Thursday, April 01, 2010

Office Hour Chat

Every week I sit in my office during my designated office hour(s), and I get some student visitors during this time, especially before a problem set deadline or exam. Students also stop by my office at random times; they are welcome to come to my office whenever my door is open. Of course many students also send questions by e-mail, instead of or in addition to asking me questions in person, and I always reply.

This classic system of in-person office hours supplemented by e-mail works pretty well. There should not be any students who cannot somehow get their questions answered in a timely way.

Nevertheless, I have long felt dissatisfied by the limitations of this system. In part my dissatisfaction has stemmed from a feeling that students were waiting until the last minute (that is, just before the final exam) to study the review materials I provide after every class, and many were not reading the textbook, although I carefully selected a textbook that complements the class and has useful diagrams and information to which I specifically refer in class.

On the one hand: That's their problem, not mine.

But still. Is there any way that is relatively painless for us all abd that I could fix these classic problems be fixed in any way, at least for some students, at least a bit?

I don't know, but here is a new thing I have tried this term: I have an online office hour, at least once/week (perhaps more just before the final exam), and I use a designated networking site that I set up specifically for this class. During the e-office hour, I "chat" online in realtime with the students. I am sure others are doing this, but I just started this term.

This is much better than e-mail question-and-answer because it is interactive, allowing instant follow-up questions and clarification, and all students who login can see or participate in the chat. I can answer a question once, and all the students, even the lurkers, can see the answer. It is sort of like a review session, but it is more versatile because it is logistically so easy, I can have a mini review session every week, even if I am out of town. And, if I am at home, I can bring my cats to my "office hour".

Some students have not participated at all; some of these might participate just before the final exam; some might not ever participate. In that sense my e-office hour doesn't solve the problem of reaching every student, e.g., the terminal procrastinators, the insanely busy, or those drenched in apathy. Perhaps the students who participate in the online chat are the ones who were already keeping up with the review materials.

But perhaps I will be able to help a few more students in a somewhat more constructive way than otherwise, and that will be progress. That is what I want to try to evaluate at the end of the term. For now, though, I am happy with the chatty office hour and the easy way to increase substantive interactions with my students.

What I haven't figured out yet is whether there is a course size at which this type of online chat office hour is no longer manageable or whether it works for any size of course. Has anyone tried this with a giga-class yet?


estraven said...

This sounds very interesting. As I have a problem with usual office hours (few students, each with a different schedule and a campus that's widely spread-out) e-chat office hours seems wonderful.
Do you think it would be acceptable to hold them, say, 5-6pm or maybe later?

Anonymous said...

that's a very good idea, I applaud you for your creativity in embracing new technology to enhance classroom education.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

I have even taught courses by chat, but that works best for discussing material they have already read, not for presenting new material, for smallish groups. I have also conducted exercise sessions with about 20 people in which I selected answers to problem sets at random and discussed the solutions online. I took multiple solutions for each problem.

One noted she was shocked to have her answer presented publically, as she sees that as a conversation just between the two of us. On the other hand, she said, it was really, really great to see alternate correct answers.

Even with 10 or 20 you have to be a dictator and squelsh any side-channel chitchat. We focus on the problem and take the party offline.

With more that 20 you need a chat system that has a queue for questions that you answer one at a time. I did a session like that once, I had over 200 lurkers and 72 people pose real questions during 1 1/2 hours. I was also drenched in sweat and my fingers hurt after that session. It was very taxing.

Lucky me, my mom made me take 10-finger typing in high school instead of something useless like physics....

So I tend to use chats just for smallish courses, although for an office hour it is great. You can play with the cats or read blogs during the session (if you keep an eye on the chat window or it has a bell that rings when someone asks a question).

Anonymous said...

Do you also save your chats and post the text to somewhere the students can download it at some later time (like 12AM the night before the exam :p)? I think that would be another great resource for students that can't or don't make the live chat session.

Anonymous said...

In the past, I have done something similar but "live". I called one of my office hours a "weekly review session". Even with 100-120 students in the class, I still did not get more than fifteen students (not counting my usual before the exam review, which might attract 30-40), but it attract a regular clientele. It was fun, and I think valuable both for students who brought questions and those who just listened. I eventually let it lapse through a combination of business and laziness. However, I still think it was good both for me and the students, and for me (as an old dinosaur) more fun than an on-line version (especially since I type with two fingers).

Mark P

afrodisas said...

This seems an interesting idea considering the fact that this generation of students CONSTANTLY textmessages!

However, my concern is that students are getting more isolated due to many reasons, technology particularly, every semester. They live in a very strange world. I feel they will lose interpersonal communication skills in the near future (And I do not believe that technology is helping them in that regard) .

a physicist said...

many were not reading the textbook

Perhaps there's some reason you don't do this, but I use the first five minutes of class to give a reading quiz nearly every day. I teach with clickers so the quiz is easy to administer and grade. Comments I've gotten in the past: "This is the first class I've ever kept up with the reading." I find the time cost (5 minutes) is easy to recover by not having to spend my lecture time covering the very basics, and that instead I can move more quickly to the material that the students find difficult.

Sample reading quiz question: "Conservation of momentum was explained using examples of (a) rockets and cars, (b) baseballs and bats, (c) horses and carts." In other words, it's not testing did they understand the reading (the sort of question I'd ask on an exam) but just did they open the book. By tuning the difficulty level of the questions you can reach the right balance, to make sure they did the reading but not so hard that they miss the questions even if they read it.

Extra detail: I let them drop their lowest 3 reading quizzes, so that I don't have to worry about absences. In other words, there is no such thing in my class as an "excused absence", absences for whatever reason just eat up one of their 3 dropped quizzes. This way I don't have to judge the validity of excuses. I'm on the semester system, so this works out to dropping 3 quizzes out of maybe 35-40.

I originally heard about the reading quiz technique from Eric Mazur.

rallain said...

I am anxiously awaiting the comments. I would love to hear what other have to say about this.

I consider myself a very technologically progressive person, but have never tried this.

Rosie Redfield said...

I also use a reading quiz to get students to read the textbook before I discuss the material in class, but it's online and weekly.

Instead of a chat session, I have students post their questions on the course discussion board where everyone can see them, and I answer them promptly there. Any questions sent to me by email get posted and answered there too.

Anonymous said...

At one introductory physics class I attended at a SLAC, the professor held a weekly problem session, at which students could ask questions, especially about bits of the problem set they were stuck on. Usually he went through the complete solution of at least one of the week's problems. I didn't usually attend (because I generally found I was able to solve the problems on my own), but I think about half of the roughly 30 students in the class attended regularly and presumably found it helpful.

unlikelygrad said...

Will you tell us which networking site you use for this? I would love to give this a whirl. My limited experience correlates well with Mark P's: class just over 100 students, review sessions of 10-15 (though I did once get 30+ before an exam).

I'd also like details of how the software adapts to things like writing equations--it is possible to type these on a computer, but not easy.

@a physicist, regarding clicker reading quizzes: Neat idea! Unfortunately, I'm not in charge of actual lectures right now, but I'm filing this away for a time when I am. I think clicker technology is great, but I dislike the way it's currently being used in the class I teach. Your way sounds much better. Have you found that this reduces the number of late students?

Ursula said...

many were not reading the textbook

In one of the classes I took (as a post-doc), I was forced to read the textbook, because it was impossible to do the homework without it. The professor covered the subjects of the previous home-work/reading assignment in class (in depth), instead of the subjects needed for the next homework assignment.

I like the Quiz method of "a physicist" as well.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever pretended to be a student and posted a fake question (for pedagogical reasons, of course)?
I would find this very tempting, though I vaguely recall reading in the Chronicle about a prof who did this and how his students were outraged. Outraged! How dare the prof do something for our own good!

a physicist said...

@unlikelygrad: Yes, that's a useful side benefit. It tracks attendance and encourages folks showing up on time. It works well for these things.

I should note I also do the peer instruction / concept questions during class method (also advocated by Eric Mazur) and so the students aren't just using the clickers for the reading quiz. I think they might resent clickers just for quizzes, but they're fine using clickers for multiple things during classes.

I'll also say that I think there's many ways to use and misuse clickers. I'm not surprised to hear that you're unhappy with how you see them used right now. There's a lot of nice work describing how to use clickers, explaining the rationale behind them, and documenting effectiveness. Eric Mazur (physics) and Bill Wood (biology) are good starting points to read about effective uses. But your mileage may vary.

Ms.PhD said...

a physicist- I love your suggestion for using clickers that way. I would totally do that if I were to do it again.

My students complained that the textbook was too expensive, as were clickers.

What are you supposed to do when that happens? I agree that the textbook is too expensive (and I didn't get to pick it). So I didn't use clickers.

FWIW, only a very few of students make use of the online forums or chat options, and most didn't come to office hours.

They wanted to make appointments at their convenience, which was inconvenient for me. But I'm told the students prefer this to limited office hours at a set time during the week, due to conflicts with other classes, lab work, etc.

I never knew that teaching was such a service profession. The really depressing part was when I calculated out how much I was getting paid to teach: less than $1 per student per hour spent devoted to this class. So really, office hours were the least profitable for me, in terms of money. If 3 students show up for 2 hours, I got paid $6 for that? Seriously?

Kevin said...

I'm with Rosie Redfield
"Instead of a chat session, I have students post their questions on the course discussion board where everyone can see them, and I answer them promptly there. Any questions sent to me by email get posted and answered there too."

I've found class forums (where messages stay up forever) much better than chats or e-mail for class content discussions and homework clarifications.

Personal matters (like missing class) are better done in person or by e-mail.

For math in chats, take a look at what some of the math blogs and the Art of Problem Solving people are using.

Anonymous said...

We used this last year for a class of 140 students, offering 2-3 one-hour review sessions before each exam. We never had more than a handful of students participate in each session. Perhaps narrowing to one session would make it more effective. I think it is a great idea, and can be offered in large classes. A weekly review would probably build more "buy-in" and regular traffic.

Harvestar said...

A prof at a former university was doing this 4 or more years ago with his class of ~150 students. He found it very successful.

Kate said...

I've tried with a Giga-Class. Right before exam time it is IMPOSSIBLE and exhausting. All the other weeks almost no one came so it was fine.

Allison said...

One of my classes did this in college. Monday - Thursday there would be online office hours from 8 to 10pm. One night it was the professor, and the other three nights it was a TA. But that way if you were reviewing the material and had a quick question, someone was there. I think we all really liked it and the teacher and TAs didn't mind because it was one night a week, and they kept the chat window open and could be helping students, but 1) be at home, and 2) be doing other things especially if it wans't busy that night. I think it was a wonderful system!

Alex said...


What sort of system or site or platform do you find works well for interactive online office hours?

Ms. PhD,

If you don't feel right asking students to buy a clicker on top of an expensive textbook, setup a reading quiz in Blackboard, or whatever course management site the school uses. It takes slightly more time than making powerpoints for clicker questions, but it's still pretty easy (at least in Blackboard) and it's something the students already have access to. You can make the reading quiz due whatever time, so maybe 30 minutes before class you look at the statistics on what % got question 1 right, what % got question 2, etc., and then begin the lesson by either focusing on the weakest area or moving right ahead to the applications of what they read.

Peter said...

@ estraven, I think holding students til 6 pm is okay. But I guess you have to make it a bit earlier because some students want to rest since its Saturday.

Asian University Professor
stadium fence

a physicist said...

Ms PhD: at our school, a few years back a prof got together all the intro science teachers and we all agreed on a standard clicker. Students can buy this clicker their freshman year and know with confidence that they'll use it in all their science classes throughout. And, the bookstore cheerfully buys back clickers, as they too know that they can resell them. (We did have to discuss this with the bookstore to get them to agree.) So, the cost of clickers is not a huge issue.

Although, of course, it is an issue to some students, just as the textbook is. Some places I've heard of (not us) will provide loaner clickers to students, letting them check them out with their student ID for each class.

FemaleMathProfessor said...

This last fall I did online office hours for my courses while I was on maternity leave. I used Wimba pronto to do about six hours a week so that I didn't have to come in to campus with the baby. With all my classes together it was roughly 130 students. It worked out fine. Probably because so few showed up.

female Science Professor said...

I decided not to use the "official" university web system for my online office hour, and the students said they were grateful for this. It is not very friendly and involves going through my menus to get anywhere. So instead I used a social networking interface and it's been working well (but not Facebook). Everyone uploads a profile photo, and there have been some very creative ones.

Anonymous said...

I am also curious what site you use for this chatting.

mylifeinscience said...

I had a professor who used to come to our dorms and give help sessions. This was, of course, before the bazillion internet options. It was pretty cool because most of us in the dorm studied for our classes together and worked together anyway. The professor would come and give private help sessions as long as there were four or more of us. He usually came and had dinner with us beforehand, too.

Anonymous said...

sounds super frustrating when you want to draw a figure, table, or equation.

though i guess if you spend a little money on a drawpad-thingy and invest time learning how to best represent information in chat, then it would work well the second year.

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate student I have used the program elluminate for review chat sessions. The particular class I used it in only offered review session directly before tests. The teacher chose only to use the chat function (instead of the white board or the speaker, etc) but I still found the sessions to be very useful. Things to note are that in these sessions I was a "lurker",each of these review sessions had about 75 people in them, and the course I took had about 200 people enrolled in it.

tl;dr? I love the concept of online chatting for classes and I would definitely utilize it if offered! I generally don't attend office hours and, yes I am one of those students who doesn't really keep up with readings like she should, but I would utilize these sessions and I think they would help my understanding of the material.

comment system said...

I have a class of 30 students, give or take, and we usually discuss off hours online only, I find them to be a bit more organized and focused when it's online cause face to face people tend to elaborate more, and it's usually unnecessary.