Virtual Office Hours Get More Students in the Door. Will They Be Here to Stay?

Oct 23, 2020

From professors to advisers to career counselors, colleges employ many people responsible for coaching students on how to meet their goals. But students don’t always take advantage of opportunities to receive this personalized guidance.

Now that the pandemic has pushed many of these meetings into virtual spaces, though, some faculty and staff are reporting that more of their students are showing up—remotely—to office hours and advising meetings.

That has some higher-ed leaders contemplating making virtual appointments a permanent option, even after the health crisis has passed.

“I’m absolutely going to do virtual office hours in the future,” says Mike Oaster, professor in the department of emergency medical services at Sinclair College, a community college in Dayton, Ohio.

Better Participation Rates

Most students in Oaster’s paramedics classes are employed as firefighters. Only two or three students have ever come to the professor’s office hours in the 19 years he has taught at Sinclair. But since Oaster moved his office hours online in March, students have shown up to almost every session.

“I have found this is helpful for them,” he says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.”

He’s tried to make the system simple. Each week, he shares with students the links for the digital “rooms” he uses for his office hours. To participate, students don’t have to sign up or notify him in advance; they just pop in during the appointed times.

Oaster has noticed students coming to him with brief inquiries they might ordinarily save for during class time. Those encounters then lead to more substantial conversations.

“In the virtual world, they come in to ask a simple question, and then they say, ‘while I have you here, can you go over this again?’” Oaster says.

The advising office at Florida Atlantic University has also seen increased student participation in meetings since the institution shifted much of its operations online during the pandemic. Pre-coronavirus, students didn’t show up to scheduled appointments with advisers about 16 percent of the time. Since March, the no-show figure has fallen to about 8 percent.

“That translates to over 1,000 additional student interactions,” says Joe Murray, assistant dean of undergraduate studies and university advising services. That’s a big deal, he adds, during a crisis in which a lot of students need extra help problem-solving.

Advising meetings haven’t only changed formats. They’re also happening at different times of day. To better accommodate university employees whose lives have been altered by the pandemic, the advising office now operates on more flexible hours, which means it’s been able to make virtual appointments available for students until 8 p.m.

“Those evening hours, students loved,” Murray says. “We were better able to serve our population by shifting.”

And it’s not a shift that necessarily would be possible, he adds, if advisers were still working on campus instead of at home.

Before the pandemic, some Florida Atlantic students preferred to drop into the advising office rather than make appointments in advance. To maintain this option, the office has created a virtual waiting room. Students can sign up for the next available online meeting, then step away from their devices until an adviser contacts them.

Compared to the days when students sat for two or three hours in the real waiting room or hallway—sometimes asking family members to save their spots when they had to go to class—the virtual waiting room “is working so much better for us,” Murray says.

Adapting to Culture Shifts

Virtual meetings haven’t attracted more students at every institution, however. Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University, offered them even before the pandemic, in addition to holding in-person office hours. Participation was pretty low before COVID-19 hit, and it’s remained pretty low now that the in-person option has been scratched.

Student attitudes and behaviors toward one-on-one meetings with faculty were changing long before the health crisis, Talbert notes. When he started teaching more than 20 years ago, he used to get far more students dropping in.

He suspects that may have something to do with the fact that students now have many more options for seeking assistance with coursework. They can email professors. They can find resources on the internet. They can use digital class discussion boards.

And at Grand Valley State, they can go to the mathematics tutoring center, which has been offering virtual drop-in help through a Discord server since the spring.

“That’s been really heavily used,” Talbert says. “I wonder if students find it easier to get help through a peer.”

Even if participation is low, Talbert’s department still expects faculty to hold office hours, as part of its goal of providing students with the help they need to succeed.

“I would love to have more students coming to my drop-in hours,” he says. “A great part of that is having an immediate feedback loop. It’s hard to replicate outside of a voice conversation.”

Maybe the days of waiting passively for students to drop by—either in person or online—are over. After all, “the people who need that the most are the least likely to come in,” says Murray at Florida Atlantic University.

That theory has influenced operations at the institution for the past seven years. During that period, Murray says, the advising team has moved from a “zone defense”—delivering support if and when students walked into the office—to a “person-to-person defense”—assigning advisers caseloads of students and responsibility for reaching out to them, aided by a retention software system that’s now used by faculty and staff across the university.

The approach has helped Florida Atlantic improve its graduation rate. And, Murray says, it’s helped faculty and staff build relationships with students, which have proved essential during the health crisis.

If virtual advising meetings prove more convenient for students even after the pandemic has passed, the university will keep offering them, Murray says. It could be the next way the institution adapts to the needs and preferences of modern students.

“As a society right now, everyone’s talking about getting back to normal. Normal wasn’t perfect, certainly for what we were doing with face-to-face in higher ed,” Murray says. “There are certainly things that came out of this national crisis that have been a wakeup call in academic advising, and how we do business. We can leverage that for a new better normal.”


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