Instructional Highlights: Betsy Stovall

Math instructor increases student engagement with ‘hybrid’ approach to virtual office hours

When the pandemic forced Betsy Stovall to move her large calculus class online last spring, she wondered how it would affect her office hours, which also became entirely virtual.

The answer came soon enough.

“I sat there alone staring at the walls,” says Stovall, an associate professor of mathematics. “Even with in-person office hours, students often feel they need a good reason to come in or it’s awkward. I think that was especially true online.”

Colleagues in the Department of Mathematics reported similar experiences, leading to some collective brainstorming. For Stovall, the solution was a hybrid approach to office hours this past fall — partly scripted, but flexible enough for lots of give and take.

She let students know that, during the course’s regularly scheduled lecture times, she would hold live office hours online and work through math problems. (Her lectures were all asynchronous.) She always came to the sessions with enough problems to fill the time, but usually students brought some of their own math problems they wanted to see solved.

The approach reduced the intimidation factor, especially for shy students.

“Knowing that they could just show up and benefit passively from the office hours was really helpful to some students,” Stovall says.

There were a few hiccups early on. For the first couple of sessions, all of the students — some 250 — showed up because they thought attendance was mandatory. The format didn’t work too well with so many students, even with the help of seven TAs. Soon, though, the sessions settled into a nice rhythm, averaging about 30 attendees.

The sessions built strong class community and provided Stovall with valuable insights.

“The students were quite active in the chat and often helped answer each other’s questions,” Stovall says. “Often they would explain things a different way that made sense to them — you could see they’d get it when a classmate explained it. They also gave me feedback about what was happening in the course, so they helped all of the students in the class, not just those in the meetings.”

Stovall recorded and posted the sessions so that all students had access to them.

Stovall credits colleague Melissa Lindsey, among others, with helping her land on the approach. Lindsey, the associate director of instructional support for the Department of Mathematics, says it has been interesting to see how instructors can take the same idea — structured office hours — and implement it in a way that best suits who they are as a teacher and who their students are as learners.

Lindsey, an instructor herself, uses a brief survey at the beginning of class to gauge where students are at with the material. She then uses the responses to decide what problems to do from a list she creates in advance.

“In general, I think the main benefit to what Betsy and I and many others in the department are doing is that it’s allowing students to have a voice in how time with the instructor is spent,” Lindsey says. “It empowers them to be responsible for their own learning.”

Stovall realized the popularity of the approach when she asked students whether they wanted to meet the day before Thanksgiving. Not one wanted to cancel.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.