by Anna Mikkelborg, Political Science
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021
When I learned that the first course I would teach at Berkeley would be offered not only remotely, but asynchronously, I was a bit disappointed. I’d been looking forward to leading a classroom of Introduction to American Politics students in lively discussion, especially in the tumultuous political environment of the fall of 2020, but the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and students living in an impossibly wide range of time zones made even Zoom sections difficult in so large a course. I wanted my students to feel excited about the fundamental issues in American politics and empowered to discuss them. But without the chance to talk through the material and ask questions in real time, I worried that those who were new to the discipline would instead feel isolated and intimidated.
Before the semester began, I decided to add an office hours requirement to my section syllabus as a way to help prevent students from falling through the cracks. Each of my 54 students would schedule two one-on-one appointments with me over the course of the semester for participation credit. There were no requirements for what we would discuss — students could bring questions about the course or the news, share their thoughts about how the class was going, or talk about their major or career goals. They would get credit just for showing up.
In the first few weeks of class, I discovered that many students benefited just from getting practice coming to office hours at all. Some would have done so without the requirement, of course, but more often students would begin the meeting by apologizing for coming without knowing exactly what to talk about. Almost always, though, the conversation would then turn to the kind of thought-provoking questions and original insights I would have loved to share with a classroom of their peers. We drew connections between Political Science 1 and courses in other disciplines they were taking, applied concepts from lecture to news stories, and talked about differences between the politics of the US and students’ home countries. They often surprised themselves with how much they knew and with the opinions they discovered they held. By just showing up for office hours, timid students gained confidence that they had something interesting to say.
Aside from these positive initial responses, the first sign I had that the requirement was working well was the difference between the first and second rounds. Students who had been uncomfortable and apologetic at first now launched into ideas for their term papers and excitedly recounted conversations they’d had with their families about what they were learning in class. Further demonstrating the policy’s effectiveness, in my mid-semester survey, almost half of my students expressed that they would not have attended office hours if it hadn’t been required. At the end of the term, though, these conversations were a highlight in my course evaluations.
Taking the time to speak with each student individually helps a seemingly impersonal course feel more accessible, and that translates into improved performance. I’m now teaching PS1 again, this time with live sections. Due to the time demands of live instruction, I’ve dropped my office hours requirement from two visits to one, but it’s still an effective addition. One year into remote learning, my students tell me they’re struggling to remain engaged, but our one-on-one conversations make a difference: as I meet more of my students individually, I see more cameras turned on and the raise-hand function getting more use in section.
Office hours are often treated as a resource for students who need extra help, but they can benefit students of all levels of ability and confidence. Moreover, feeling comfortable conversing with an instructor one-on-one is an essential skill for new college students to develop — and one that too many never experience because they don’t realize the kinds of conversations they’re capable of holding with their professor or GSI. Even when we’re able to return to in-person instruction, I intend to keep encouraging my students to practice this skill by incorporating office hours as an integral component of course participation.