Chang (2020) summarized it this way:
- They do not know what to expect.
- Students may think office hours are only for those who are having trouble.
- Some students put off going to office hours until they are desperate.
- Some students are embarrassed that they need help.
- Some students believe that email is preferable to face-to-face contact.
- Students are too busy.
Students are reluctant to 1) interrupt busy faculty and 2) meet faculty in their spaces (Briody et al., 2019). Instead, when professors make themselves appear available and dedicated to the allotted time with the students and meet the students in their territory, FSI increases. Students and faculty “often hold negative expectations about office hours,” which leads to a mutually reinforcing subjective evaluation process between instructors and students (Guerrero & Rod, 2013, p. 404).
For other students, there may be a cultural gap in understanding how office hours can be used to their benefit to navigate college life better; this is especially true for low-income, first-generation college students (Jack, 2019). Lack of awareness or understanding of academia may prohibit students from venturing to their professors for help, the responsibility for which rests with the instructor: “Stakeholders in higher education have a responsibility to make sites of faculty-student interaction, such as office hours, accessible to students” (Griffin et al., 2014, p. 94). While there are many factors out of the instructors’ control, they may increase interaction with students by making themselves more approachable (Griffin et al., 2014). Approachability can be increased through revealing aligned social identities, inviting gestures, talking time outside of class, and ease of access to instructors’ available time (Griffin et al., 2014). While these factors may be mostly under the instructor’s control in face-to-face settings, teaching online poses unique challenges for conveying instructors’ approachability and increasing office hours attendance.
3. Online Courses and Virtual Office Hours
Asynchronous online courses often rely on static, text-based communication forms between professors and students (Lowenthal et al., 2017). These methods offer unique ways of learning; however, they come with many drawbacks and barriers for FSI. Online, virtual office hours can create opportunities for students to get instant feedback, form connections, and learn the material more fully (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Lowenthal et al., 2017). Though professors may take the initiative to offer live sessions, there remains a question of getting students to attend. In a study conducted by Huang & Hsiao (2012), students indicated a greater connection with professors during synchronous meetings; however, they reported that scheduling conflicts, lack of ability to communicate spontaneously when meeting with groups online, and the greater amount of time needed to attend these events made synchronous meetings prohibitive. Students appreciate the flexibility of virtual office hours and the flexibility to schedule time with their professors during office hours (Lillie & Wygal, 2011).
4. Rebranding and Selling
One possible solution to the problem of office hours attendance is rebranding the name and thus redirecting the understanding of how professors and students can use this time together. Lowenthal and colleagues (2017) describe several ways that rebranding FSI initiatives and adding synchronous sessions can help asynchronous online learners. The first suggestion is to refer to office hours with more inviting names, such as “Happy Hours, Coffee Breaks, Afternoon Tea, Bat Cave, and Around the Campfire” (Lowenthal et al., 2017, p. 188).
The movement to rebrand course communities has been gaining steam in recent years with both industry publications (Falconer, 2020; Guertin, 2020; Lowenthal et al., 2017; Pearson, n.d., Stachowiak, 2019), and Twitter discussions on #AcademicTwitter steadily expanding. Other suggestions from professors include student-scheduled “consultation hours” (Ross, 2019), “help hours”, instructor-scheduled sessions “help room” (Kram, 2019), “face-time” (Menton, 2014), or “advising hours” (Guertin, 2020).
Figure 1: Tweet reads: “I used the term ‘help hours’ and met with students in a large public room (the ‘help room’)” (Kram, 2019).
Joyce (2017) found some success with rebranding these hours as ‘tutoring,’ doubling participation, and repetition of visits. While the concept of course rebranding is not novel, few studies are examining the efficacy outside of anecdotal evidence. Marketing this rebranding may be best achieved by starting with the syllabus, which Fuentes and colleagues (2020) say is the first site instructors can promote equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) by thoroughly explaining their philosophy, expectations, requirements, and more. In short, the syllabus’s messaging sets the course’s tone and is especially important for fostering an inclusive course environment, promoting EDI, and reaching diverse students more effectively through simple rebranding. Likewise, Pearson (n.d.) noted that minority and first-generation college students might find the term office hours to be misleading and need a language that sends a more inviting signal. Professors on Twitter have repeated this need for rebranding to clarify the purpose of interactions for first-generation students.
Figure 2: Tweet reads: “I rebranded office hours to student hours for this reason. Being #firstgen, I never went to a prof’s office hours. I didn’t really understand what they were. So, I make sure to tell my students that it’s time I set aside for them each week” (Slakoff, 2020).
Professors can help students better understand the goal of this interactional time by informing students of the specific schedule for synchronous sessions at the start of the term to anticipate availability in advance (Lowenthal et al., 2017). The syllabus, course schedule, or LMS calendar should reflect the same messaging. However, pitching connection time and professor availability must be repeated. According to Cotten and Wilson (2006), students fail to recognize a need for faculty interaction (especially for anything other than grade problems or course difficulty), so they suggest faculty actively and consistently encourage students to approach them. Also, according to Lowenthal and colleagues (2017), faculty should remind students of upcoming live sessions, for example, by creating weekly announcements on the LMS. They also recommend creating recordings for those students who cannot attend, providing valuable content in these sessions, and interacting with students during structured and semi-structured synchronous sessions. Based on these recommendations and compelling ideas, this study was designed to uncover students’ perceptions of faculty-student interactions in an online course.
5. The Study: Students’ Perceptions of Office Hours
My research questions related to students’ perceptions of FSI, synchronous engagement, and rebranding. FSI is characterized by availability, presence, and quality of communication from the professor. Synchronous engagement is characterized by student participation in available activities. Rebranding is the use of new terminology that will attract students to FSI events. Shortly before the semester began in the fall of 2020, my courses were reassigned from face-to-face delivery to online-only, asynchronous courses. At my university, students were assigned (with little notice and few options) to courses meeting face-to-face, hybrid, and online-only, leaving several unhappy with their resulting schedules. This situation led me to consider ways to improve connection with students during a time of difficulty and confusion; thus I rebranded office hours to Student Hours for optional, one-on-one Zoom meetings at the student’s convenience, and Coffee Connections for an optional, scheduled Zoom all-class session every Thursday morning. To better market these opportunities, Student Hours and Coffee Connections were advertised in the syllabus, in the “Start Here” module on the Learning Management System (LMS) Canvas, in weekly scheduling notices on Canvas Pages in each module, and frequently pushed announcements which arrive instantly in students’ inboxes (see Figures 3-5 below). Students had to the options to schedule Student Hours via Microsoft Bookings calendar or email me directly. Announcing FSI events in multiple locations, explaining their benefits, and using digital tools for accessibility, presented opportunities for student and faculty engagement (Smith et al., 2017).
Figure 3: Student Hours informative page found in the Start Here module on Canvas, describing the goal of this time and ways to schedule and join the sessions.
Figure 4: Coffee Connections informative page found in the Start Here module on Canvas, describing the goals and times of the event, ways to join, and past recordings.
Figure 5: Sample weekly task page in Canvas displaying optional attendance in Coffee Connections and Student Hours with clickable images.
After receiving IRB approval at the end of the semester, students were invited to participate in a Qualtrics survey for extra credit. First, students reported their perceptions of FSI in the course, as seen in Figure 6 below. Although many factors may contribute to students’ reporting of availability, presence, and quality, it is likely that engagement with the professor (through various synchronous and asynchronous events) contributes to this marker (Cox et al., 2010). These results are promising, indicating students’ generally high satisfaction with FSI during this course, which has been shown to favorably impact professional and personal growth outside of the classroom (Briody et al., 2019).
Figure 6: Mean response when asked about professor’s availability, presence, and quality of communication during an online course.
Next, students reported on synchronous engagement as seen in Figures 7 and 8 below. Results indicate that students were aware of the opportunities to connect synchronously with the instructor, though most did not avail themselves of the opportunity. Those who did, however, reported a high satisfaction rating for both types of synchronous engagement opportunities. Students who did not attend Student Hours or Coffee Connections synchronous sessions reported a variety of reasons for their lack of participation, which match the reports of scholars who reported controllable and uncontrollable factors by professors (Chang, 2020; Guerrero & Rod, 2013).
Figure 7: Students’ reasons for not attending Student Hours one-on-one virtual appointments.
Figure 8: Students’ reasons for not attending Coffee Connections weekly sessions.
The survey also asked students about their satisfaction with the professor (generally satisfied, but not a strong link), their awareness of the rebranding (most were aware), helpfulness of the rebranding efforts (majority indicated it helpful, but unexpected amount indicated it unhelpful- see Table 1 below), and their future likelihood of attending rebranded FSI versus former branding of office hours (unexpectedly more likely to attend FSI with former branding-see Table 2 below).
Table 1: Students’ perceptions of the helpfulness of rebranding efforts.
|Is this (calling it Student Hours instead of Office Hours) a helpful approach to promoting one-on-one professor/student interaction?||Is this (calling a live session something unique such as ‘Coffee Connections instead of ‘Live Office Hours’) a helpful approach to promoting student-professor interaction in an online class?|
Table 2: Students’ reports of the likelihood of attending differently titled synchronous sessions.
|Are you more likely to attend ‘Student Hours’ or ‘Office Hours’ when needing help in an online course?||Are you more likely to attend a live session called ‘Live Office Hours’ or ‘Coffee Connections?’|
|Student Hours||31||Coffee Connections||34|
|Office Hours||38||Live Office Hours||35|
The results in Table 2 indicate that student responses were nearly evenly split on their choice of FSI names, with a slight preference shown for the more formal terminology of office hours. According to Cotten and Wilson (2006), as students become more familiar with the norms of the academy during their tenure at university, they may cling to these rules and rely upon these cues for help in understanding expectations. Students may like and trust familiar terminology that they have practice using and a clear understanding of events with the same name; on the other hand, some students see the rebranding as student-centered and, therefore, welcome the redirected terminology.
Lastly, students shared, in their own words, comments about the rebranding efforts, as seen in Tables 3 and 4 below.
Table 3: Exemplar quotes from students about helpfulness, unhelpfulness, or uncertainty of rebranding synchronous sessions.
|Student Hours||Coffee Connections|
|Helpful /Likes||“It implies that the time is entirely for the students’ benefit.”||“[It] makes it sound more interesting and interactive.”|
|“It sounds a little less intimidating.”||“It seemed more casual & approachable.”|
|“[This] makes it more personable.”||“[This] promotes discussion and not just listening to the professor.”|
|“[It feels] welcoming.”||“[It felt] fun and relaxed.”|
|Unhelpful / Uncertain||“I am already comfortable with office hours and what it means.”||“It is not necessary to rename office hours; it makes it seem less formal and therefore less helpful.”|
|“[I am] unsure what ‘Student Hours’ actually means.”||“It felt like more of an informal meeting to get to know the professor on a personal level rather than to receive help.”|
|“[It] could be confusing if searching a syllabus for the available times.”||“[I was] unclear what was going to be covered.”|
|“I see the purpose, but it doesn’t change if I need it more.”||“[It] seemed confusing.”|
Table 4: Students’ responses to open-ended questions about synchronous communication opportunities with their professor
|What else (if anything) would you like to see for student and professor one-on-one sessions?||What else (if anything) would you like to see for live sessions with a professor?|
|“I don’t feel that every one-on-one interaction needs to be via Zoom. Sometimes a phone call can be helpful in answering a quick question.”||“Maybe [you could] promote it more [and] create incentives for coming.”|
|“I was uncertain which questions warranted a one-on-one session and what I should just email about.”||“[Try] making a certain number of them mandatory would help force a person to tune in and focus.”|
|“[Try] possibly changing the times each week or once in a while, because I had class during that time.”|
|“[Give] more help, less chatting.”|
|“Tell us in advance what will be covered.”|
|“Complete exam practice questions together.”|
|“Give extra credit.”|
The findings indicate that while students reported generally high satisfaction with the FSI in this course, results were mixed in the areas of synchronous engagement and rebranding. According to Cox (2010), many student factors contribute to student-faculty interactions, like synchronous meetings, and most of these are unknowable. Perhaps students who attended synchronous events were pre-disposed toward satisfaction with their coursework, and perhaps this is due to agility with learning. On the other hand, perhaps those who rated low instructor satisfaction even after attending synchronous events were predisposed to unhappiness and difficulty with learning. As Lowenthal (2017) concluded, more research is needed to understand the areas where satisfaction decreased and determine if it is due to the rebranding efforts or some other combination of factors (such as technology constraints, students’ temperament, knowledge, expectations, or level of education). Though results indicate students prefer office hours language, it may be due more to norms than actual preferences (and can also indicate their level of privilege within the academic system and its associated normative behaviors). Students rely on cues to help understand expectations in a course (Cotten & Wilson, 2006), so instructors must consider how to frame new changes in light of former terms. Students’ comments about synchronous events in my course echo the complex needs described by Chang (2020) for Student-Faculty interactions, noting that there is quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding needs and expectations for synchronous time between faculty and student. What is clear is there is still more work to be done to provide students the best possible support.
6. Tips for Online Instructors
First, as communication instructors, we can all agree that it is important to know our audience. Online learners are flexible with new learning environments and willing to adapt to the tools and norms of the online learning environment (Huang & Hsiao, 2012; Lillie & Wygal, 2011). For that reason, the online environment seems well-suited to these kinds of rebranding efforts. However, you might ask students to confirm their communication preferences. As Li and colleagues (2011) found, many students prefer asynchronous connections such as email, especially when given a guaranteed turn-around time.
Second, clarify your rebrand through redefinition. I have learned that synchronous events with new names should be defined by their former names at least once, to give students a general idea of the purpose of these sessions in relation to their common names. This provides students a legend for reading the course map and understanding how to engage with the available tools.
Third, effectively market your FSI events. Because there is wide variability in delivery styles for online learning (at some institutions, not all), online learners often expect the unexpected and adapt well to new norms. I learned that it is important to create spaces throughout the course where students can learn to interact with the LMS or other tools of the course. Teaching the students how to learn in an online environment is as important as the content material of the course. This benefits students in the moment and yields results for downstream courses they may take online later, enhancing online education at the institutional level.
This study was conducted to better understand students’ perceptions of FSI, synchronous engagement, and rebranding of office hours in an online class. Students reported high satisfaction with FSI and the course, which is a direct result of professor intentionality and effort to increase students’ experience (Griffin et al., 2014). However, students reported low-to-moderate engagement, perhaps due to a variety of factors (Chang, 2020). Lastly, students reported, in their own words, their perspectives on rebranding the terminology of office hours¸ providing insights on ways to make this good idea more effective in the future. Putting these and other suggestions (Lowenthal et al., 2017) in place in your classroom can enhance the student experience.
It is important to acknowledge that this study of a one-semester online course has many limitations including 1) the data were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and are, therefore, inherently non-normative. A future semester with students who willingly and happily choose online learning may yield different results; 2) A one-time snapshot of the course was collected in a survey through which students earned extra credit. A future study could include a pre-and post-course survey to understand how students’ attitudes change throughout the semester as they gain an understanding of the course structure and intent; and 3) Data on communication preferences, both synchronous and asynchronous, were limited. Because questions focused on measuring satisfaction relating to the synchronous (and not asynchronous) tools, it was not possible to discern whether students’ satisfaction levels were related to their time during the synchronous communication event or related to external factors.
Future research might use the theoretical framework of Communities of Inquiry (CoI). CoI is a framework for building classes with online-learning components with an eye toward participation between learned and instructors to facilitate knowledge creation (Huang et al., 2019). Teaching presence, a component of CoI, can serve as a useful lens for understanding how enhanced instructor presence in the online classroom facilitates knowledge creation rather than simply measuring the nebulous construct of student satisfaction.
The results of this study provide insights into students’ preferences for synchronous engagement with faculty and ways that pedagogy can evolve to meet students’ needs. As instructors, we must continue to try new things to meet students’ needs as they evolve, especially in online settings where interpersonal communication interactions are typically sparse. Therefore, I suggest the following tips for online instructors who may want to implement their own rebranding efforts: Know your audience, clarify your rebrand through redefinition, and effectively market your FSI events.
As I reflect on this study, I am proud to have taken the opportunity to try something new with a student-centered connection at its heart. Rather than a conclusion, these changes are just the start of my attempts to better connect with my students and enhance FSI in an online environment.
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Dr. Allison Alford is a clinical assistant professor at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. In her cross-disciplinary work, she researches family roles related to business and professional communication. Current projects include perspectives of adult daughters’ providing support to their parents during the Covid-19 pandemic while balancing work and personal life. Find out more about Dr. Alford on her website (https://goodtalkconsulting.com/) or connect on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/allisonalford).
Allison M. Alford. (2021). Coffee Connections: Rebranding Virtual Office Hours in an Online Course. the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.2.
 The author thanks Dr. Kayla Rhidenour (Baylor University) for collaboration and inspiration.