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Enhancing the Effectiveness of TA Office Hours

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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With any of the strategies, it is important that TAs send messages of genuine willingness to assist students.  Undergraduate students do distinguish between "availability" and "approachability."  They have told us that a person's "availability" during tutoring/office hours does not necessarily mean that they see him or her as "approachable."  They are far more likely to "approach" someone whom they perceive as willing to assist - empathetic, patient, and interested in their learning.



The posting below looks at ways to make teaching assistant office hours more productive.  It is from Chapter 5 - - Preparing Graduate Teaching Assistants for Their Specific Instructional Roles, in the book, Working Effectively with Graduate Assistants, by Jody D. Nyquist and Donald H. Wulff. Published by Sage Publisher, Inc. Copyright © 1996 by Sage Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Enhancing the Effectiveness of TA Office Hours 


(From the section titled Holding Office Hours/Tutoring0

Sometimes TAs are responsible for working one on one or in small groups with students during office hours or in tutoring roles. Tutoring or holding office hours may be the only major assignment that a TA has, or it may be part of a larger assignment in a course, section, or laboratory in which a TA has another teaching assignment but is expected to provide additional one-on-one assistance for students.  You can use the following ideas to help TAs make the time valuable for themselves and the undergraduate students. 

Emphasize That Holding Office Hours Is an Important Assignment. When TAs whose primary responsibility is to tutor or hold office hours compare themselves to TAs with responsibility to conduct a section, lab, or course, they sometimes end up short-changing the office hour/tutoring role by suggesting that "I just hold office hours" or "I am only a tutor."  So, it is important to stress that working one on one with students is a teaching role, and, in some ways, it is teaching at its best because it provides the opportunity for the TAs to meet the specific needs of individual students.  In addition, it provides the TAs with an opportunity to work with the students in a less formal, more interpersonal setting.  Students express their approval when an instructor or TA offers additional instructional assistance beyond the class meeting time.  On the other hand, if an instructor or TA misses a regularly schedule office hour, word spreads quickly and students do not hesitate to point out that the instructor is not as available as promised.  The office hours are important also because they collectively provide TAs with insights into the kinds of ongoing questions and difficulties that students are having with course content and suggest areas for further review or instruction in the course.  

Explain That Students Will Need Encouragement to Use Office Hours or Tutoring Services.  Ironically, even though students expect instructors to be available during office hours or scheduled tutoring times, many students rarely use such services.  You can assist the TAs to encourage students to use the potential of office hours by helping them think about the scheduling of office/tutoring hours.  One TA we knew was doing everything that he perceived possible to accommodate students' needs in office hours but was having little success in getting students to use the office hour times.  When we had the opportunity to talk to the students, they expressed their concern about the times the office hours were scheduled.  The office hours were on Monday and Wednesday mornings.  Students frequently got quizzes back on Wednesday afternoons and felt the need to discuss their grades and answers on the quizzes immediately.  They reported, however, that by the next Monday morning, because they were well into preparing for the next weekly quiz, it was too late to go back and think about the previous quiz. As this example demonstrates, it is important to anticipate student needs when scheduling office/tutoring hours.  On many occasions, students have expressed preference for office/tutoring sessions that are held immediately after the class with which the tutoring/office hours are associated.  Also, TAs need to be willing to meet by special arrangement if students are unable to adapt their schedules to the regular times. 

Because of the potential value of the office hours/tutoring, you also might suggest that the TAs: 

* Require students (in smaller classes, of course) to attend one office hour before the first major assignment. 

* Allow students with similar questions/concerns to come to office hours in small groups. 

* Describe exactly what will happen when students show up for office hours or tutoring sessions so that the ambiguity and fear    of the unexpected can be reduced for students who are timid. 

* Provide office phone numbers or use e-mail with their students. 

With any of the strategies, it is important that TAs send messages of genuine willingness to assist students.  Undergraduate students do distinguish between "availability" and "approachability."  They have told us that a person's "availability" during tutoring/office hours does not necessarily mean that they see him or her as "approachable."  They are far more likely to "approach" someone whom they perceive as willing to assist - empathetic, patient, and interested in their learning. 

Point Out That Office Hour Instruction/Tutoring Requires Careful Listening.  Listening is particularly important during tutoring or office hours because the success of such sessions is heavily dependent on careful assessment facilitated by listening. Initially, TAs will need to ask questions and listen carefully to determine where the students' needs lie and what students are lacking in terms of information and/or skills.  Through this kind of listening, the TAs can meet needs much more quickly and readily.  In addition, the approach sends strong messages about respect and desire to hear how students talk about what they are learning.  Once the need is identified, good tutoring is still more than a process of explaining, giving examples or answers, or telling students what to do.  Rather, TAs need to learn to ask students to talk out loud about how they are thinking about the information and/or skill and using it.  This approach provides an opportunity for the TAs to provide ongoing assessment and guidance.  As a final step in the one-on-one meeting, it is important for TAs to learn some informal techniques to assess whether the student has learned.  Too often during such one-on-one sessions, students stare blankly and nod their heads in agreement but do not understand what they have heard and do not want to face the embarrassment of admitting that they did not understand.  Thus, the TA might ask the student to talk through the concept discussed, give a different example, or work through a similar kind of problem - any approach with which the TA can assess the student's understanding of what has just been learned. 

Encourage TAs to Use Frameworks to Organize Their Time With Students During Tutoring or Office Hours.  Clearly, TAs cannot anticipate the many problems and issues that students might bring, and, in some ways, it is presumptuous to think they can plan for such a spontaneous event.  Nevertheless, there are specific ways to think about various kinds of content, and preparing with frameworks in advance not only will help TAs prepare students to think about the content but will also help them realize that they can be prepared and confident for office hours or tutoring interactions. Some of the frameworks might be derived from your own discipline's way of thinking or from your own ways of thinking about your work.  For instance, you might suggest a framework with five basic steps: 

* Establishing rapport

* Diagnosing the need (concern, information, problem) 

* Identifying a goal to be accomplished in the session

* Assisting the student in addressing the need

* Assessing whether the student understood

Although the rapport and final assessment will exist regardless of the kind of course and content, the kind of framework TAs use in the middle steps to get students to think about a problem or concern will depend on the content and the kinds of questions that students have. 

Sometimes, a framework for solving mathematical problems will be helpful.  We know TAs who help students think through problems during office hours by asking: First, "What is the problem asking you to do?" Then, "What information do you have and what information do you need to solve the problem?"  Next, "Where can you find the needed information?" And, "How would you proceed then in using the information to solve the problem?" Finally, "How could you check to see if you have solved the problem correctly?"  Similarly, in reviewing concepts, TAs might use a series of questions that checks to see, first, if students can define a concept ("So, how does the author define contingent leadership?"), if students understand this concept ("How would you explain contingent leadership in your own words?"), and then, perhaps, to provide to an example ("Can you give me an example of contingent leadership in a business setting?").