When Not to Help a Student with Their Homework

I was working in the math tutoring center and a student in a math ed class wanted help with creating a magic square given the center element and eight other numbers some of them negative. The peer tutor and I proceeded to help her solve the problem.  At best, given my state of knowledge, the solution method is sophisticated guess and check.  Afterwards I started to wonder why she was given the problem.  I checked her text and found the problem in a section on the addition and subtraction of negative numbers. The intention of the assignment as I see it now was to get the student to spend some time adding positive and negative numbers.  By helping the student solve the problem we subverted its intention.

So, when not to help a student with their homework?  Answer: Most of the time.  For most math homework is not about product but about process.  When will a student get good at reading technical questions, recalling lecture material, finding information in texts, recognizing dead ends, finding errors in their work and all the other problem solving skills if not on the homework.  How much learning happens if a student is taught “if you see a problem like this, here is what you do.” If students learn this way, a small change in the wording of a problem can throw them off.  I’ve seen it happen.  There is a line here somewhere.  We have stepped over it.  Too much mathematics teaching is about steps to working problems and not enough is about concepts and applications.

Note: I alluded to this before with to respect to group work in this post.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, Pedagogy, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Not to Help a Student with Their Homework

  1. Nina says:

    Nice! All (real) learning is about process, not a product. I wish there were more educators who knew the difference between teaching and facilitating students’ learning!

  2. Melanie says:

    I struggle with this at home with my 6th grader. She wants me to sit and do every homework problem with her. I want to let her just do it on her own and then check it but 9 times out of 10 she has done them all wrong. Talk about frustrating!! When I have enough time I do some practice problems from each section (basically reteach what her teache taught) and then have her figure out her homework.

  3. Nevada Moonlight says:

    I just found your blog and have enjoyed reading it tremendously. I realize this comment may not be read, but I want to give you a different perspective about this situation. I am an adult and have returned to college, after more than 20 years, to finish my degree. I have struggled my entire life with ADHD and dyscalculia. It is frustrating for me not to be able to comprehend anything in my algebra textbook. I work extremely hard to understand basic concepts to be able to solve problems. Essentially, I am having to teach myself everything related to Algebra. Each section my class covers in my textbook, I spend at least 10 hours reading from other books/ websites to be able to complete my homework. The homework itself is approximately another 15 hours. My point is that sometimes a student asks for help because they have already tried the problem, but they cannot make the connection of what is missing. Having the steps shown in person can make a big difference. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts and experiences with the world! I look forward to reading more!!

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