Skip to main content


Staring into the Zoom Mirror: Solving the Empty Office Hour Problem

By Julianne Morgan

Starting in August, the Office of eLearning began offering daily office hours via Zoom to all instructors. A one hour block of time on every day of the week where instructors could drop-in to a Zoom room as they pleased to ask questions, to work in silence, to brainstorm ideas, or even just to chat about the latest show on Netflix. Great idea, right? If folks showed up, great! If they didn’t, we’d just work on other things while keeping the Zoom room open. 

Like many instructors we’ve heard from since everything moved online, we had a similar problem with our office hours as many of you have had: no one showed up.* 

I spent many an hour staring into the horrible Zoom mirror with that webcam always turned on. It was easier said than done to just “work on other things” while waiting for drop-ins. I felt like I was in limbo because I didn’t want to start on projects that required a significant amount of mental energy -- that’s the worst kind of work to get interrupted. So, I’d spend the time reading articles, doing the low-brain-fatigue clicking work that keeps the Isidore lights on, bringing in a teammate to chat, and admittedly sometimes singing/dancing. All the while, the omnipresent Zoom thumbnail mirror stared back at me, constantly reminding me that this block of time is not really "mine," even though I'm alone. 

I believe there are significant differences between Zoom office hours and in-person office hours that make Zoom office hours feel more exhausting and ineffective than in-person office hours --- even though they are, in essence, the same thing. 

  • It’s easier to be productive at your physical workplace. You may still feel like you’re in limbo while waiting for students to drop-in, but “home” and “personal time” is much less likely to encroach while on campus. You’re less distracted by kids, spouses, pets, dishes, snow-shoveling, etc. So while you may still not want to start on those big brain-suck projects while waiting for students in your physical office, it’s still just easier to work while at work. 
  • There’s no omnipresent reminder that you’re “on” while you’re in your physical office. In Zoom, you always know you’re “on” because of that Zoom thumbnail, or the light on your webcam. You might feel paranoid, like someone is lurking silently in the Zoom room, and you just don’t know it because you’re not checking the participant list every 30 seconds. So, you’re left feeling this constant reminder that this time isn’t really yours, and again,  this makes it more difficult to get any actual work done. This also just adds to the feeling of fatigue. 

So, here’s the thing. I don’t have any data to back up this claim, but I’m willing to bet that students not showing up to office hours is not something new. I’m betting that students showed up just as infrequently to in-person office hours as they do to Zoom office hours. It’s just that the reasons I stated above make these isolated office hours feel much worse than those similarly empty in-person office hours. 

This said, I still want to emphasize the critical importance of maintaining office hours for your students - even if they elect not to come. Students are telling us that they appreciate that instructors are offering office hours, and we know students want to connect with you. 

Thus, here are some ideas to make Zoom office hours feel like a better use of your time. 

  1. Modify Your Zoom Settings.
    Many of the problems with Zoom I identified above can actually be solved with different Zoom settings. 
    • The “Zoom Mirror” Problem: Turn off your own video feed while in the room alone. No more staring at just how uneven your mouth turned out to be. 
    • The “Lurking Paranoia” Problem: Enable the Waiting Room in Zoom so that students can’t just randomly pop-in. Think of it as equivalent to knocking on your office door. A sound is even played when someone enters the waiting room! You can admit them to the room immediately or ask them to wait if you’re wrapping up something or meeting with another student.
  2. Motivate Students to Attend.
    Office hours feel ineffective because they so often are -- no one shows up! The honest truth is that you may never get a huge number of students to join, but I believe there are strategies for increasing attendance that will work with just a little effort on your part.

    Dr. Shruti Nagpal argues that teaching is based on the “Boomerang principle”: what one gives, one gets in return.

    Office hours are designed to be low effort for the instructor. You figure out what time you want to host them, you slap that information into your syllabus, you set up a Zoom room, and then you just show up. Easy. It’s so easy that the Boomerang principle kind of explains why there are such low returns for office hours: little effort → little reward.

    Let’s start small. With just a small bit of additional effort towards office hours, perhaps you’ll have just a few more students join this semester.
    1. Rebrand Office Hours
      Just the title of “Office Hours” can sound intimidating. Don’t switch over to anything that might confuse your students, but here are some alternative titles for office hours that others have used that might fit your class or your personality better:
      • Student Hours - used by Dr. Daniel Birdsong from Political Science
      • Meet With Me - used by Youssef Farhat from Political Science
      • Chat With Me
      • Coffee Break
      • Tea Time
      • Hangout Hours
    2. Explain Office Hours
      I vividly remember not understanding the purpose of office hours when I was in college. I think I only went to office hours twice, and I felt incredibly intimidated and embarrassed each time. I’m not alone in this - article after article prove that students are really afraid of one-on-one time with instructors.

      At the start of the semester, clearly explain to your students during a Zoom or in-person class meeting the purpose and value of office hours. Tell them that it’s not necessary for them to have a clearly defined problem or question in order for them to attend. Invite them to come meet with you just because you want to get to know them. Make sure you also explain how office hours work - with instructors using many different scheduling tools, make sure students know exactly how they drop-in or schedule an appointment. Throughout the semester, regularly nudge students about office hours.

      I really liked this tip from Dr. Freishtat to help students understand how to start a conversation in office hours:
      “Encourage students to bring just one question  or a line from lecture that caught their attention, or a story about themselves that is relevant to the class. Whatever may work best in your mind to help students gain some comfort in the prospect of coming to talk with their professor.”

    3. Offer Incentives
      Perhaps offering incentives cheapens office hours, but some have found success in enticing students to attend. In this Facebook thread, one instructor offers a few points of extra credit for a student's first visit. The first visit is probably the hardest hurdle for students to jump, and so once they understand office hours, they're probably more likely to attend in the future.

      Another option could be to tell your students that you will look more favorably upon students who are right on the cusp of a higher grade if they attend office hours. 

      Lastly, you could promise something completely unrelated to the course. If a student attends, you'll share an embarrassing story about yourself. If a student attends, you'll serenade them. If a student attends, you'll share a picture of yourself as a baby. These are all dumb ideas, but I'm betting something along these lines would get at least a student or two in the door. 

  3. Reformat Approach to Office Hours.
    There are a number of strategies for holding office hours: by appointment, set drop-in times, group work hours, and more. Each approach has benefits, but if your method doesn't seem to be attracting students, it may be time to switch it up. For example, if students aren't dropping in to your set office hour times, switch to 'by appointment' office hours. Tell students how you'd like them to schedule an appointment and make it as easy as possible for them to do so. 

    A more radical change involves changing the format of office hours all together:
    • In addition to regular drop-in office hours, Dr. Tharanga Kariyawasam from Physics also offers evening study sessions where groups of students join a Zoom room to work on homework and ask questions together. Dr. Kariyawasam is lucky enough to have had SI Leaders in recent semesters, but she also attends these sessions and listens in so she can hop in when further explanation is needed. This approach is similar to the Course Centers evaluated by Dr. Maryellen Weimer in this article

Think carefully about what outside-of-classtime types of meetings will work best for you and your students and consider changing a few small things about your office hours this semester if your current approach isn't working. Implementing these small changes represent an investment in your students. For some, it could mean the difference in their academic success. 

On that note, eLearning took a few of these tips for ourselves when we thought about how we conduct our own office hours! Because set drop-in times aren't resulting in many visitors, and because those times feel a bit like limbo, we're switching our office hours this semester to appointment only. This approach will let us offer more times throughout the day, but with fewer "waiting around" hours. So, let's see if this change results in more visitors!

Come Chat with eLearning!


Previous Post

Planning For the First Two Weeks Online in Spring 2021

The most important time in ANY semester is the beginning. As the instructor, you get one shot at that critical first impression. One shot to set the initial tone. Whether the semester is standard... or a little weird. Here are three steps we suggest for getting started this spring.
Read More
Next Post

Overcoming Zoom Doom, Doldrums, and Blahs: Engagement Strategies for Virtual Class Meetings

We’ve all experienced the feeling of “Zoom Doom”, whether we’re attending a class session, conference presentation, meeting, or family get-together. While Zoom is an amazing collaboration tool, it can fall short if engagement strategies aren’t incorporated into class meetings. Continue reading for some ideas and techniques to help you and your learners stay engaged throughout the semester.
Read More