Professors are required to have a certain amount of office hours per week and they do actually want to help you, but they’re also busy and so are you, so you need to get the most out of your time spent with them.
First you have to obtain a meeting, so check the syllabus to see when they have open office hours. If none of the times work for you, then make an appointment by e-mailing your prof several options of days/times at least a day before you want to meet. Brownie points for looking at his/her teaching schedule or calendar on Outlook and not picking times they have class. It’s never a good idea to try to snag a professor in the hallway or on the quad with a quick question because there is no such thing and he/she is on his/her way somewhere and you could make them late. You probably also shouldn’t try to ask her a question in the locker room or while she’s using the restroom because that’s just awkward.
Once you have an appointment or know when office hours are, be sure to show up early or at least on time. At larger schools some professors might have a line of students in the hallway. At smaller schools, if nobody shows up 20 minutes into office hours, the professor might decide no one is coming and take off, especially if office hours are late in the day. If the professor is not in when you arrive, wait 5-10 minutes, maybe a meeting or class went long or perhaps another student snagged him or her with a quick question.
Be organized and prepared for your meeting. I was appalled once when one student’s class folder was such a disaster that it took her a good 10 minutes to even find what she wanted to ask me. The best students come with a checklist of specific questions or have highlights or post-it flags to mark trouble topics in their notes. The worst is when a student says they don’t understand anything and expect you to rehash the entire lecture. If you’re going to ask about an assignment or homework problem, show the professor that you’ve attempted it. I can see a student who’s just trying to get me to give them the answers a mile away.
Make sure your question was answered. If you still don’t understand, don’t nod along like you do. Don’t be shy, ask your professor to explain it again or to give you another example. It’s a good idea to restate their explanation back to them in your own words so that both of you know you get it. Start with, “What I think you said is….”
Be sure to give your professor your full attention. If you can, pick a time when you’re most alert and able to concentrate. Skipping lunch to go to office hours is probably not the best idea, although sometimes it’s a necessity. Leave distractions outside of your professor’s office. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students answer their cell phones while they’re meeting with me. I want to say, “Really?!” It’s almost always their mom calling. I’ve also had students bring one or more children with them to our meeting. I don’t mind, but I feel bad for mom or dad who’s trying to write down what I’m saying and keep a little one out of trouble at the same time. I have a bucket of colored chalk that can help keep them occupied, but it’s not an ideal situation. The strangest office hour meeting was the time a student was skyping with her “not boyfriend” the entire time. She introduced me and her laptop was like, “Hey,” and then he went back to watching tv…Ok.
Hopefully this gives you a good idea of what to do and what not to do during your next office hour meeting with a professor.
Have a good night!