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Making Office Hours Work for You

As a Northwestern undergrad, you have access to experts in all of the subjects you are studying: your professors.

Approaching faculty can be intimidating, though, and many students are unsure of what to say and how to say it. Don’t let intimidation hold you back. Use the guidelines below to help ensure that you are making the most of your visit to office hours:

What are you looking for help with?

I have a question about something specific in my class.

When you are struggling with a topic in the class—such as a reading, homework assignment, or concept—the best approach is to attend your professor’s scheduled office hours. If you have a scheduling conflict with the office hours, however, many professors are willing to meet during the day on weekdays. Send a polite, short email (see examples here) to your professor briefly explaining who you are, which of the professor’s classes you are taking, and what aspect of the class you are struggling with. Explain that you have a conflict with your professor’s regularly scheduled office hours, and offer a few times during the week that you are available to meet.

You’ll want to be able to help your professor understand exactly what your question is. Before you meet with them, look back over the concepts or assignment in question, and write down what you understand and do not understand about the topic or reading. Then you’ll be prepared to explain your question clearly. Avoid simply telling your professor that you do not understand anything about the chapter or topic; it’s hard for professors to help you if they have no point of reference.

I don’t have a specific question; I’m just confused.

At various points in your Northwestern career, you will probably find yourself feeling like you just don’t get it — the lecture, the chapter, the assignment, or whatever it may be. When you experience this, the best approach is to meet with your professor as soon as possible. Get help early, and you’ll avoid struggling later in the quarter (and you're probably helping your classmates by pointing out a confusing element of the course to your professor).

If you can’t attend office hours, send a polite email explaining that you have a conflict with the office hour times and would like to meet. When you meet, explain that you are experiencing a lot of general confusion in the class, and try to point out specific examples of topics and/or lessons you do not understand. Tell the professor how you have been studying or approaching the work, and ask if they have suggestions for more effective approaches. Also explain what steps you have taken to try to understand—such as doing outside research, attending tutoring sessions, or rereading assigned materials. This demonstrates that you are making an effort, and helps the professor provide more useful suggestions.

I need help, but I'm worried I'll make a bad impression if I seem confused.

Lots of students worry about this, but in reality the opposite is true. When you go to ask for help, you are showing the instructor that you care about the class, that you are interested in learning, and that you are taking active steps toward meeting that goal. Faculty hold office hours expressly for this reason: they are there to help you. Do, however, be sure to prepare for your office-hours visit by doing required reading and attempting any problems or assignments, so that your instructor will be better able to identify your areas of difficulty and guide you toward solutions.