Have you ever heard of office hours? Do you know how to use them as a strategy for learning and improving your work? Do you know that office hours are an infrequently used resource that can help raise your grades, build a relationship with your professor/teaching assistant (TA), and put you on a path to future academic success?
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you want to know more about how university works and how it differs from high school. Since you’ve read beyond the first sentence, it also means that you care about how well you do.
When you get to university, you’ll notice that every professor and TA have office hours. This is the time when course directors and teaching assistants sit in their office and wait for students to drop in and speak about the course, assignments, and basically anything else that a student needs guidance on. Office hours are also the most underutilized resource on university campuses. In fact, it is very common for professors and TAs to sit by themselves for the entire duration. This is a shame and a wasted opportunity. Here’s a tip you won’t hear anywhere else: while office hours are typically presented to students as optional, trust me, they are not. Without question, you should visit your professor regularly. In addition, you need to understand how to approach them. Despite the importance of building a relationship with your professor/TA, no one will ever tell you how to actually do this.
Office hours are not remedial, they are an opportunity for proactive learning
There is a widespread misconception that students should only attend office hours when they have a problem. Your peers will probably reinforce this myth. Don’t listen to them. In my view, office hours are a place for proactive learning, not reactive complaining. There are several positive things that can come from these highly personalized meetings and regular attendance will provide you with informed academic guidance and an opportunity to network. The academic benefits will become clear to you early on.
Most professors and TAs love talking about course material with students who show an eagerness to learn. In a simple ten minute conversation with your course leader, you’ll be introduced to insights that are never conveyed in lectures or tutorials. This is also true for assignments and exams. For example, if you approach your professor/TA about an assignment before you start research, you can start a conversation with them about the most important resources that you should consult, what the most prominent authors on your subject have to say, and possible pros and cons about your approach. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of this valuable information from a short conversation with the person who will be grading your paper? I’d say so!
Networking can also pay valuable dividends. Your professor will not reward you because they know your name, but knowing your name may present highly sought after opportunities like research assistantships that look great on a résumé. While you probably don’t know this, professors are constantly involved with various initiatives that require undergraduate help (sometimes paid). Demonstrating professionalism and motivation can make you a great candidate. You may also want to consider that at some point in your academic journey, you may require a reference letter. If you have invested the time to cultivate a professional relationship with your professor, it will be much easier for them to say positive things about you. Moreover, an established relationship with your professor will allow them to comment on intangible skills beyond your grade, like character, motivation, and personality. I once sat on an admissions committee for a Masters programme and trust me, the quality of reference letters (even among A level students) varied a great deal. Networking is key.
Office hours are meant to be constructive – you don’t know everything
Another thing I want to emphasize is your mindset. When you visit your professor/TA, be open to constructive feedback and hearing things that you haven’t really thought of before.
One of the biggest differences that I have noticed between excellent and mediocre students is how they take advice. In the past, I have seen students interpret academic guidance as a knock on their intelligence, as if they should have already known what their professor is explaining to them. If you haven’t encountered the material before or you don’t have a solid grasp of what is being communicated, take it as an opportunity to learn and not as a criticism of your intelligence. Leave each conversation feeling invigorated rather than inadequate. This is what the best students do. From my experience, high-achieving students take advice from academic mentors as an opportunity to learn what they don’t know.
Remember, your professor has probably spent months, years, or decades in the field that you are studying. Take the opportunity to learn from the time they have invested in research.
Try not to be misled by the myth that office hours in university are optional. In addition to completing the obligatory requirements of your undergraduate courses, you should view the attendance of office hours as mandatory and habitual. Remember, your relationship with your professors/TAs will be dramatically different than the one you share with your teachers. Forming a connection will require a strategy and you should get to work on doing so as soon as you enter the doors of your university. While it is common and natural, don’t be intimidated to speak with your course instructor. Trust me, once you see the benefits of regularly visiting your professors/TAs, it will break down any barriers you may be feeling. Your future self will thank you for it!