How to Get an "A" in Physics 121

#03: Take Advantage of Office Hours

Students involved in a large class like Physics 121 have a number of ways to "contact" the course. They come to lecture (along with over 300 other students). In lecture (ideally) you get to intellectually engage the material. But you do not get any sort of personal instruction or attention from the lecturer.

You go to lab, maybe you go to the SI sessions. Here you get some very helpful attention from one of your talented peers.

But you still do not really feel like you understand the material. Or there is something bugging you about the whole approach to solving a given homework problem. Or you thought you understood the material but you did lousy on the last exam. What do you do?

Do you come to instructor's Office Hours?

Amazing the answer for the vast majority of students in the course is no. I can plan with confidence to do other work during my posted office hours -- especially for the first few weeks of the class -- because I can say from past experience that no students will show up for most of the time. This even with about 300 students in the class.

Why is this? There are many good reasons to come to Office Hours:

  • You get a chance to get one-on-one instruction from the person who is teaching the whole class. If you think about it, you are getting "group lessons" on physics with over 300 other students at a time in the lecture. You and/or your parents are paying a great deal for these lessons in terms of time and treasure (compare for example the fractional cost of a single physics lecture to the cost of a front row seat at a major rock or sports venue). And then, as part of the deal we throw in office hours -- this is your chance for a "private lesson." And how much extra will it cost you? NOTHING! It's free! All you need to do is show up! These office hours are an invaluable resource -- something you have already paid for. You should at least consider taking advantage of these.

  • With over 300 students in the class the instructor struggles to get to know even a small fraction of the students in the class. If you regularly come to office hours, the instructor will get to know you. Developing rapport with the instructor is always good for the academic experience. It also helps enormously if you want to ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation or something like this. If I know you from office hours, at least I can say so in a letter.

  • Meeting with the instructor is often the most efficient way to find a way to improve your performance in the class. As someone who has been teaching this stuff for years, I am very aware of some of the conceptual traps and study pitfalls that students fall into in tackling this kind of material. If I can work with a student for even five or ten minutes, I can get a pretty good idea of where the student is at regarding the materials and what the "next step" is to moving up a level in terms of understanding and mastery. Since I am going to be setting the standards for getting grades, isn't it a good idea to talk to me directly so that you can learn what I think is the best idea just for you to improve in the class?

  • Some students do not come because they are intimidated by the instructor (my wife laughs at this idea) and/or because they see coming to office hours as an admission of academic weakness. Office hours are for all students, not just for those who are struggling with the material. Office hours are not "remedial" and quite the opposite, I am much more likely to think of students who come to office hours with affection than with disdain.

  • Some students think that unless they have a very specific problem or issue that they should not come to office hours. This is not true. I am happy to meet with any student during office hours to discuss any aspect of the class. Some of the very best students in the class come to office hours just to discuss topic in the class to "check their understanding". Last semester I had a student who decided that he would schedule 20 minutes every week to come to office hours even if there was no homework that he was struggling with or other problem to solve. We would use the 20 minutes to discuss topics in the class, review exam questions, etc. In the end, the student really crushed the final exam. Everyone can benefit from office hours.

    Okay that's all for now.