Nov. 13, 2023
In ‘breaking’ traditional office hours, VCU is helping students succeed
The new approach – “student hours” – in VCU’s Science Hub in the new STEM building is being embraced by students and faculty alike.
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Office hours — scheduled time outside of class when professors are available to meet with students — can play an important role in academic success. They can provide struggling students with extra help on material being taught in class. They provide a chance to get to know the faculty member a bit better. And they can even lead to mentorship, research and internship opportunities.
Yet many students don’t attend office hours. Some might not be sure what office hours are for exactly. They might be held at inconvenient times. And the idea of a one-on-one meeting with a faculty member in their office can feel intimidating, particularly for first-generation students and students from underrepresented populations.
At Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, more than 40 faculty members teaching STEM courses are embracing a new approach to office hours that is more welcoming and accessible. Rather than holding office hours in their individual offices, the professors are making themselves available to students at the newly opened Science Hub in VCU’s new six-floor, 169,000-square-foot building dedicated to STEM.
Instead of “office hours,” the new approach in the Science Hub is being called “student hours.”
“We’re turning office hours on its head,” said Michal Coffey, director of VCU’s Campus Learning Center, which operates the Science Hub. “We’ve not just moved locations. We’re also changing the culture of what it looks like and feels like for a student to interact with their faculty.”
So far this semester, students have participated in student hours in the Science Hub more than 900 times.
In a survey of the participating students, 100% said they would recommend that other students attend, 84% reported higher confidence in STEM, 60% were more comfortable meeting with their professor in the Science Hub than in the professor’s office, 58% felt a stronger sense of belonging at VCU, 63% felt a stronger sense of belonging in their field or major, and 63% expressed a greater desire to stay at VCU. More than a third said they had not previously attended traditional faculty office hours.
“We’re doing something here that’s creating a welcoming space for a population of students who traditionally have not gone to office hours,” said Allison A. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in VCU Life Sciences. “We’re talking about influencing hundreds and hundreds of students. The more than 40 faculty members who are going to student hours are mostly teaching 200- to 300-seat classes.”
For students in large lecture classes, having a dedicated space like the Science Hub to facilitate faculty and student meetings is a powerful tool for academic success, Coffey said.
“We’re bringing them together in a communal space that’s set up in a very welcoming manner,” she said. “And you can bring a friend! Maybe your friend is going to meet with another professor who’s there at the same time. It doesn’t even have to be someone in your class.”
Mariah Maxwell, Ph.D., the Science Hub program manager, said student hours are breaking down barriers to student success by creating a more comfortable environment for students to seek help from and build connections with their professors.
“This not only opens the door for academic support but also provides opportunities for students to engage with the culture of science by chatting with faculty about internships, research experiences and potential career pathways,” Maxwell said. “The faculty embrace student hours because it allows them to interact with more of their students, and it allows them to engage with faculty from other departments whom they may have never met otherwise.”
Inside the Science Hub
On a recent afternoon at the Science Hub, two dozen students gathered around tables, working with College of Humanities and Sciences faculty members from the departments of Chemistry, Math, Psychology and more. A couple faculty members are tucked away in breakout rooms, meeting one on one with students. And Amanda Harris, Ph.D., a teaching associate professor of chemistry, is visiting different tables of students, checking their work on calculators and using a whiteboard to help demonstrate an equation.
“The Science Hub works for me because I am able to help groups of students,” Harris said. “My office only fits one or two students, but in the Science Hub space I can work with more students simultaneously. The Science Hub has been better for students, too. It can be hard to ask for help, but students feel comfortable attending the Science Hub with their friends and coming to a neutral space versus my office.”
Harris said student hours in the Science Hub are encouraging students to participate. “I have better turnout in the Science Hub than when I hold office hours in my office,” she said.
Shawn Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology, said the Science Hub and student hours demystify and destigmatize the concept of office hours.
“It’s a cool opportunity,” he said. “It’s different than, like, walking to the hallowed halls of someone’s individual office. It’s made office hours more accessible and approachable.”
The central location, often with multiple faculty members on site, is convenient for busy students, he added.
“A given student has the opportunity to not only meet with me for Psych 101 but also potentially with the chem professor, their bio professor,” Jones said. “I’ve seen that happen.”
Kaleijah Brown, a third-year forensic science major, said student hours in the Science Hub have helped her be successful in her chemistry class this semester.
“It’s helped me understand the material better,” she said. “I like the collaborative learning with other students, too. They’ll ask questions that I might not think I need help with, but then the professor works it out on the board and gives me a chance to learn from a different perspective.”
In this fall’s survey, the participating students commented how student hours facilitated “being able to talk one-on-one with my professors,” “being able to spend time with the professor and being open to ask any questions” and the “ability to listen to other people’s questions.”
Meeting students where they are
The idea for student hours began getting off the ground in 2018 when the Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded a grant to VCU to increase a sense of belonging on campus.
VCU faculty members and the Campus Learning Center, which provides academic support for undergraduate students, decided that “breaking office hours” would connect students and faculty, support academic success and foster a sense of belonging, particularly for first-generation students and others from underrepresented populations.
Jennings, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biology, was a faculty fellow through the HHMI grant and helped innovate student hours to build community and lower the barriers that are inherent in interactions between students and faculty and between faculty in different departments. Jennings was key to getting the concept off the ground, helping to encourage faculty across campus to participate.
“It really was word of mouth for the first few semesters,” they said. “If there was anyone I could tell about it, I did — a lot.”
At first, the Campus Learning Center hosted student hours in different classrooms. After a couple years, it was moved to a space in James Branch Cabell Library. But when the STEM building was designed and built, the Science Hub was always meant to be a dedicated space for the concept.
“Our students want to see and meet with their faculty,” Coffey said, “but we had to create the right environment.”
The Science Hub and student hours have “definitely had an impact on the community at VCU,” Jennings said, adding that more students say hello when they pass by on campus and even just come by to hang out and work on assignments during the scheduled time.
“It has been wonderful to see our vision become a reality — faculty from different departments engaging in conversations and building connections, students who were more comfortable engaging with their faculty and seeking support as well as engaging with each other,” Jennings said. “I think the current student hours far exceeds what we had initially envisioned, and I cannot wait to see how it continues to grow and impact both faculty and students.”
One key to the concept’s success? It doesn’t put an undue burden on faculty.
“We were not asking our faculty to do one more thing. Because a lot of times, these initiatives are like, ‘Oh, can you guys just do this, too?’” Coffey said. “We were saying, ‘If you’re holding two hours of office hours in your tiny room right now, we just want you to pick that up and move it to a new space.’ We did not ask them to change anything else.”
Student hours at VCU may be focused mostly in STEM fields at the moment, but it could easily translate, said Jones, the psychology professor.
“We know that students who come for office hours, who come to ask those questions that they may not have had an opportunity to ask in class, we know that pays dividends for their learning, for their performance,” he said. “And so this idea of being able to decentralize and demystify that concept, that process, I feel like that is transferable to other disciplines, other places across the college campus as well. This idea definitely has legs.”
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