Professor in his office
September 10, 2020
4 mins read

Virtual office hours: They're worth your time

Navigating Online Learning

I recall the first time I went to office hours: my first-year self taking the elevator up Buchanan Tower; getting lost in the hallways (one of my superpowers); finally finding the right door. Knock.

I was the only student attending office hours at that time, so I got the chance to discuss not only my assignment but also one of my favourite books, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, with my prof, Dr. Gillian Jerome (without feeling guilty for hogging her time).

Having previously discovered (very delightedly) that she’d actually written a review of that book for Geist, I spent a few minutes talking about it with her. As the conversation went on, she even recommended another book to me: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. (Great read, by the way.)

That experience has stayed with me—and to date, I’ve gone to many more office hours for other classes, from calc to organic chem, with equally fantastic experiences!

Office hours may be virtual now—but I assure you that they have their own set of benefits.

New (and even returning) students: start this new school year at uni by being proactive, and get ready to visit office hours online! Here's what to expect:

Who offers office hours?

Many different individuals may offer office hours for your class, such as your course instructors, your TAs, and, in some cases, your Peer Tutors.

If you’ve caught wind of some apocalyptic tales of cold, callous profs, take these anecdotes with a grain of salt. Teaching staff aren’t monsters spawned to terrify you—they are here to guide your learning and help you feel supported.

Teaching staff may seem intimidating when they're lecturing, but I find that they're quite down to earth when you speak to them outside of class. I can’t tell you how many times Rate My Professors reviews have painted a prof in a way that a) isn’t the prettiest and b) differs so much from how they are in real life (when I took their classes) that it’s like I’m witnessing some Jekyll-Hyde dichotomy. Always remember, YMMV—your mileage may vary. 

Why you should check out office hours

Office hours may get recorded and posted—but going to office hours in real time can help you stay engaged with your teaching team and your classmates.

In addition, attending office hours can help you:

  • Get clarification on course content or assignment instructions, so you don’t sink into the quicksand of confusion
  • Listen in on questions that your classmates ask—and get answers right away
  • Get some socializing in; many profs I’ve had possess a terrific sense of dry humour—and so may your classmates
  • Find a potential buddy!

Since office hours are open to everyone, try to stick to questions that are relevant to the classmates attending with you. If you’re looking to discuss topics that relate to you personally (e.g. deadline accommodations, grade disputes), consider emailing your instructors to schedule a 1-on-1.

Even if you don’t have any particular concerns, still log in when you can. You could:

  • See if you’re able to respond to your classmates’ questions for an intellectual challenge/course recap
  • Review the material from a different angle

Plus, your course instructor may notice how proactive you are, and you may be able to connect with them (mayyybe you’d like them to be your reference later on?). Similarly, you can connect with your TAs or Peer Tutors and get advice on landing volunteer or research roles.

That said, if it’s really not convenient for you to attend an office hour—for example, you'd have to wake up in the middle of the night due to time zone differences—consider asking a classmate who's planning on going to ask the question for you, and then follow up with them for the answer.

How to prepare yourself before logging in 

Here are 3 quick to-dos to maximize your office-hour experience:

1. Confirm when and where office hours will be held

Your prof may change parts of the syllabus throughout the term, so try:

  • Watching for course communications (e.g. Canvas Announcements, Instructor Notes on Piazza)
  • Asking a friend in the class
  • Checking with the prof during class

2. Prepare questions

When preparing your questions, check that they haven’t already been answered in the syllabus, on class discussion forums, or in previous classes.

If you don’t have specific questions but just want to drop by, here are examples of what you could ask:

  • “What are common mistakes that students make on exams in this course?”
  • “I know everything we cover is fair game, but will I get explicitly tested on [very specific detail on a topic]?”
  • “What are the cases where we can’t use [certain formula/equation]? Are there any exceptions to [particular rule]?”

Consider writing down your questions; this way, if you’re shy, it can feel easier to read what you wrote rather than articulate your inquiries on the spot.

3. Review the course content

Check what you understand so far—so that when your classmates are discussing details, you’ll be able to keep up. Maybe while reviewing, you’ll even figure out what you wanted to know. And even then, you could always confirm if your line of reasoning is sound!

If you feel uncomfortable participating in office hours…

This is a completely normal feeling. Here are 2 alternatives:

  • Linger online after the lecture: Profs will sometimes stay a few minutes after class to answer questions (with recording stopped); you can wait until almost everyone has left the online space and ask your questions with fewer people around!
  • Email your instructor to see if you could schedule a 1-on-1 conversation

Hope that you will check out a few—or many!—office hours this year and that you have a fantastic experience.