TITLE: Being Less Helpful AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 30, 2011 12:07 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I've noticed myself being less helpful in the last couple of weeks. Students have come to me with questions -- about homework questions, and quizzes earlier in the semester, and topics we've covered in lecture. Advisees have come to me with questions about degree requirements and spring registration. In most cases, they expect to receive answers: direct, specific, concrete solutions to their problems. But lately, that's not what I've been giving most of them. I've been asking a lot of questions myself. I've pointed them to specific resources: lecture notes, department web pages, and the university catalog. All of these resources are available on-line. In the case of my course, detailed lectures notes, all assignments, and all source code are posted on the course web site. Answers to many questions are in there, sometimes lurking, other times screaming in the headlines. But mostly, I've been asking a lot of questions. I am not trying to be unhelpful. I'm trying to be more helpful in the longer run. Often, students have forgotten that we had covered a topic in detail in class. They will be better off re-reading the material, engaging it again, than being given a rote answer now. If they've read the material and still have questions, the questions are likely to be more focused. We will be able to discuss more specific misunderstandings. I will usually be able to diagnose a misconception more accurately and address it specifically. In general, being less helpful is essential to helping students learn to be self-sufficient, to learn better study skills, and to develop better study habits. It's just as important a part of their education as any lecture on higher-order procedures. (Dan Meyer has been agitating around this idea for a long time in how we teach K-12 mathematics. I often find neat ways to think about being less helpful on his blog, especially in the design of the problems I give my students.) However, I have to be careful not to be cavalier about being less helpful. First of all, it's easy for being less helpful to morph into being unhelpful. Good habits can become bad habits when left untended. Second, and more important, trends in the questions that students ask can indicate larger issues. Sometimes, they can do something better to improve their learning, and sometimes I can do something better. For example, from my recent run of being less helpful, I've learned that... Being less helpful now is a good strategy only if both the students and I have done the right kind of work earlier. -----