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Point of View

Taking the Office Hour Out of the Office

Journal of College Science Teaching—January/February 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 3)

By Patrick Cafferty

Science classrooms across our campus have changed dramatically over the past 10 years as an increasing number of instructors have incorporated a variety of active learning techniques into their teaching practice, using, for example, classroom response systems to poll their students and guided inquiry and case study activities to facilitate small group work (AAAS, 2011; McGill et al., 2019). However, the primary way students interact with faculty outside the classroom remains unchanged: the office hour. Despite evidence that students benefit from office hour visits, low office hour attendance is common. Here, I describe a novel addition to my typical office hours, holding one of my four weekly office hours outside as a group run called the “Active Office Hour.” Students view the Active Office Hour positively, with a subset of my students attending weekly. Active Office Hour participants report their primary motivator for attendance is to seek comradery with their peers and instructor, not the specific activity of running, suggesting alternative forms of out-of-office office hours may work well for different students and instructors.


Office hours are predetermined periods of time when postsecondary students may visit faculty in their offices to clarify course concepts, explore potential career paths, or discuss research projects (Mineo, 2017; Nadworny, 2019). Students benefit from interacting with faculty outside of the classroom. For example, Guerrero and Rod (2013) found a positive correlation between course grades and office hour attendance in a study of 406 political science students in eight courses taken over four years. However, Guerrero and Rod (2013) showed the majority of these students did not attend office hours because of schedule conflicts, forgetfulness, not feeling the need for help, or hesitancy to seek assistance. Similarly, Smith et al. (2017) found two-thirds of 625 undergraduate students at a large, mid-Atlantic public research university never attended office hours, with many students declaring they were unaware of the purpose of or how to capitalize upon office hours. Instructors may encourage office hour participation by providing incentives for attendance, frequent reminders of office hour times and locations, explicit descriptions of how office hours can be used, and emphasis of the importance of office hours to their students (Freishtat, 2020; Guerrero & Rod, 2013). Consistent with the results of Guerrero and Rod (2013), Smith et al. (2017), and my colleagues, I was disappointed with poor attendance at my office hours.

Meetings held within the confines of an office encourage attendees to act in a formal manner, reinforcing status differentiation, ratifying authority, and promoting social and emotional detachment (Morand, 1995). By contrast, organizations such as Google employ less formal working environments to promote status leveling, the free flow of information, and creativity (Morand, 1995; Stewart, 2013). Taminiau and Wiersma (2017) examined the interactions of four golfers over 10 observation periods at 10 different golf clubs in the Netherlands. This study revealed the informal environment of the golf course and the engagement in the shared activity of golf promoted openness, relaxation, and emotional expression that built trusting relationships between potential business partners (Taminiau & Wiersma, 2017). When I rethought my approach to conducting office hours, I considered informal activities I could perform together with my students outside of the office and the “Active Office Hour” was born.

Many qualities of running make this an ideal activity for informally engaging with students. For instance, running is a familiar activity that many students already pursue recreationally or competitively and enjoy. To participate in a group run, students only require appropriate athletic footwear, making running a more accessible activity than sports or hobbies that require specialized or expensive equipment. Also, recreational running involves few technical skills, so minimal prior experience is needed. During the Active Office Hour, we run a variety of outdoor routes either in our campus park space or in the surrounding neighborhoods, so athletic facility access is not required. Finally, we run in almost any weather conditions throughout the school year. The Active Office Hour is held rain or shine and is only cancelled in the rare event of unsafe weather conditions, such as lightning storms or when slippery ice forms during the wintertime. Thus, our recreational group run is a widely accessible activity that a broad cross section of students with varying past experiences, abilities, and backgrounds can attend. See Hindley (2018) for an excellent review of recent literature on recreational running.

The Active Office Hour is a weekly midday group run of three or four miles held at a casual conversational pace of approximately six minutes per kilometer, or a low rating of perceived exertion (Eston, 2012). We meet at the same day, time, and campus location every week, making our schedule predictable, and our group easy to find for students who can only participate occasionally. The Active Office Hour is open to anyone, and past participants have included community members who lived close to campus, recent graduates, and students in different nonscience majors who simply wanted to run with a group. Some nonscience majors have even been inspired to take science courses following their Active Office Hour attendance.

Conversations during our runs vary from week to week, with many taking the form of informal group advising while we discuss college life, research projects, summer jobs, and potential career paths. Active Office Hour discussions can also be specific to detailed course content. For example, students will pull up PowerPoint slides on their phones or handwritten notes as a reference while seeking clarification of course material before or after our group runs. Recently, one regular participant listened to an audiobook version of our course textbook and asked questions that arose while running. The Active Office Hour often inspires students in my human physiology class to discuss exercise-related course material during group runs, including the topics of muscle contraction, muscle fatigue, exercise-associated muscle cramps, the physiology of training, and the relationship of nutrition and athletic performance. One fall semester, we incorporated interval training that involved running for brief periods at a fast pace followed by periods of recovery into our runs to prepare for a Halloween “Zombie Run” event held on campus. This led to many interesting conversations on aerobic (oxygen-requiring) and anaerobic (oxygen-lacking) metabolism and exercise. Students enjoyed applying their knowledge of complex metabolic pathways to their physical activity. Academic conversations during the Active Office Hour can also be quite broad in scope, including our recent debate on whether androids are alive. While engaging with this topic, students drew upon knowledge from their introductory biology, neuroscience, ethics, and philosophy courses, as well as from recently watched streaming TV shows.

Broad academic conversations during the Active Office Hour share some similarity to discussions in my classroom. Effective conversations in both cases shift significant speaking time from myself to my students. A meta-analysis of educational research on classroom discussions showed participation in discussions promotes analytical and critical-thinking skills that are vital for my students who plan to apply to health science professional programs as well as graduate programs in the natural sciences (Murphy et al., 2009). Consistent with suggested best practices of classroom discussion by Lang (2015), during the Active Office Hour I aim to control the rhythm of the conversation and allow all students to contribute rather than solely relying on the dominant talkers to speak. I also pose questions that do not have a single correct answer to encourage students to share a range of ideas. However, my classroom discussions involve careful advance preparation by both myself and my students to meet specific learning objectives while Active Office Hour discussion topics are often spontaneous and student-initiated. To promote effective mentor-mentee conversation, Zachary and Fischler (2014) recommend mentors ask mentees open-ended questions that tap into their experiences and challenge their intellect, actively listen to mentees by paying full attention and asking for clarification when needed, and clarify understanding by rephrasing what a mentee has said and waiting for confirmation. I strive to include all of these best practices of communication with my students during the Active Office Hour.

Based on anonymous survey responses of students who took my introductory biology and human physiology courses during the fall 2018, spring 2019, and fall 2019 academic terms (n = 702), 10% of students attended at least one Active Office Hour, while 15% of students attended at least one in-office office hour. Among students who did not attend an Active Office Hour, 51% reported a conflict with another class, and 13% reported a conflict with another university activity. Possibly, Active Office Hour attendance would increase by offering additional times during the week, or varying the time of the activity from week to week. Notably, only 3% of students did not attend because they dislike exercise, and 20% of students did not attend because they dislike running. Students who attended the Active Office Hour frequently cited a desire to meet their peers as a motivator. For example, one student responded in their survey, “I attended because I enjoy running and thought it would be a fun way to meet other students.” Students also described wanting to get to know their instructor, and had heard through word-of-mouth that the Active Office Hour was fun. Selected student comments regarding Active Office Hour participation are presented in Table 1 and lack of Active Office Hour participation are presented in Table 2.

Consistent with advice by Freishtat (2020) and Guerrero and Rod (2013), I promote my in-office and Active Office Hours to students on a weekly basis. These reminders include adding the days, times, and locations of office hours to the first slide of PowerPoint presentations I use in my classes. These PowerPoint slides are available for download from our class sites on our institutional learning management system outside of class time. I also regularly write my office hour times along with other reminders on the auditorium whiteboard before classes begin. Finally, I take pictures during office hours that I post on social media to advertise the Active Office Hour. One semester, I partnered with a student organization who was hosting a five kilometer “Zombie Run” on campus. This organization promoted the Active Office Hour as a means to prepare for their running event on their social media accounts and posters, while I promoted their event on social media accounts for the Active Office Hour. Further collaboration with undergraduate students (such as recruiting student volunteers who frequently attend the Active Office Hour to act as ambassadors) may have a positive impact on attendance. Ambassadors could invite their peers to our group runs and use social media for the Active Office Hour to encourage attendance.

The Active Office Hour has been well received by students and received positive attention beyond our university campus community (Gant, 2016; Metz, 2016; Kennedy, 2016). The most commonly cited reason for not attending an Active Office Hour is a time conflict with other classes or activities and many students report they would attend the Active Office Hour if their schedule allowed (Table 2). However, almost a quarter of students do not like running or exercise, thus an alternative informal activity may motivate these students to attend office hours. In addition, the Active Office Hour cannot be used in completely online classes.

To address some of the weaknesses of the Active Office Hour, I am going to pilot a new form of office hour in my online classes called the Artistic Office Hour. During this office hour, students will be invited to log on videoconferencing software and work on a project synchronously. Each week, I will recommend a page from Kapit et al. (2000) that students and I will color together in real time. This way, students and I will engage in a shared activity that may stimulate discussion of course content or provide the opportunity for informal advising. Students will be welcome to work on alternative projects, and, similar to the Active Office Hour, siblings, family members, and others who wish to participate will be welcome to attend. Many students reported their primary motivation for attending the Active Office Hour was to get to know their peers and instructor. The Artistic Office Hour may also provide this opportunity for students.

I would like to thank my teaching assistants Lilah Blalock and Benjamin Cai and all of the introductory biology and human physiology students who have joined me over the years for group runs on muddy campus trails during the Active Office Hour.

Table 1. Selected student responses to survey questions about Active Office Hour participation.

If you have attended an Active Office Hour, why did you attend?

I enjoy running so I thought it was a good way to get to know people from the class and find our common interests like why we’re taking this class and what other classes they’ve liked, etc.

I love running. It’s not something I am superb at but I have enjoyed the progress I have made in my personal journey. In freshman year, I wasn’t able to keep up the pace in active hours and also run and talk simultaneously, but this semester, I was able to. The progress was encouraging. In the beginning of the semester, I had this period free and went sometimes to enjoy my run in the company of others. If students are interested in getting to know more about their peers and Dr. Cafferty, then it’s great. 

I feel that Active Office Hours are a unique opportunity to get to know a professor. I personally know someone who regularly attended Active Office Hours in the past and found them to be a very meaningful part of his time here at Emory. Because of these reasons I decided to try to attend one. Now, it has become something I look forward to during the week. Surprisingly, I am able to run a lot longer with a group than I can alone and feel great after the fact. I also enjoy getting to talk to Dr. Cafferty and my TAs about subjects not necessarily related to the class, humanizing my experience when I get back in the classroom.

I enjoy meeting my peers and connecting with my professor. It’s also a good opportunity to ask physiology questions in a casual way, as well as advice for other aspects of my college experience.

To get my energy pumping! I attended because I like the unique format of the Active Office Hour, and although I did not have any specific course-related questions to ask, I had a nice time with Dr. Cafferty and the TA Ben Cai.

Active Office Hour is a great way to run for me because it is a scheduled, weekly time slot. After going for one week, I wanted to keep going because the experience is very enjoyable. I love that I’m learning about the areas of campus that I never even knew existed…I really enjoy the new and familiar faces I see at Active Office Hour. The conversations we have in Active Office Hour range in topics about coffee to future occupations, which makes the experience of running with a passionate professor and fellow students with interests in biology very enlightening.

Table 2. Selected student responses to survey questions about lack of Active Office Hour participation.

If you have not attended an Active Office Hour, why not?

I love running! But cannot attend every week as it clashes with one of my classes— inconvenient active hour time. Best would be in the afternoon around 4 pm or earlier in the morning at 9 am.

I wanted to attend SO MUCH but I had a class every Tuesday during that time!!!!! You should switch up the time so everyone that wants to can come! I would have loved to get to know you more and ask questions while also getting a workout! But I can’t skip class!!

There is no good reason. I think it is a great idea and I love running. However, my Mondays and Wednesdays are typically packed so my Tuesdays and Thursdays are typically my break days.

I would not be able to keep up with the group pace, but I love the idea of Active Office Hours.

I will normally run in the early morning on a running is a conflict with my running habit…

I also despise running in humid Georgia weather. It feels like I’m breathing water. That is why I prefer swimming as exercise for the most part during Georgia’s blazing season (especially early to mid-fall).

Patrick Cafferty ( is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


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Crosscutting Concepts Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Postsecondary

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