There are all kinds of reasons why you need to be available to students outside the classroom.
You have various means of enabling those students to ask questions outside of class time:
- Fixed hours when you are available in your office for this purpose
- An e-mail address where they can contact you
- A space in the electronic course software your institution uses
You are allowed to limit your availability
You don’t want to be one of those grumpy inaccessible profs. You do want to be able to do all of your work in a reasonable number of hours a week.
You don’t have to be available to students whenever they want to come and see you. Students just need to know when you are available.
Choose times that fit with your schedule but will probably work for students. There are probably local norms (or even contractual obligations) about office hours. Do not exceed them.
If you find that students tend to grab you after class, then schedule an hour after one of your classes and make sure they come to your office with you. This will train them to come to the office at specified times.
Announce your policy in the first session and remind them periodically. If students come to you at other times, firmly but nicely remind them that you are not available right now but will be happy to see them during your office hours.
Exceptions can be made for the rare cases that genuinely cannot make your posted office hours. You can also schedule extra office hours in specific weeks where demand is likely to be high. These cases are not students who just couldn’t be bothered coming to your office hour and want to see you now.
Boundaries make it easier for students to come and see you.
While a very small minority of students seem to think that your reason for living is to answer their questions, it is more likely that students are reluctant to come to see you for fear that their questions are stupid, that they are wasting your time, or that you will be annoyed with them.
Providing set times when you welcome students to ask those questions enables students who really need help to ask for it. By limiting the time you are available for this activity, you are less likely to be in the kind of mood that makes students think they aren’t really welcome.
Training the small self-centred minority to respect other people’s time is a service to them in the long term. Sooner or later they will have to learn. It might as well be now.
E-mail doesn’t have to be instant
The same thing goes for e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. You don’t have to answer questions as soon as they are asked. You just have to answer in a reasonably timely manner.
Set up a folder for each class you teach in your e-mail program, use the rules function to put all messages from people in that class in that folder. You can even set up an auto-reply to let students know that their e-mail has been received.
Schedule time in your calendar (twice a week?) to deal with student email queries. Make students aware of this policy in the first session of the semester, and remind them periodically.
Bring common questions to the classroom
View the students that make the effort to ask as the tip of an iceberg. If several of them are having the same problem, you can bet there are others in the class who would benefit from you going over whatever-it-is again.
Whether they come by e-mail or in person, if something seems to be coming up a lot, revisit it in class. One advantage of dealing with student email in a block is that you are more likely to notice common issues. Instead of replying to each individual student, bring the answer to class.
Other useful policies
It is also helpful to be clear, right from the outset, about what kind of support they can expect.
You are not required to provide private lessons. You put time and effort into preparing classes that you expect will help them learn the material. If they choose not to attend, they cannot expect you to provide that content individually.
I am also strongly in favour of being firm about grades. It is perfectly acceptable to say that you will not change grades. This kind of policy works better if you have clear criteria and if you moderate your TAs grading so that there aren’t arbitrary differences between markers. You are assessing their performance on a specific evaluation task. That’s it.
That isn’t to say that you don’t welcome students questions about how they can improve their performance in future assignments. Or that you won’t clarify for students how the grade was arrived at. Having time during class to go over the general issues, talk about common problems and the kinds of things that stood out in the best papers will also prevent a flood of individual queries.
Pick one thing
If all of this feels overwhelming and difficult, then just pick one thing and try to implement it next semester.
You might want to start with the thing that you find most stressful.
You could also start with the thing that would be easiest to do.
Pick one thing. Implement it. Then next semester you can add one more thing. You have a 20 or 30 year career ahead of you. There is plenty of time to make this work better.
A version of this post was originally published on November 30, 2009. It has been edited.