Psychology building

June 18, 2013, by Teaching at Nottingham

Psychology’s “open doors”

Dr Richard Tunney: “Academics have always sought to strike a balance between their roles as teachers and as researchers. That balance has probably shifted one way or the other as a knock on effect of the changing priorities of governments and universities. Recent years have seen university schools and departments responding to changing student expectations more rapidly than has perhaps been the case previously. Often practices within schools evolved to manage periods of expansion in student numbers while at the same time protecting research time. One such practice is the ‘office hours’ system whereby staff are available for consultation by students for set periods during the working week, while at the same time dedicating periods for research and other academic activities. For many years the school of psychology implemented just such a system but recently changed to an ‘open door’ policy.

“Student feedback in both learning community forums and the successive national student surveys revealed that the office hour system had for many years been a source of tension between staff and students. At the start of each academic year staff would allocate 2 hours (or two one hours slots) in which they would be available in their offices for consultation by students. Perceived advantages of this system for staff are that they could protect their research, administration and teaching preparation time from interruption. From the student perspective it in principle guarantees that a faculty member will be available at specific times. But because timetables change from year to year, and staff teach at different times, office hours vary from one staff member to the next and so the student must seek out information about individual staff availability. Therein lies a key source of tension. Often, staff members would leave a note on their door about their office hours. From the student perspective since they are at the door, why not just ‘knock and try your luck.’

“The move to an open door policy had been requested by students for many years but became policy as one of a number of recommendations in a five-year school review. In 2011 the school of psychology moved from the office hour system to an open door system. This was closely followed by a working from home policy which required staff to be available for student consultations for the majority of their working time but with some ‘out of school’ working time protected.

“The effect on students of office hours is being evaluated as part of a PGCHE project by Drs Harriet Allen and Angie Swali (Biosciences). Dr Allen came to Nottingham from a school that was moving somewhat ironically in precisely the opposite direction – to an office hour system requested by students to guarantee that staff would be available for consultation. Although this research is on going, preliminary analysis suggests that students often did not observe office hours when choosing when to visit staff and were often frustrated by not being able to see staff when they needed to.

“The perceived effects on staff are variable and reflect the wide range of arguments that were originally made for and against the change. A common feeling is that the change made little or no difference. As one colleague put it, “Under the previous policy students never paid attention to my office hours, but I never used to turn students away outside office hours either, so it’s made no tangible difference to my life.” On the other hand, open doors can be problematic for staff who teach on very large modules, particularly in the run up to examinations. Similarly from a student perspective it can be uncomfortable to interrupt tutorials or meetings. An insightful point made by one colleague is that it would be appropriate to formalize a policy that also included boundaries on email communications between staff and students.

“We have in the ended adopted a pragmatic approach in which some staff make their calendar available to students, a greater use by some staff to use an appointments system, and many use boards to indicate their availability at any particular time. The overwhelming response from students and many staff is that the change has been positive. This perhaps because many colleagues already adopted a flexible approach according to their needs and to the student’s needs. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this change in policy is that staff are more communicative with students about their own timetables, and about how we try to strike the balance between their roles as teachers and as researchers.”

Prof Richard J. Tunney,
School of Psychology

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