Imagine a world where all of your organic students read their textbooks thoroughly, ask you questions, and come to office hours every week…the wildest of fantasy worlds, right? Well, I’m an optimist—what can I say? So when forced to create an all-online version of my mechanisms-focused organic chemistry course, I thought I would see how close I could get to at least one of those fantasies by creating an engaging online experience for my students. 

Even under the best circumstances, engagement is hard. While I am used to talking in front of a room full of blank stares, normally I can walk around the room, be animated, pass out fun things, make students write on the board, and ask lots of questions. These things are hard to replicate when I am just a head on their screen. I myself also can’t handle weeks of talking to a bunch of black squares on my computer screen. So instead of just giving lessons on camera in front of a whiteboard (my initial, not terribly innovative idea), I have been making short (5-8 minute) videos for the class for an online, flipped classroom-style experience. I then use my class time to work with students on mechanisms and problem-solving. 

To keep the video content simple, I just point a webcam at my homemade dry erase board and record myself in one take with no edits. Making my own content allows me to focus on what I feel is important. Making the videos very short is in keeping with research on attention span and ideally makes students more likely to want to view them multiple times as a study aid. 

As the title suggests, one of my biggest dream scenarios is a class where every student comes to my office hours and gets one-on-one or small-group time with me so I can really see what they can do and help them learn. In being forced online and having to come up with a way to get my students to work on mechanisms, I came up with the idea to use my dedicated class time for the course as office hours. I am lucky to have a small class size, so I break my students up into small groups of 3-4 to work on assignments that I have given them ahead of time. The idea is that they do their reading, work on the questions (the Your Turn questions and End-of-Chapter questions are perfect for this), and then with me, they have what basically amounts to an online office-hours session where we go through the questions together. I can ask them direct questions with less pressure on them (because they are usually with their friends), and we can all work together to get everyone up to speed. I use a webcam on a tripod as an additional camera so that I can work through the mechanisms live by pointing to a board or a paper on my desk. 

For me, there is immense value in office hours where I can really gauge what students know and what they need to spend more time on. If I were just to assign homework on paper or online, I usually don’t get to see how students arrived at their answers. They can work out the answers themselves and learn, but they can also get the answers from friends or online without really learning much. It also provides some time to build relationships and a comfort level with students. The more comfortable they are talking with me, the more likely they will be to ask for help, which can make a real difference for student success in an organic chemistry class.

 Being forced to go online has pushed me to evaluate what the important parts of my courses are, and I am getting closer to an online classroom experience that I can be excited about.  

-Andrew Robak, Keuka College

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2 thoughts on “What If Every Student Went to Office Hours?

  1. Andrew, it’s great to hear how you’ve navigated the challenges thrown our way this year…it really seems like a terrific model! I wonder, when students ask questions during class, do you find yourself giving answers primarily to individual students and small groups, or to the class as a whole?

    1. So what I have set up this semester is Mondays I have the whole group and we go over completed work that I identififed as needing help with the whole class, and if a student asks a question the whole class will hear the reply.

      For the office hours those are separate days where each group has me all to themselves, so there might just be three students there and they have my undivided attention. So I end up re-doing and repeating myself a lot with each group, but I can get to know their personalities a bit and ask them to do mechanisms and show me. That way with the quiet ones I can still assess how they are doing. Once I can get to know a little better the level of the students I am working with, I can adjust my delivery a bit, and so if a strong student asks an advanced question, I will usually work in a lot of the basics in my answer so I am reaching everyone.

      It’s a lot of work, right now I’ve turned a traditional in person organic class that was two 2 hour periods into 5 one hour sections of work for me. The all together Monday classes though are not nearly as fun though. I only see a few faces on screen and only the usual handful of students talk. The other days I can make them all chat at least a bit.

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