Whether you’re approaching synchronous online sessions from the emergency remote teaching perspective for the first time or have facilitated an online learning environment for a while, you may have questions surrounding best practices.
In an effort to get some real data on student preferences, we included questions about virtual office hours (VOH) and suggestions for interaction improvement on our custom end-of-the-semester survey. During the 2015-2018 semesters, 26% of students reported that they were unaware of the instructor’s policy of holding VOH by appointment only. VOH improvement suggestions centered around themes of scheduling, promotion, in-session structure & atmosphere, pre/post-Session activities, as well as tool issues and wants.
I recently presented these findings at the Teaching Professor Conference. (Side note: This was my first time “attending” and, although it was held virtually instead, I enjoyed the presentations and would strongly recommend it.) While our respondents were mostly undergraduates, the findings, and ultimately, design recommendations mirror those for graduate students, too (Lowenthal, Dunlap, & Snelson, 2017).
Mostly it boils down to expectation setting. Communicate to your students what you see as the purpose of the sessions. Is it advising? Tutoring? Application? Community-building? Additionally, express your vision for how they will accomplish these goals. Provide an agenda and address how they should prepare as well as your participation expectations. Furthermore, provide resources, such as technical guides and Help Desk info to ensure they can participate successfully.
While the original intent was to identify best practices for holding VOH in an asynchronous online course (such as holding group sessions strategically throughout the semester), I think the focus on expectation setting is especially important now. There is a high degree of variance in how synchronous sessions are conducted so it’s helpful to introduce students to your goals and plan. Keep in mind that you may want to present technology as a growth plan, with only certain tools used first (e.g., Zoom polling, breakout rooms) but additional technology added later (e.g., Google docs, Kahoot).
You can find more tips in the Virtual Office Hours Considerations document located in our "Faculty Self-Service Resources" Canvas course under Teaching Resources. Furthermore, I encourage you to review our curated list of ideas to help make your Zoom sessions more engaging, which also has links to technical resources for seamless execution.