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12 December 2011

A Tale of Proctored Study Hall, and Serious Written Attempts

Today's post: making our horses drink.
Part of my job as a boarding school "master" is to spend about one night a week on dorm duty.  This year, I've been assigned to supervise the Proctored Study Hall.  See, most of the school spends a couple hours nightly in quiet study time in their dorm rooms, in the library, or unsupervised in classrooms.  But, students are assigned to Proctored if they get a D, or if their advisor thinks they need a more structured nightly study environment.  Once a week, I have to be that structure.  Guh.

The nice aspect of Proctored is that I'm in regular contact with some students who truly need and want my academic help.  They appreciate that I show genuine interest in their assignments, even those outside of science.  It was established very early on in the year that proctored is a time for serious, diligent, but relaxed study.  The group knows by now that they are to get on with their work without distraction.

Thursday night, I was approached three separate times by three different 9th grade physics students for "help."  The first two came with a blank paper asking a specific question about a problem; the third had some work done, but not on the problem he was asking about.  

I gave the same response to all three: look, I'm happy to help, but (a) it's the middle of study hall, and a long discussion here would ruin the quiet atmosphere and distract your peers; and (b) I need to see your first, written effort before I help out.  So, please go back to your desk, make your best attempt, and then come back here at the break.  I'll talk you through the problem then.

Any guesses as to what happened next?  Go ahead, teachers who are reading this, write your guess in your notebook.  

(pause a beat while you guess)

When the bell rang for break, I individually reminded each of the three students that I'd be pleased to help them out now.  All three responded:  "No worries, I figured it out on my own, but thank you!"  

There's a lesson here.  Physics is a difficult subject, and physics teachers tend to work very hard to avoid gaining the reputation of  an unapproachable jerk.  Fair enough.  But in our zeal to be helpful, do we do our students a disservice?  I say, much of the time, yes.

A story from my first year of teaching:  I had been repeatedly berated by colleagues and parents for being mean and unapproachable.*  So when one of my honors seniors asked me for an individual appointment at the end of the next school day, I agreed -- even though that meant staying at the school three hours after the end of my last class, even though it meant going home in rush hour.  In came the student, right on time, with his book and problem set.  

* Interestingly, most of the folks calling me unapproachable were doing so without ever attempting to approach me.  But that's a different issue.

He said, "So, I'm having trouble with question number 1.  Can you help me?"  I dutifully pointed him toward the relevant equation, discussed with him how to approach the problem, and I waited patiently while he used his calculator to ensure that he was going to get the right answer.  Here I was, being approachable, helping a poor student learn physics!  People would stop complaining any day!  Right?

The boy filed question 1 away with a satisfied look.  He looked back at his problem set, and said, "Now, can you help me with question 2?"

This time, I was suspicious.  I asked, "Where did you start?"  He hemmed and hawed a minute, and then in response to my direct question, he admitted that he had not really done anything yet on any of the problems.

Well, that's simply unacceptable.  My job as a teacher is not to sit with my students, holding their individual hands until they get questions right.  My job in class is to give them the tools with which to approach problems.  Then, it's my job to set up an environment in which direction is available when people get stuck.  But they must first get legitimately stuck before they seek direction!  

A few years into my career I simply made the blanket statement that, while I love to help people with physics problems, I will not even entertain a question unless I first see a serious written attempt.  

Do you have a packed classroom during a morning or afternoon tutorial period?  Do you feel like you're overburdened because you have too many students who need your help, and not enough time or energy to help them?  Well, try implementing the serious written attempt rule.  I guarantee that the number of people who think they need your help will be cut in half; and, the time you need to spend to help each person will also be cut in half, because everyone asking for assistance is thoroughly familiar with the problem already.

Then the next step is to make anyone you help use their newfound knowledge to help the next student who asks:  "I'm glad you asked that, George.  Billy just asked me the same question... Billy, could you explain that issue to George while I help Mike on this other problem?  Thanks!"


  1. I strongly agree with the "serious written attempt" requirement. You spoiled it then by demanding that the students who just got a problem become tutors for other students—that assumes that the students have lots of time on their hands and nothing else to do.

  2. I'm a fan of the "serious written attempt", but it cracks me up when they think "serious" is just drawing a free-body diagram (although that is an excellent place to start). By this point in the year, my students know they are going to be asked to explain a problem to a peer at some point. It's so sneaky--they think they're just helping other kids, but at the same time they're learning the material better!

  3. Wow! I thought I was the only one who seemed like an 'unapproachable jerk'! haha

    Seriously though, I come off as 'hard' and 'assertive' to students who ask me for help without even attempting the Physics on their own. When a student actually comes to me with some work done, I point them in the right direction - and almost always their response is, "Hey, that's not too hard." Interesting...

    Another thing that students often do is complaint that my homework grading is too difficult. What I find is that if I agree to go over the homework the next day in class, most students don't attempt it, and then they're frustrated when I call them out on it. So, I agreed that I will 'alter' my grading methods and grade on completion. But I made the process to get full credit on a homework very detailed and specific. Maybe I'll write a post on that soon...

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