Friday, July 16, 2010

Do we 'help' too much?

This query is motivated by Jennifer’s post, but is an issue I have been concerned about for a number of years. Do we negatively affect our students' ability and willingness to learn by giving them too many 'aids' to help them succeed in our courses ? Do we end up demanding too little of our students? For many years I have given my students review questions from which their essay exams will be taken. I have also had review session before exams. I have discontinued the practice of having a review session because I found that students did not study before the review and hoped that the answers would be given at the review. Often, the answers ended up being mediocre and were not well-developed or reasoned. I ended up unknowingly lowering my expectations.

I am now contemplating not given out review questions before essay exams. My concern is that students wait for the review questions and then only read and study what they think they need to in order to answer the questions. I have had students ask me for review questions at the start of the semester so they can focus their studies. Unfortunately, I have found, as I mentioned earlier, that many times their answers are not as well-developed and reasoned as I had expected. I have come to believe that this is because they did not adequately study certain pertinent material because they did not see the relevance of this material to the question. Maybe they did not pay close attention in class, or participate in discussions of the material because they thought that they had (or would get) the information in the form of the questions that they needed to be successful.

When I was a student back in the 60’s and 70’s, professors did not give out as much, if any, assistance to students other then having office hours. Their argument was that if we studied the material adequately we should be able to answer any reasonable question asked. They expected that if we had any issues with the material we would raise them in class or take advantage of their office hours.

So, I am wondering what your take is on this issue. Should we demand more of our students and give them less assistance? I am probably going to discontinue this practice.


  1. Yes, we should demand more of our students. No, we shouldn't give them less assistance; we should get clear on what assistance actually is.

    We need to get straight on what our educational goals are. Whatever the university says, our goal oughtn't be to have x% of students receive a grade of y or higher. Our goal ought to be to educate students in philosophy by having those students study the ideas of famous philosophers and practice philosophical methodology by giving and asking for reasons to accept or reject some philosophical thesis.

    Giving students study guides or review questions with the sole purpose of having them regurgitate `Philosopher S thinks p' is not assisting them; it is actively encouraging them to think unphilosophically, to think that the `answer' is all that matters to philosophy.

    We ought to be encouraging our students to think philosophically. Demanding mature consideration of issues while simultaneously refusing to kow-tow to the `answers-only' crowd is how we can do this.

  2. I think a larger number of possible questions is helpful -- but, ultimately, my CC students need the advance notice -- so, I write essay questions that are more like paper questions.

    I did find that, in terms of presentations, less help from me resulted in better presentations. I found this out accidentally, when I needed to have surgery and cancelled class on a couple of my 'help with presentation' days.

  3. I think it is best to give review material that accurately represents the difficulty of the assignment. For essay exams, then, I think it is best to provide sample questions (a good number of them, not just two or three) that won't be on the exam (and tell them so) but are of a comparable level of difficulty (or slightly harder if you want to motivate them slightly more). Then if one of them happens to make it onto the exam after all, "oops"! But certainly the exams I studied for least were the ones for which the review material was exactly what would be on the test. If I could do well by studying that and no more, then why do more? (I mean, maybe later in my free time if I was interested I might do more, but not during the semester when my time is faced with competing demands!)

  4. I'm a bit skeptical about Andrew's suggestion above. I'm not sure it's possible to ever be really "clear" on what assistance is.

    Teachers and lecturers seem to set an enormous amount of store by what they say. But students know better. We know that lecturers don't always say quite what they mean or mean quite what they say. So students are forever looking for hints on what this instructor wants. Reviews and exam prep provide those hints.

    It is in fact perfectly reasonable to give no exam prep at all - because what is the course if not exam prep, or what is the exam on, if not the course?

  5. John, I'm inclined to think the relevant distinction here is between "helping" that enables the student to succeed at an immediate task and "helping" that engenders the long-term development of learning. I've observed that many students, especially those accustomed to high achievement, want the task-oriented help because they want to improve their grades.
    At its worst, they want highly specific counsel on how to do things that you can only learn to do through practice (or trial and error) and that emerge only from true and deep content understanding ("How do I find an objection to this argument?").

    Yet they resent or resist help aimed at helping them to learn what they need in order that they won't need the task-oriented help again. It's not surprising really. The former sort of help is easy for them in a way: They "plug in" our recommendations and their papers, etc. improve. The latter sort of help is tough on them because it requires us to draw limits between helping them do the work and helping them put themselves in a position to do the work on their own. It demands toughlove from us and a well-honed professional sense of when we're crossing the line from helping them to learn to merely helping them complete a task.

    On the whole, I suspect students need far more help than we (and they!) realize. But I think we have to think of "help" developmentally as well, as aiming at creating intellectual maturity and autonomy — and that may mean, as you suggest, not helping sometimes!

    (A side note: I also suspect some students don't seek out help because that implicitly concedes that they don't "get it" and are therefore inadequate. A post on that issue some other time maybe...)


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