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Have you heard about “acedia”? It’s that listless, directionless loneliness that is consuming most of us these days. If it feels like your students aren’t very “present” in class these days, it’s not in your head. The combination of turbulent current events and the social isolation of the pandemic are wearing on everyone, and students may be especially vulnerable.

Students feel disconnected right now. From each other, from the subject matter, and from their instructors. Educators can’t change our students’ circumstances, but we can take action to help support and engage them in their learning. Engaging students is essential to foster effective learning and academic integrity. But engaging students in an online learning environment requires extra effort from the instructors.

One thing that can help student engagement is meeting one-on-one, which can be more effective than trying to connect within the virtual classroom or through asynchronous communication like emails and discussion boards. Office hours, sometimes called tutorials or student hours, are a great opportunity to connect with students in the online learning environment. Anyone who’s sat alone grading papers and waiting for students to show knows that simply scheduling office hours isn’t enough. Here are some tips to get your students engaged through virtual office hours.

Incentivize Office Hours

    Make it a homework assignment or offer extra credit for showing up. If your class is small enough, require that students attend office hours once or twice per term. If you have a larger university lecture class, have students meet with their section leader. Making sure all students show up for a meeting is a great way to make sure you get some one-on-one time with every student. Maybe set aside the first two weeks of office hours for informal meetings and ask the students some ice breaker questions, just to get them used to the idea of the virtual conference setting. Maybe use it as an opportunity to learn if your students need any special accommodations or are facing extra challenges related to remote learning or their present circumstances. You can also consider requiring it around midterms time so that you can check in on how the class is going for the student and help them prepare for upcoming assessments.

Offer Different Options

    There are so many tools that make it easy to hold drop in office hours, or let students make appointments that work for them. To hold drop-in hours on Zoom for example, enable the waiting room feature, so you can meet with one student while others wait “outside”. To offer them by appointment, there are a number of tools available. Many LMS’s have appointment features, as does Google Calendar, or you can use independent sites like Youcanbook.me or similar. These create appointments during times you are available to meet with students. Also, be clear that if your offered times don’t work, students can contact you individually to find a time that works for both of you.

Make a plan

    When students know what they want to talk about, office hours can be used more effectively. Have students make a plan, or even email you what they want to talk about in advance. This way, not only can you be prepared to best support them, but they are more invested in showing up. This can also help students with “Zoom anxiety” to know what to expect and show up in a more present mental space. Alternatively, have a few questions or an office hours “template” on hand to get the conversation going with your students and get to know them better.

Keep it short

    Zoom fatigue is real and can make the idea of yet another meeting feel intolerable. Keeping things short and casual can help a lot. Schedule meetings in increments of 15-30 minutes, or less if it’s an informal, required meeting at the beginning of the term. This not only takes the pressure off for the student, it also feels a little less overwhelming when our days are filled with hours long stretches in the confines of our Hollywood Squares screens.

Make it easy

    For many students right now, there is no normal day. Especially for students who work or have childcare duties, time is at a premium and finding the space to be present in a virtual meeting is no small ask. As much as possible, without sacrificing your own wellbeing, try to accommodate students’ varied schedules and duties when they try to schedule office hours.

Connecting with students is harder than ever, whether teaching in an online learning environment or in person, but these adjustments will make it easier for students to take full advantage of your knowledge and guidance, while helping to foster engagement and community.


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