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121-122 Giving Help

Page history last edited by Joe Redish 14 years, 3 months ago

You will often be asked by students for help.  As good physics students we have a strong tendency to want to answer any physics question with the best answer we can give.  That is often not the right thing in this situation.  


The real question!

The real question you should be answering is not the question the student asks (which might have a physics answer) but rather,


"Why can't this particular student answer this question for themselves?"


Your job is not to be the "answer person" -- this is not "Who wants to be a millionaire?" 

Rather, your job is to be the diagnostician -- to help the students learn to solve problems for themselves.  As a result, very often, the best immediate answer to a student question is to ask a question back:


"What have you tried?"


A small exchange will often show you that the student's real question is not the one that they asked.


"But I don't know how to start!"

In your office hours, students will often come to get help on homework.  And they will often try to get you to do the hard (and the important) part for them -- figuring out where to begin and what knowledge to bring to bear.  If you tell them, they both do not learn how to start for themselves and they take the message that you do not expect them to be able to do so.


When I get this question I try to find other students working on the same problem and put two or more of them together.  I have frequently found students very surprised that two students, neither of whom had any idea of how to solve the problem alone, were able to solve it quite effectively when they worked together.


"Am I on the right track?"

Even when you manage to get your students working in groups, some will come to you frequently to ask, "Am I on the right track?"  Again, our tendency is always to give the straightforward answer -- yes or no.  But the real message the student is sending you is, "I don't trust my judgment to evaluate whether I am doing the right thing." 


If they are to learn to solve problems for themselves, they not only have to learn how to do them but how to evaluate them.  We want our students to learn to seek consistency -- to look for different ways to look at it, to find links to other things they know in order to build a solid and resilient knowledge structure.


Again, a good first answer is a question:


"What do you think?"


Pressing them on what else they know that might be relevant can also be valuable. 


How about if I "walk them through" the problem?

TAs often provide guidance to a single student or even a group by "walking them through" a problem; that is, by asking a series of straightforward questions to which they expect the student to know the answer.  This shows the student that they indeed know everything they needed to know to solve the problem.  This is the classic "Socratic dialog" -- occasionally valuable, especially if the student has despaired that they "don't know anything in this class".  (In Plato's dialog  "Meno" Socrates shows a slave that he knows everything he needs to prove the Pythagorean theorem.)  If the student lacks confidence, you can do this for them -- once.  But note that you are stealing from the student the most valuable thing they need to learn -- What questions to ask.  They learn this most effectively by asking each other questions as they work through a problem together.  So if you find yourself in the middle of the group doing most of the talking by asking questions, stop!  Ask them a starting question and send them off to work by themselves.  Then check back after 5-10 minutes.  Often you will find they can do most of what they need for themselves.


Should I never give an answer?

Of course not!  Sometimes students have done good thinking and need the "pat on the back" confirmation of "good work -- that's absolutely correct."  But you want to give it as a support for their tentative judgement -- not as a way for them to avoid making a judgment.


This sounds hard!

It is!  Quality teaching is a skill -- very few people do it naturally.  You have to learn it the same way that your students are learning to solve physics problems.  Try it!  And then watch and see what happens.  That will help you build your own judgment as to what kind of response is best for you to give when.  But remember, your goal is not to make your students immediately happy.  Your goal is to make them learn physics over an extended period!



121-122 TA Guidlines (Redish) 

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