Office Hours / Helprooms

Given the importance of sustaining a sense of community among your students (and course staff), it is a good idea to seek out ways in which your students can interact with you beyond the confines of the formal class period. Below we suggest three variations on the conventional idea of “office hours” which you might employ in order to compensate for the loss of the face-to-face interactions, sidebar conversations, and chance encounters you might have had were you teaching on campus: individual office hours, group helprooms, and questions after class. We also encourage you to visit our page on Beyond the Classroom, which has general advice about office hours.

Individual and/or small group office hours

Faculty and Teaching Fellows should offer weekly office hours so that students can discuss course material and assignments, as well as any questions about the course format and expectations. We recommend establishing blocks of time during which students can "drop in" to a Zoom meeting. Here’s how to do it:

  • In your course Canvas site, either (1) set up a recurring meeting or (2) share your Personal Meeting ID (PMI). (You can locate your PMI by navigating to harvard.zoom.us and clicking on your profile. Unlike other Zoom meeting links, whether one-off or recurring, your PMI is a stable link which you can use and re-use at any time. You might think of it as a dedicated, unlocked office that is always open to you; once you’ve shared the address with students, you can arrange to meet them there any time you are both available. For more on your PMI, see here.)

  • Decide whether you want to ask students to preselect a slot within your office hours, or invite them to just drop in at any point during your window of availability. Communicate these expectations clearly, and if you expect students to sign up in advance, you'll likely want to employ a system like Canvas scheduling or Google Calendar that they can use to reserve their slot.

  • Whether you want students to sign up in advance or just drop in at will, you should activate the Waiting Room function in Zoom. This will prevent students who log on partway through your office hours from barging unannounced into what could be a private conversation (e.g. about a grade) that you’re having with the students before them in the queue. Instead they will be held in a virtual antechamber until you click a button to admit them into the main meeting room. Zoom will alert you to their presence with a chime. This function can be enabled either through harvard.zoom.us or the Zoom installation in Canvas; see more here.

  • One-on-one meetings during office hours can be a great way to get to know students better, and to help students with independent projects or assignments.

Group helprooms/meet-ups/assisted study groups 

Many courses rely somewhat less on individual office hours than they do on group helprooms or meet-ups, during which clusters of students can work together on a problem set or other kind of assignment with guidance from one or more roving instructors. Here’s how to recreate this experience.

  • As above, you can choose either to (1) set up a dedicated meeting or meetings, or (2) share your PMI. (The PMI is especially useful if you will have many such sessions at different times.) In this case, do not enable the Waiting Room function as noted above, as you want students to be able to enter the meeting room freely.
  • If more than a handful of students attend office hours, it is helpful to create a number of Breakout Rooms in Zoom. You might designate a topic or PSet problem for each room, and then students can self-select into a room of their choice (provided that they have upgraded to a relatively recent version of Zoom). Students can move between rooms throughout the session.
    • Encouraging students to work together on specific problems/topics in breakout rooms is valuable for collaboration and building community, which is especially important during this time of isolation. As students work together, they may be able to answer some of each other’s questions and gain a better understanding of concepts. As a group, the students may coalesce around particular questions that they’d like an instructor to answer. (Students can click “Ask for help” to request that an instructor visit their room.)
    • If possible, it works well for multiple instructors or TF to host office hours together. One instructor might remain in the main room to welcome students as they arrive and answer quick questions, while other instructors rotate between breakout rooms. The instructor in the main room can also help students move between breakout rooms, if needed.

    • Even if only one instructor is present, it can be helpful to use breakout rooms to allow small groups of students to collaborate while the instructor is helping other students with specific questions.

    • A variety of configurations of breakout rooms can be successful; the exact configuration may depend on the number of students and instructors. (Do instructors rotate between rooms? Or do students visit particular rooms to get help from instructors?)

    • For larger classes, we recommend offering a number of office hours across the week to avoid crowding.

    • Some instructors have reported success with using Congregate.live (an alternative to Zoom) for office hours/help rooms. Congregate.live consists of virtual tables that are limited to 8-10 people; you can assign topics to different tables, and students and instructors can visit the table(s) of their choice.

  • If you are working with a number of students in the main Zoom room during office hours, you might ask students to share their questions in the chat or in a Google doc. This will allow you to prioritize and group similar questions. Alternatively, students can use the raise hand feature in Zoom so that you can address questions in the order that they are asked.
  • If writing or drawing (equations, diagrams, figures, etc) is important in your discipline, identify a method for writing/drawing during office hours—so that you can explain concepts to students, and so that students can share their work with each other and with you.

    • Tools might include: writing on a tablet, using collaborative whiteboard software such as Microsoft Whiteboard or Google Jamboard, writing or annotating on the Zoom whiteboard, or asking students to hold their paper up to the camera.  (See our page on Remote Boardwork.)

    • If students collaborate in a breakout room, encourage one student to share their screen.

Questions after class

One of the joys of teaching is lingering after class to answer questions or elaborate on a concept at the request of your students. Zoom makes this quite easy, and it is a great way to mimic some of the sociability that ordinarily is hard to port over into the online space. Here’s how:

  • Invite students who have questions to remain in the class meeting as their peers leave. (NB: Zoom meetings do not end automatically, even if they are running over the end time you set when scheduling the meeting—there is no need to worry that Zoom will cut you off.)

  • Once you are down to the handful of students who intended to linger, you might ask them each for a quick synopsis of their question to determine how best to address them.

    • Insofar as any of their questions are “general interest,” you could answer them in front of the whole group.

    • Insofar as the students have idiosyncratic or private questions (e.g. about their grade), you can use the Breakout Room function to put them into individual rooms. It is easiest, in this case, to create the same number of Breakout Rooms as you have students—so 3 one-person rooms for 3 students, for example—and to allow Zoom to sort the students automatically into them. You then can enter and exit each Breakout Room in turn, addressing each student’s question with some privacy. In the event that you realize that all of your remaining students would benefit from hearing the advice you are giving to one of them, you might want to use the “broadcast” feature from within a particular room to share the same message with all of the other rooms as well.