Here are some strategies for effective student-faculty interactions outside of class, including approaches for addressing common challenges or pitfalls.
Be clear about boundaries of time and space. Before the start of the semester, think through issues such as: How would you like students to address you? Do you want your students to call you at home or not? Is it OK for students to visit your office outside of posted office hours? How long should your students expect to wait for an e-mail response from you? Is it appropriate to be “Facebook Friends?”
Recognize that interactions are part of your teaching. From a “teaching-centered” approach, interaction outside of the classroom may be relatively limited. However, with a more student-centered approach external interaction beyond casual conversations are encouraged where feasible. As such, they deserve the same awareness of communication, organization, and of your role as teacher (and the power it holds) that you have while working in the classroom.
Be aware of your students’ individual learning preferences and your own teaching style. Because one-on-one interactions offer the opportunity for more tailored conversations about students’ gains and struggles with the course material, style differences are particularly important to notice and attend to (3). Don’t assume that all students employ the same learning model; indeed, students use a wide range of approaches to learning (competitive vs. collaborative, avoidant vs. participative, dependent vs. independent ). Similarly, consider what role(s)—such as information expert, personal role model, discussion facilitator, evaluator, consultant, etc. – you are most comfortable playing (5).
Be mindful of professional and personal roles. Additional interactions will blur professional and personal lines. With increased external communication and interaction, students will likely see you in a much less formal manner. This works well in some situations, but for those who wish to maintain very strict formal relationships external interaction may be more challenging. In order to facilitate a productive relationship keep roles and boundaries clearly defined.
Students may not all want contact outside of class. It is helpful to consider that within the class there are large personality differences. Some students will gravitate quickly toward opportunities to interact with you outside of class; whereas others will do all they can to avoid these additional contacts. A refusal for out of class interaction may well not be a personal rejection, but rather nervousness or a very busy schedule for your student. It is easy to be quickly drawn to those more affable students and at times assume that there exists a relationship between their eagerness for interaction and their interest and accomplishments in learning. At times it is the quiet and socially awkward student who needs the most attention and may also be the student who has the best grasp on the course material.
Make the most of office hours. Many faculty members find that even though their office hours and location are clearly marked in the syllabus, students rarely visit (except perhaps right before an exam or afterwards with grade complaints). Consider some of the reasons why students might not attend your office hours more regularly: Do they know how to find the location? Are they concerned that they won’t know what to talk about or that their questions will seem stupid? Would they be more comfortable in pairs or small groups?
As noted earlier, one strategy for addressing these ideas is to require students to sign up for and attend an office hour visit very early in the semester. These can be brief sessions, and can focus on something non-threatening, such as a student information sheet, or an ungraded diagnostic response paper or other initial assignment. For large courses, you could save time by having students come in pairs or small groups; this has the added benefit of enabling the students to get to know each other.
Consider holding office hours at times amenable to student schedules. For instance, if classes start on the hour on your campus, holding an office hour between 1:30 and 2:30 will allow more students to attend (at least part of the hour) than holding it from 1:00 to 2:00. Also consider alternate locations, such as coffee shops or rooms in other academic buildings around campus. Additional ideas for making office hours productive include having students satisfy a course requirement during office hours, prompting students to prepare specific questions in advance of the visit, and to follow up with students who miss office hours (2).