I encourage my law students to notice what successful law students do and to adopt these behaviors. Savvy learners realize that professors want you to succeed. Professors use a class syllabus and class policies to guide you toward success. Early on in each course, note the professor’s office hours and best contact method. Why? The professor is inviting you to engage with the material outside of class time—take advantage of this invitation.
While formal learning occurs while reading, case briefing, and engaging in classroom dialogues, studies show that more learning occurs when we immerse ourselves in material repeatedly during the week. You might turn material over in your mind during your commute. You might have a casual conversation with a classmate. Or you might talk with your professor. These opportunities for informal learning help our brains assimilate new knowledge and solve problems.
Some students have told me that they hesitate to go to office hours because they don’t want to bother a professor. Consider that professors have set aside office hours to foster discussions with students. Plus, professors love discussing the subjects they teach. And professors support their teaching by researching interesting questions.
The professor is inviting you to engage with the material outside of class time—take advantage of this invitation.
Most professors I know enjoy teaching because they love discussing and debating ideas. A colleague who has been teaching for thirty years explained recently that a faculty committee at Seton Hall Law designed our building to create an open environment, breaking down barriers between students and faculty. Next time you exit the main elevators on the third, fourth, and fifth floor—look how accessible the faculty offices seem. Notice the open doors. Faculty adopted an open door policy knowing the value of informal learning opportunities.
If you are worried you won’t know what to say during office hours, try this approach: keep a running list of questions that bother you as you take notes. When you review your notes after class, notice whether a question persists. (Often a question will be resolved in the next class because talented educators prime you for the next bit of reading and the next class.)
But if you have written down a question, and it’s still gnawing at you a few days or a week later—it’s time to take the question—or questions—to office hours.
Another good discipline is to use office hours as a group. Prepare practice exam answers individually and then discuss them with a study group. An unresolved debate between members of a study group suggests you have a tough and interesting question—and perhaps a misunderstanding. Go to office hours to get some feedback from your professor.
Office hours can also be a time for small talk. You might have a made a connection between material covered in the course and some work you’ve done or a previous academic topic you’ve pursued. You might be developing an idea for future research. Or looking for career direction. Stop by your professor’s office hours or—if those times don’t work—make an appointment to speak. There’s a reason why our doors are open.