Asking questions in office hours

In the past few weeks, most of the bloggers here have been offering tips to succeed in classes, and what resources are available on campus. Among the answers we usually give is "go to office hours, they're really helpful!". But saying that only goes so far. After repeating the statement so many times, I've started to hear the question:

"But Charles, how do I know what's a good question for office hours?" "Good question," I reply, immediately spinning you into a spiral of positive feedback.

I talked to a few of my current and former professors and Teaching Assistants this week about their own office hours, and there are a few things to share. First: there is no such thing as a bad question in office hours. There might be less relevant questions—it's probably not really relevant to ask your fluvial geomorphology professor whether they think Jar Jar Binks was a necessary addition to the Star Wars franchise—but there are no bad questions.

Usually the questions that instructors will hear and encourage are questions about course material: if you don't understand something from class, have a question about how concepts relate, even about assessment, office hours are a good time to ask. Most profs and TAs are also totally okay with biographical questions about their lives; they love sharing their experiences, their own research interests, advice—so long as you're not holding up a line of other students.

Old photo of soldiers lining up in swarms for the mess hall.
Ask questions, but don't be a line-up-Leonard and hold up the line. [source]

But profs and TAs are often interested in your research interests and ideas too! Don't think that you can only go to office hours if you have a question. Office hours are a great opportunity to share the ideas that you don't get to articulate in class, or don't want to interrupt a lecture with.

Here's another good office hour question I've been asked: 

Are there better questions for TAs rather than professors? Is there a difference between the types of things you should ask an instructor and the types of things you can ask a TA? My perception is the "help me solve this problem" questions are for TAs and the "broader smarter-sounding discussions" are for the instructor.

The answer is "not at all!". Typically, if you have questions specifically about your tutorials or about your grades, you probably want to go to your TA—the person running the tutorials and/or grading your work—as your prof is unlikely to have the answers you want right away. That aside, there's no reason to think you have to pretend to be smart to impress a professor, or that you can't ask them for help: that's exactly what they're there for, and that's why their office hours are being run!

To distill this post down, the "TL;DR" would have to be: Go to office hours, be polite, ask questions, and don't worry.

Have other questions about office hours, TAs, or profs? Let me know in the comments and I'll get back to you!

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