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Inspired by "Be Less Helfpul": When and to what degree should we help our students?

This post is inspired by an article I read, “Be Less Helpful” by Joshua Zucker (can be found at this link: http://www.mathteacherscircle.org/assets/legacy/newsletter/MTCircularAutumn2012.pdf) and I am here to relate it to my teaching and tutoring experiences.

When working with students, it can be easy to watch struggling students and thoughtlessly just give them the answers. Why do we do this? Well, for a variety of reasons. Maybe we empathize with the struggling student and want to alleviate their pain. Perhaps we are impatient and have already solved the problem mentally several times over. Maybe we think the question is asking too much of the students. Perhaps we’re worried that they are taking too much time and should move on to the next problem. Maybe they have made three incorrect guesses and we feel it’s time to just give it to them. Perhaps we are really enthusiastic about teaching and are overly anxious to show them how to do it. (Remember, depending on the subject matter, there can definitely be more than one right answer and it can be valuable to hear their original thoughts.)

Regardless of our reasons, we also need to remember the value of having the student work through the material for themselves- with support when they need it of course. A student who has struggled with a concept and comes out victorious and filled with understanding will remember the lesson much better (and have a better chance of applying this knowledge in the future) than a student who works for a little bit and then jumps to the answer without comprehending the middle steps. On the other hand, a student who is struggling and is making no progress will be frustrated and unhappy. It comes as no surprise that it can be difficult to identify when we should be stepping in with more information and further explanation or when we should sit tight and simply observe their work.

Here are some tips I have for figuring this delicate timing out.
  1. Remember, the end goal is to move from the “how” and “what” questions to more conceptual “why” and “what if” questions. As a tutor, see if you can help shift this thought process to make their thinking more robust. As their thinking changes, so should your timing.
  2. Each student is different. The point at which you step in with one student may vary to the next. This point can be affected by what the student is looking for and how solid their foundation is in the material.
  3. If students are slow but can figure it out on their own, let them complete the problem or portion that they are working on. Once finished, ask the students their thought processes and what they have difficulties with. If you know tips or tricks that can help them, feel free to share with the students. Review can also be helpful at this step.
  4.  If students are stuck and have no idea where to start, consider asking them what their gut instinct is, even if it is wrong. Many students are afraid to voice thoughts - especially in initial interactions with educators – so it is ideal if we can give them the freedom to be wrong. Most of the time, the students are actually on the right track but are afraid to make a move because they are paralyzed by the possibility of making mistakes. It is our job to remove that stigma.
  5. If students truly have no idea what they should do, review the lesson. Ask them if they know which parts they are struggling with. Go over the example problems and ask the students to explain what is going on and why. Then, create a problem of your own and ask the student to solve it. Once they have a better understanding of what the lesson is asking, have them retry the problem they were stuck on. If they are still stuck, guide them through it. Once completed, walk them through step-by-step again, encourage them to ask questions, and then ask them to explain it in their own words. 
  6. It is also our job to motivate students to want to work and figure out the answers. If a student tells you to just give it to them, offers to pay you for the answer (this rarely comes up but I have encountered it), or something to this effect, remind them that what is most important is that they understand the reasoning and concepts behind their lesson. Answer are important, true, but they are short-sighted when compared to a student who wrestles with the material for comprehension and succeeds.
  7. Questions, questions, questions! Encourage your students to ask questions after they have thought about the problem.
  8. Building off this last point, remember to give you students enough time to think quietly about the problem. If they appear to be uncertain, step in to guide them by reading it aloud and then asking them a question to get them started.

I do not pretend to be an expert in this, and I still struggle with this timing myself. There have definitely been times when I have stepped in when I should have let the students work on it longer. I hope you readers use this piece as food-for-thought and come away asking yourself, “Am I being the right amount of helpful?” and “How can I become better?”
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