- Office hours aren’t just useful when you have a question about a test; putting in face time with your professors can make a huge difference for your semester and future career.
- Students who take advantage of office hours tend to do better in the class.
- Go early in the semester and be respectful of your professor’s time.
It’s a new school year, which means you’re likely being bombarded with advice for how to make this year better than the last. And if you’re new on campus, establishing good habits at the start of your first semester is important. If you do only one thing to set yourself up for success this year, make it this: Go to your professor’s office hours.
“I think that meeting with a professor face-to-face is a must for all students. It’s a way of humanizing the student-teacher relationship,” says Bethany W., a second-year graduate student at Purdue University Northwest in Indiana. “It’s also a good way of showing your determination in order to get leniency in other areas (such as grades that can be rounded up—or down).”
Office hours can pay off big-time—for your grade in the class and for your success down the road.
Putting in face time early in the semester (before things get hectic) can make a huge difference in your academic success. “Professors are rooting for their students to succeed, but it’s hard to invest in someone who is just a face in a crowded lecture hall—office hours offer a great opportunity not only for students to get extra clarification on course material but also to give professors a chance to learn about their interests [and] witness how invested they are in the class,” says Dr. Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Political Science Education found that attending office hours is positively correlated with better performance in the class. “For the most part, students who take advantage of office hours are the ones who tend to do best in the courses I have taught,” says Dr. Emily Jordan Jensen, an assistant professor of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. “When I think back on the students in whom I have felt the most invested, they are all students who were intentional about pursuing face time with me beyond class meetings.”
Go early in the semester
“I love it when students request to meet early in the semester. It helps me solidify their names and feel more connected to them right away,” says Dr. Jordan Jensen. Even if you don’t have specific questions about the class, it’s a good time to start getting to know your professor and pick his or her brain about post-grad plans or summer internships.
When you do have class questions, don’t wait for the week before the final to hit up office hours. “I always tell my students to come to my office the minute they feel lost,” says Dr. Prinstein. “Once they’ve dug a hole too deep to get out of, it’s hard to bring them up to speed in time to salvage their score on a final.”
Know when to go to your professor and when to go to your TA
Often TAs (teaching assistants) have their own office hours. For specific questions about the course material, it can be smarter to attend those over office hours with your professor. “If a student knows that a TA is going to be grading a particular assignment or exam, it can be advantageous to form a relationship with them,” says Dr. Jordan Jensen. “TAs are often closer to the material than professors are, they likely learned course concepts more recently than the professors did, and they may be less affected by expert bias; this means they can actually be better at breaking down concepts and explaining them in ways that make sense.”
Think about your future references
At some point, whether it’s for a dream internship, grad school, or first job, you’ll need references who can speak to your character, your interests, and your hustle—building a solid relationship with a professor you admire can help ensure you have a stellar one.
Here’s a little secret: Most professors want to give you a good recommendation. But you have to put in the effort. “One of my favorite aspects of working with undergraduate students is learning more about their goals for post-graduation life,” Dr. Jordan Jensen says. “When I am able to get to know students, it is a joy to write letters of recommendation for them and connect them to other colleagues and professional contacts who can help them on their journeys.”
Use online office hours—if your professor offers them
“Online office hours can add a lot of flexibility—I have used them for online and in-person courses that I have taught, and always offer them as an option in my classes,” says Dr. Jordan Jensen.
For online-only classes, it can be harder to connect with professors, which makes these windows where you can set up a call or video chat with your professor even more valuable. “In the two online classes I’ve taken, I haven’t interacted with the instructor much at all. I mostly emailed with them. I think in hindsight that it would have been helpful to interact with them more in person to foster a closer working relationship and better understand their teaching philosophies and methods,” says Katie T., a fifth-year undergraduate at Stanford.
Be respectful of your professor’s time
Most professors are clear about their preferred method of conducting office hours (set times, by appointment, in-person, via phone or videoconferencing, etc.), so be respectful of these guidelines. “When I was a graduate student, I once heard of an undergrad who requested to meet with her professor, an esteemed researcher, at a coffee shop near her dorm because ‘the professor’s office was so far away,’” Dr. Jordan Jensen says. Needless to say, you don’t want to become that example.
Office hours are valuable time with your professor—so take advantage of them
“Email is fine, but nothing replaces an actual conversation,” Dr. Prinstein says. Big questions like how to pick a topic for your research paper or reviewing the content from a missed class are better discussed in person than via email—you’ll get more out of it, and your professor will be happier too.
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Emily Jordan Jensen, PhD, assistant professor, Family Studies Department, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Mitch Prinstein, PhD, John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina.
Guerrero, M., & Rod, A. B. (2013, November). Engaging in office hours: A study of student-faculty interaction and academic performance. Journal of Political Science Education, 403–426. doi:10.1080/15512169.2013.835554
CampusWell survey, June 2019.