Effective office hours

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
A woman wearing a headset waves to someone she is having a video meeting with

How this will help:

Identify various ways in which digital office hours can be structured.
Integrate strategies for facilitating effective office hours in the online environment.

The basics

Online office hours can be an excellent way to interact with students, provide direct feedback, answer questions, and create community among a group of learners. Office hours can play a critical role in making students who are studying online feel less isolated and more connected to you and to other students.

Identifying the purpose of your office hour sessions will help you begin to structure and plan for the session. Office hours can be held for a variety of purposes:

  • Question & Answer: Providing time to allow students to ask questions, either in a group or one-on-one format, is a frequently used strategy for online office hours. Students can directly ask an instructor to answer questions, to discuss or talk through misunderstandings with the content, and to feel like they have a line of personal support from the instructor who is teaching the course. Allowing multiple students or the whole class the option to join at once is a time efficient way of handling office hours, but one-on-one consultations can also be facilitated by using features such as the “waiting room” setting in Zoom, which allows you to admit students to an online session individually, rather than as a group.
  • Delivering Essential Course Content: Some instructors prefer to deliver content that is an essential part of the curriculum during virtual office hour sessions. Leveraging synchronous video conferencing software for this purpose allows you to intentionally integrate knowledge checks—which are pauses to ask students a question about the content that was covered—or time for questions into the presentation of content. These strategies can help an instructor gauge whether students are understanding the content being presented or whether additional explanation of concepts is necessary to aid comprehension of concepts.
  • Present Supplemental Content: Virtual office hour sessions can be used to present additional supplemental content to learners in a course. The time can be used to dive into more in-depth content, to cover additional examples or illustrations of content covered in the standard course materials, or to bring in a guest speaker to provide another perspective related to the content.
  • Building Community: Virtual office hours can be used as an opportunity to bring together students who may be seeking interaction with their peers or with the instructor. Time together can be used to discuss how people are feeling about the course content, for students to co-work with other students, or to get to build a connection between individuals interacting in the course.

Office hour purposes can be “mixed and matched” based on needs throughout the course. For instance, some weeks students may need additional time to ask questions, while other weeks it may be helpful to use office hours to go through additional examples.

Features such as the screen sharing, whiteboard features, or the breakout rooms feature in Zoom or BlueJeans can be used to structure more sophisticated office hour sessions. For instance:

  • Screen sharing can allow students to share the work they’ve done from their screen, and to have you diagnose where students may be going wrong in solving a problem.
  • Breakout rooms can be used to allow individuals to connect more closely with one another if a large group of students decides to attend an office hour session.

Getting to know the features available in synchronous tools will help you make the best use of office hour sessions. 

Once you’ve established the purpose(s) of your office hour sessions, it becomes easier to determine the frequency and duration necessary to achieve your office hour goals. Establish when you intend to be available for office hours, and indicate those times to students via the course syllabus or through your course announcements. If you add additional office hour sessions during particularly challenging weeks during the semester, make sure they are clearly communicated to students so they know when they can attend. 

It’s critical to set expectations with students regarding what the purpose of the office hour session will be, and to clearly indicate any expectations you may have regarding attendance at office hours. If you intend to make office hours required, or to make attendance count toward an individual’s grade, this needs to be clearly indicated in the course syllabus. Where possible, it is ideal to indicate attendance expectations in the course description so students can be aware going into the course of any synchronous requirements. 

Practical tips

  • Understanding how to use some of the more advanced features of video-conferencing software (Zoom, Canvas Conference) will help you understand what is possible when structuring your office hour sessions. Learn more:
  • Review the “tips and tricks for synchronous sessions” module for more practical tips


University of Michigan

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