Using Small-Group Office Hours to Maintain Community

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portrait of Marc Edwards smiling and looking at camera

Marc Edwards


Before leaving for Spring Break and the shift to remote teaching, I met with my students in Cell Structure and Function (BIOL 291) to discuss how we would structure the course for the rest of the term. I put students into four groups, with each group assigned to think about a particular aspect of the course (assessments, content delivery, labs, and office hours). After reminding them about the learning goals for the course and points of the course which were not flexible at this point in the term, I asked students to identify how they wanted the class to run across those four components. It felt important to me to give students authority to design the course to best meet their own capacities and needs. What emerged from this discussion was that students wanted to meet synchronously for small-group office hours every week, in four groups of 8 students each. Throughout the rest of the semester, these weekly conversations became a critical way for me to connect with and maintain the community that I had built with my students face-to-face. This approach emerged through meaningful, structured partnership with students. 

Student end-of-course evaluations spoke to the positive impact that this approach had on their learning and sense of engagement with the course. One student wrote, “I really appreciated how Professor Edwards split the class into groups to hold office hours with us throughout the week after moving to remote learning…. During the first half of the semester, he held several office hours a week to ensure that every student could attend one session. In the second half, he split us up into groups of around 8 to make sure we all got the chance to answer questions. He was very committed to supporting students through every aspect of the course. I especially appreciate that he was willing to meet students where they were.” Another student shared how this approach fostered a sense of belonging in the course for them: “Professor Edwards always encouraged engagement in class and office hours. It was a big part of the class. Our ideas were always listened to and answered well in my experience. The environment felt inclusive.” Finally, a third student spoke about how encouraging messaging around attending office hours helped them engage with office hours. This student wrote, “The professor always encouraged us to come to office hours and told us not to base our [sense of our] capabilities off of someone else in the class, which helped me gain confidence in my Biology knowledge and also in participating more.