By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

In this day and age, improving student retention is among the most important priorities of many universities in Canada. Never have there been so many forms of student assistance available on campuses everywhere. For example, at Carleton alone, there are the campus-wide Student Academic Success Centre and the Science Student Success Centre for science students offering all kinds of workshops and academic assistance. Professors, instructors and teaching assistants also get to learn through workshops offered by the EDC on how to better identify at-risk students and offer timely assistance and intervention.

In light of the abundance of help available to students, it would seem preposterous to say that being less helpful could be an effective way to improve learning. But here is what Maryellen Weimer had to say:

“The more structured we make the environment, the more structure students need. The more we decide for students, the more they expect us to decide. The more motivation we provide, the less they find within themselves. The more responsibility for learning we try to assume, the less they accept on their own.” (from Learner-Centered Teaching 1st edition, p.98).

My summary of the above is simply this: “The more help we give students, the more help they will need.” Interestingly, Maryellen is not alone in expressing this sort of sentiment. In Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen wrote:

“Dan Meyer, a math teacher and blogger, has a philosophy he describes as Be Less Helpful…my understanding of what he talks about is that we do our learners a disservice by making the problem too complete.”

By quoting these passages, I am in no way advocating that we should leave students to their own devices (for the record, I do believe that adequate student support is absolutely essential). What I am advocating, however, is that whatever help we render must be in the interest of promoting deep learning.

When I was a first-time undergraduate math teaching assistant, the tutorial centre coordinator instructed us new TAs not to give away the answers to students’ questions but to provide hints and prompts to guide them towards arriving at their own solutions. To this date, I still adopt this approach in my teaching. The wisdom behind this approach is perhaps obvious: If you figure out something by yourself, you’ll remember it better. In fact, this piece of wisdom is backed by scientific research (see, for example, the excellent book Made to Stick: The science of successful learning by Peter C. Brown).

Unfortunately, not giving away the answer is sometimes not appreciated by students. Occasionally, I would receive comments on course evaluations saying that I had been unhelpful during the term. It is not hard to see why; they asked me questions just hours before the assignments were due and I was not giving them the full answer. How I wish they had realized that they weren’t helping themselves by leaving things till the last minute!