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Work in Progress: Improving Student-Instructor Relationships and Help-Seeking through Office Hours

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2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Baltimore , Maryland

Publication Date

June 25, 2023

Start Date

June 25, 2023

End Date

June 28, 2023

Conference Session

Biomedical Engineering Division (BED): Best of Works in Progress

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Biomedical Engineering Division (BED)

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Emily Abigail Schafer Northwestern University


David P. O'Neill Northwestern University

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David O'Neill is an Associate Professor of Instruction and the Michael Jaharis Director of Experiential Learning for the Biomedical Engineering Department at Northwestern University. David read Engineering Science at University College, Oxford, receiving his M.Eng. and D.Phil. before undertaking a post-doc in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics. During these years, he taught undergraduate tutorials for Keble, New, University, and Harris Manchester Colleges, was College Lecturer for New College and a Senior College Lecturer in Engineering Science for Keble College. He taught approximately 75% of the core degree topics, as well as human physiological measurement laboratory classes for medical students.

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Introduction: Strong relationships between students and their instructors have an undisputed link to positive student outcomes, such as retention, motivation, sense of belonging, and academic achievement [1]. However, the student-instructor relationship is under-prioritized by educators. For example, science and engineering courses are often taught with a culture of high pressure that is unwisely thought to yield more successful and resilient graduates [2]. Office hours are critical opportunities for discourse and relationship-building. Students often cite cognitive and emotional obstacles as preventing them from participating in office hours, such as fear of judgment, low task persistence after failure, and belonging uncertainty [3-4]. There is a clear need for new teaching strategies during office hours that lower barriers to participation and encourage students to build connections with their instructors. We reframed office hours as communal working spaces for students that aim to create a more relaxed and comfortable environment and encourages participation without judgment or expectations of preparedness. We hypothesize that students who are offered the ability to go to “Office Hours: No Strings Attached” will report more comfort in help-seeking and stronger positive relationships with professors and teaching assistants (TAs). Methods: This intervention was previously implemented in two Biomedical Engineering (BME) courses during hybrid learning to support relationship-building [5]. This work was extended to a further in-person course by having all instructors (professor and TAs) use the ‘Office Hours: No Strings Attached’ strategy. The BME course was a lecture-based physiology course mostly taken by undergraduate juniors and first-year graduate students (n = 77). Students completed [and will complete] a pre- and post-course survey regarding their perceived barriers to office hours and the effectiveness of the intervention. Survey questions evaluating student-instructor relationships were based on previous questionnaires [6-7]. Post-course qualitative interviews [will be] conducted with the instructors to further analyze the impact of the office hours strategy and the instructor perception of student-instructor relationships. This study was carried out with approval from the local IRB. Results and Discussion: From pre-course survey data, 46.8% and 29.9% of students reported that one of their motivations for office hours attendance was building relationships with the professor or TA, respectively. Students also indicated agreement with the literature about common barriers to office hours participation. Many noted that feeling unprepared was a common reason that prevented them from attending office hours in the past, more specifically noting that they felt that “I already had to have a strong understanding [of the material]” or that they “worry about whether my questions were worth going to office hours for”. The office hours environment was also commonly noted by students as a key reason they felt discouraged from attending. Several students had previously found office hours felt “intimidating” or filled with “judgment.” One student described previously being “strict or very formal [creating] an atmosphere that is difficult to freely ask the questions I wanted to ask.”

Conclusions Preliminary data demonstrates that a large number of students look to use office hours as a space for relationship-building and that the barriers intended to be addressed by the ‘Office Hours: No Strings Attached’ intervention are frequently cited by students as discouraging office hours participation. Pending results from the post-course surveys will offer a more complete analysis of if the proposed intervention has an effect on relationship-building and help-seeking, or if results differ from previous work based on in-person learning.

Schafer, E. A., & O'Neill, D. P. (2023, June), Work in Progress: Improving Student-Instructor Relationships and Help-Seeking through Office Hours Paper presented at 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Baltimore , Maryland. 10.18260/1-2--44283

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