Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is This Right?

To continue with the theme of student-professor interactions..

When students are working on a problem set or taking an exam, some will ask the professor or TA: Is this right? (pointing to a particular answer on their assignment or exam).

A variant on this is when as student points to their answer and asks if that answer is sufficient or whether they should write more.

The correct answer is: I'm not going to tell you if it's right or not.

But in reality, I find it difficult to say this without qualifying it a bit. Even though it would be quite reasonable for me to refuse to give a yes-no answer to their question, it always makes me uncomfortable to do so because I've seen the answer, I know whether it is correct or not, and it's hard for me to pass up an opportunity to help the student. It makes me particularly uncomfortable if I see that the answer is wrong and I don't say anything.

But some of the other options aren't necessarily good or fair.

If the answer is correct, I can say "Yes", which may help a student who knows what they are doing but just lacks confidence. That's nice, but is it fair to students who don't ask for this confirmation before handing in the assignment/exam? It is not.

If the answer is not correct, I can say "No", and then the student can try again, perhaps with some hints or other information. From the nature or magnitude of the wrong answer, I can probably discern where the student went off track and give them help to get on track. Again, is this fair to students who don't get this kind of information? Again, no.

Therefore, for problem sets, my general approach is to say "I'm not going to give you a direct answer, but.." and then I either:

- give the student some general questions to think about to see if they understand the logic of the homework question and the problem-solving process; or

- I ask them to rephrase the question so that they ask me about concepts.

That works pretty well for homework assignments, although I have had a few students over the years who repeatedly asked "Is this right?" for every homework assignment, despite my telling them that this question is inappropriate. Do some professors routinely answer this question with a yes or no? Are some students are perpetual optimists, hoping that I will just give in and give a direct answer? Most likely, some lack confidence. In that case, I think it is fair to ask a series of leading questions that will help the student answer the is-this-right question for themselves.

For exams, I tell the students that I will only answer questions involving clarification of the exam question, but some students find my unwillingness to provide syn-exam feedback frustrating, as if I am wasting their time with my inefficient system ("I'm not asking you for the answer. I'm just asking you if this is right.")



zad said...

For problem sets, if a student actually comes to my office I tend to be very helpful. I'll tell the student if the answer is right or wrong. Despite their poor performance on assignments, I get very few students coming to see me (this is a class of 35 undergrads). I found this really odd at first, but it seems to be a feature of my University/department and is not because the students are seeing the TA instead. On exams I take your approach.

Genomic Repairman said...

When they asked me that question I generally tended to growl at them and tell them to get the hell away from me. My prevailing answer was always, "we'll see." I agree with not telling them as it may give some unfair advantage and then they would pester me with every damn problem of the test.

Michael Hultström said...

At exams clarification of the question is the only appropriate answer. It is often easiest to just raise your voice and explain the point to all students. I have a feeling that most questions during exams are because of fuzzily worded questions.

Before I mention home work, I'll just say that I have never taught a course where the home work counted toward the final grade. Sometimes required to take the exam but never for points. In this type of situation I would try to answer all questions fully.

"Is this right." Can earn a yes or no, or if I think it is warranted some leading questions. I may even re-explain the whole thing, and show them how to reach the correct answer and the actual correct answer. My goal would be to help them understand what they should be doing, so that they can pass the exam.

As for the students who don't ask questions. They either don't care; think they know, and are right (in which case all is fine); or, think they are right but aren't (and should have known to ask).

Students who over indulge I will just stop answering after the first two or three questions, and tell them to read the book, or whatever.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The only correct answer to all these questions is "Do I look like motherfucking Google to you?"

qaz said...

Actually, I think the correct answer to this question is "I'm not going to tell you if this is right or not. This isn't elementary school." said with appropriate shock and disdain. (The key is the shock and disdain.) The only way to teach generation veal is to make them suck it up and do the work.

I remember one of my professors responding to a question in class with "That's high school." (with appropriate disdain). Which told that student to think it through himself. Which the student promptly did, correctly.

On the other hand, I *always* return homework problems with detailed comments, and I *always* spend a review day after an exam going over the exam point by point. Finally, I make sure that students are generating their own answers in class discussion that I can say are "right" or "wrong" and why. But there's a big difference between answering that right/wrong issue during a class discussion or after an exam rather than during the exam.

Sometimes the only way to teach them is to not give them help. And to make them understand *that*.

Jen said...

I've never had that problem with tests or problem sets, but boy, do I get that question a lot in lab! We were doing an enzyme kinetics lab for intro bio, and students were testing the effects of increased temperature on rates of reaction. More than once, I got the "this is our data, but I don't know if it's right." Arrrghhhh!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I think some profs do answer these questions quite often. I remember once, in a graduate school exam, asking the professor to clarify a question. Instead, he looked at what I had written on the paper already and said it was correct. I was kind of shocked. I didn't even ask the "Is this right" question and he answered it, and we're talking graduate school. WTH?

Anonymous said...

I hear what you are saying, and agree that its difficult, especially with exams. However, I also hate to have a student change a right answer to a wrong answer because they are over-analyzing the problem and not accepting that it has simple answer. Two possible approaches I use are:

1) Say "I cannot tell you whether that is the RIGHT answer but I can tell you its the right CATEGORY of answers"

2) Ask them a question I think will only jog there memory if they truly understand the material but are stuck on HOW I asked the question

3) [when they have a right answer and ask me some long involved question making it clear they are worrying about minutiae] Tell them, "you are overanalyzing this question-stop worrying"

Since I make it clear both in the written instructions on the top of the exam and in my verbal instructions beforehand that it is OK to ask for clarification, but I may or may not be able to help, I do not think these are "unfair", but it does favor the student who is willing to ask for clarification. In the real world, the advantage will also go to those folks--this was probably the toughest and most important thing I learned [very slowly] in grad school. If you have a question, ask someone who knows the answer.

Mark P

Rosie Redfield said...

In an exam, I think the only important issue is to be fair to the students who haven't asked that question. So I'll only clarify the meaning of the question, and even that only if I think the student's confusion is reasonable. And then I'll consider making an announcement, so students who haven't asked get the same clarification.

For homework, guidance is OK, but right/wrong is not.

prof j said...

On exams, I always say I can't tell them but then ask them to try to come up with a question that I can answer. This may take several rounds, but helps them identify their specific source of confusion without me giving any information. I have seen this lead to students changing a wrong answer to a right answer with no other help from me. Sometimes it becomes clear the question is confusing and I can then clarify it to them and the rest of the class.

John Vidale said...

I think many of the answers here so far too rigidly emphasize rigid and unhelpful answers, favoring "fairness" over learning.

I hate having to give grades in the first place. If someone is flummoxed by a question, I'd rather explain how to approach the problem, or even give the answer, rather than leave them to stew for the rest of the exam period (or homework duration) in vain.

Grades depend on numerous issues of access, background, language, affluence, etc., and the unfairness of helping those who ask is down in the weeds, as well as wrong in discouraging interactive inquiry. Being helpful on homework and exams is an opportunity to educate, which is the larger goal here.

The darn sheepish students need encouragement to talk with the profs and use office hours, so why not teach them when they ask for it? I thought that was my job, not avoiding their questions to make my life easier and give an increment boost to those who never talk to me.

Anonymous said...

I don't get "is this right" questions very often (if at all) on exams - which I appreciate; they're inappropriate.

I will sometimes get "what kind of answer are you looking for" and I'll generally answer that by rephrasing the question. I will also, when asked, clarify that 'yes, I can read your handwriting/understand your diagram'.

To John V, I don't consider telling a student the answer to an exam (or an assignment) to be "helping learning". And I consider telling them how to get to the answer to be effectively telling them the answer. That may vary from field to field.

Pagan Topologist said...

One answer I give sometimes is "Whether this is correct or not, I cannot tell you; but either way you have not shown enough work to justify it."

But I agree, this is a difficult topic. I have a substantial homework requirement in most of my courses, and I put on the syllabus that I will not discuss assigned problems outside of class, except to clarify what is being asked. Students are free to ask these questions in class, so that everyone gets the benefit of any hints I may give.

Kevin said...

It's been a long time since I had a class with an exam (I favor project-based classes with 20-50-page final reports), but the only fair thing to do on an exam is to clarify questions *and* to provide that clarification to the whole class.

The homeworks I give are generally a substantial part of the grade, but they are mostly programming assignments. I give them the correct output of the program for selected inputs, to aid them in debugging. If I get questions about "is this right?" it is a question about whether the examples I have provided have been done correctly. Often these reveal subtle ambiguities in the problem definition or subtle bugs in the student's programs. Less often, but with non-zero probability, they reveal subtle bugs in *my* programs. In those cases, the students who detected and reported the anomaly get bonus points.

Of course, I'm mainly teaching seniors and grad students in a challenging program, so the insecure who need instant feedback every 3 minutes were weeded out years ago.

FrauTech said...

John V - you mean EVERY single student who doesn't ask is penalized? Because I'm "sheepish" I should start asking questions during exams? I think this would get unwieldy given my smallest class has an enrollment of about 80.

I only ask if I'm confused about the question. I hate people who ask is this right and I'm pretty sure a lot of TAs and some professors have been guilt-tripped into giving guidance on exams when asked these questions. You're hurting every other person in the classroom who doesn't ask, not because they are shy, but because they take their obligation to be tested on the material seriously.

Fine if it's just homework and it's office hours. But answering specific questions or giving guidance on exams is once again rewarding the snowflakes and hurting those of us who consider it ethically dishonest to even ask those kinds of questions.

Anonymous said...

What do you do with a stdent asking what the definition of a particular word is during an exam?

"What does 'X' mean? I can't answer the question unless I know!!"

I struggle with this, because usually X is an important concept and/or vocabulary word that the student should know. But it is also true that the student may very well be able to work on the problem and demonstrate their knowledge of the task if they only knew that one word.

I think there are only two fair options. One is to say "No I can't tell you that. You should know what the word means." The other is to tell the student the definition and then also define the word on the board also.

In general I won't assist students in exams unless I also post the same information on the board for everyone else. I will always assist students on homework, but if they ask "Is this right?" I will usually make them verbally explain the answer and why they picked it before telling them.

Kim said...

During labs, I've started requiring that some questions get graded on the spot. (The main reason is that I want the students to learn from the feedback, and some things they'll learn better when the feedback is immediate.) In those cases, when students ask "is this right?", I ask whether they're ready to be graded or not. When they're ready to be graded, I give them the feedback. If they're not, I tell them to ask more specific questions if they need help.

I don't get many "is this right?" questions during exams. I occasionally get questions about terms or concepts, like Anonymous at 12:22. If understanding the term was part of the point of the question, I tell students that (and don't answer). If I've used a word that belongs on the grad GREs (or if the student speaks English as a 2nd language), I'll define it.

Kate Greene said...

Wow, this post touched a nerve. I've been on both sides of this, as a student and a TA. Looking back, I realize that as a student, I never asked this question; it felt like cheating. I'd get my concepts set and then I'd tackle the entire problem on my own.
As a TA, I was rarely asked flat out if an answer was correct or not. When it did happen, it was usually with the students who were hyper-vigilant about their grades. In these cases, I was annoyed and didn't give them a yes or no answer. I tended to challenge them to think about the concepts more. When it happened with a struggling student, I was more likely to give them a concrete answer, but mostly out of exhaustion.

Anonymous said...

Why is a lecturer in a room when an exam they wrote is being sat?

There shouldn't be anybody with content knowledge supervising the exam in the first place. This includes TAs.


Anonymous said...

I hate it when students ask this question in an exam. I usually will just tell them that I can't answer it and move on, but there have been a couple of times where I accidentally told them their answer was right. So to make it fair, I got up and told the whole class the correct answer to that question.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I'm on the opposite spectrum...I get told off a lot for not asking questions. For labs, I often know the protocols off by heart already or have my own notes at hand but I just get told off so much for the little and minor slip-ups that I do occassionally...which never really affect the outcomes anyway!

For me personally, the minimum amount of help is best, For some strange reason, the more I have been guided through a process the more mistakes I make and the longer each potential 'problem' will take to solve.

I get so many people asking me why I haven't been asking questions that it's rather frustrating...especially when I need complete isolation to ponder on problems first before I have anything to ask about!

Rachel said...

hmm. these are some pretty harsh answers.

i definitely understand/agree with what the majority is saying about questions asked during exams.

but homework?! i don't think it's "unfair" to offer guidance if a student asks for it! maybe people who aren't asking/coming in for office hours SHOULD be! i can see how just answering "yes" or "no" when a student asks "is this right?" isn't a terribly helpful learning experience.

but if a student has genuinely spent time on a homework problem and wants to know if they're on the right track, and particularly if the homework is worth some points, i think you're being pretty ridiculous if you refuse to give them guidance. sure, ask questions, and make them talk more than you talk. but if you send them out of your office still really confused about whether they're on the right track or not i think you're probably being a jerk.

i can kind of see the issue from both perspectives right now since i'm a grad student TA who certainly does get annoyed with students who constantly ask "is this right?" without putting much thought into it, but i'm also taking a class right now that is really pretty hard for me (and most of my classmates as far as i can tell) and involves lots of math and programming i haven't had much experience with... i spend many hours on the lab assignments each week, and i go in to see the professor at least 1-2 times per week, and go figure, he's actually helpful! if he wasn't i think i'd be pissed. it's not like i don't spend hours working at the problems and banging my head against the wall before i even go see him. and if i had to wait until i got my graded labs back to know i was way off the mark, i think i'd be WAY confused and behind, and wouldn't learn nearly as much!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your method entirely. My father, also a prof, does this, and I do it as a TA. I think that telling them yes or no is only reinforcing unproductive/slightly unethical behaviour patterns.

John Vidale said...

I hit the post button too fast this morning.

Re-reading my post, I misspoke. I meant to say I'm happy to clarify a question and work all the way to an answer on a lab or homework, but on an exam, only clarify the question.

If the question was fundamentally confusing, then I'd clarify for everyone.

I should proofread better, but then I'd post less.

Adam said...

One more data point:

1. On homework, I help them a lot, answer almost all questions if it's clear the student has made an honest effort to think about it before coming in. (Few come to see me to take advantage of this.)

2. Count the homework very little towards the final grade because of 1. I consider homework mostly for learning - they are also allowed to help each other for example.

3. On exams, either don't answer the question, or answer it and tell the whole class the answer, as a rule (which I occasionally bend depending on context).

Anonymous said...

Part of the trick in how much to help with homework assignments or even in explaining ideas during office hours is you don't know in advance which students have really tried to figure it out on their own (like Rachel) and which don't want to bother operating their brains at all. I also fall on the side of thinking no help should be provided during exams, unless it becomes clear that a question is genuinely written extremely poorly, and then the clarification should be provided to everyone (and anyway, if it's confusing, won't everyone get it wrong, and then everyone's grades improve with the curve?).

My own most enlightening experience in this regards was as a high school student: I had been flirting with the guy behind me for a couple of weeks rather than pay attention in math class (even though I sat in the middle of the front row! So cheeky!) when suddenly we got a pop quiz. I did terribly, and even had the nerve to write 'this is hard!' at the top. The teacher very appropriately wrote back 'it wouldn't be if you were paying attention'. What a clear wake up call! I started learning the material immediately, and aced the class.

Alisa said...

I find that the only times I really ask the question "is this right?" is when I have to get my work checked by someone on the spot before I'm allowed to continue with the next part of the labwork. Otherwise, either I get everything and don't need to ask questions, or my questions about homework sound like this: "Am I right to assume that the pronumeral is the same one as in this other equation, with the same units?"

With the exams... frankly, I'm baffled. As an Australian student, I've never encountered people asking about the material in exams! End-of-semester exams, both in high school and uni, are extremely strict affairs, and the exam supervisors are specifically employed to supervise exams and nothing else. They are there only to make sure nobody plagiarises, and all exam rules are followed... occasionally, if something is mis-printed or mis-aligned in the exam paper, they will contact the lecturer to come in and clarify whether it looks correct. But even in more casual, mid-semester exams, everyone knows that the lecturers are there to SUPERVISE and asking for actual help with questions is a complete no-no!

Anonymous said...

I think that homeworks/tests/exams serve two major purposes: learning and evaluation/grading. Homeworks, or problem sets, in most cases largely serve the first function while exams probably largely serve the latter. I think learning should trump grading anytime, basically for the same reasons as those given by John V. And since the post frames the choice of answering the 'is this right' question as choosing between helping a student learn and keeping the homework/exam fair, I would always choose the former. However, as other commenters have noted, students sometimes ask the 'is this right' question not to genuinely learn but to simply be offered the answer. Therefore, the extent to which this is the case, should determine whether to answer the 'is this right' question. I personally am of the opinion that, especially at the college/grad school level, students who genuinely wish to learn, should not be penalized because of misuse by others. Ultimately, both philosophically and practically, I'd much rather come out of a course learning more than getting an A, if there were a trade-off.

Anonymous said...

"but homework?! i don't think it's "unfair" to offer guidance if a student asks for it! maybe people who aren't asking/coming in for office hours SHOULD be! i can see how just answering "yes" or "no" when a student asks "is this right?" isn't a terribly helpful learning experience.

but if a student has genuinely spent time on a homework problem and wants to know if they're on the right track, and particularly if the homework is worth some points, i think you're being pretty ridiculous if you refuse to give them guidance. sure, ask questions, and make them talk more than you talk. but if you send them out of your office still really confused about whether they're on the right track or not i think you're probably being a jerk."

Who said anything about not giving them guidance? What I (and many others) said is that we won't just say "yes, it's right". For a homework situation, it's far more effective to get the student to explain to you how they came up with their answer then "does that seem reasonable to you" and let them decide for themselves that it's right. That way, when test time comes, they know the right questions to ask *themselves* to determine whether or not their answer is right.

Madscientistgirl said...

I think here we're running into some disagreements because not all disciplines are the same.

I don't know how to teach someone how to solve basic physics problems without working through problems with them. If I work through problems with a student, even if I use different problems or change the numbers, they will still look a lot like the homework problems because there is a finite set of solvable problems which are at the appropriate level for, say, intro physics. I don't give them the answer, but if I've worked through the thought process on a couple of problems with them and they explain to me what they're doing at each step, yes, I will confirm that they're right. I like to follow it up with a more complicated question that applies what we just went through and have them tell me how to solve the problem. I also like to get students to explain to other students how to solve the problem we just went through - and most students aren't very comfortable with this unless I confirm that the teaching student is correct. (That's just for homework - I don't tell students how to solve problems on exams but just clarify the question.) I have seen people (usually professors) take a hard-nosed approach where they will never confirm that the student is ever right, or a very pure application of the Socratic method, and neither of these approaches really seems to teach the student how to think through problems (though it's very effective at getting students to stop asking questions, and sometimes I think that's the real goal.) They actually seem to be as ineffective at teaching students as blindly giving them the answers. It's tough to draw a line, and it's also tough to make broad generalizations about the best way to teach all subjects and all students at all levels. I bet every academic would draw the line in a different place.

I think the most important thing is to give all students the same opportunities. Sure, some students are shy and bashful - but we aren't doing them any favors by letting them stay in their shells. We're trying to either train scientists or give non-scientists a taste of science. If you had someone in your research lab who wouldn't ask questions if they didn't understand how to use equipment properly or who didn't ask questions at conferences when they didn't understand a talk, they wouldn't go very far. And I think that's true of most disciplines. Yes students who seek out extra help and extra resources will do better - but life is like that. If you really think it's unfair that students who come to office hours have an advantage, you shouldn't hold office hours.

But coming to exams - a lot of professors overestimate how clear their exams are. I admit, it is hard to write exams. But when I was a graduate student, I proctored exams where I didn't know what the professor was trying to ask until I saw the key. It wasn't that I didn't know how to do what they wanted done, but that I didn't see a connection between the exam question and the answer on the key. And usually the profs that wrote these exams were also the type to not listen to their TA's - no one else was smart enough to understand the genius of what they'd written, and if I didn't get the question it was clearly because I wasn't smart. So questions students ask during the exam shouldn't be blithely dismissed either.

Anonymous said...

A timely post, since I just proctored an exam this's amazing what questions people will ask.

I had two foreign students ask me the meanings of words on the exam. One asked what "brittleness" was. The question ("T/F: Brittleness is an extensive property") was not really meant to gauge the students' knowledge of brittleness; also, brittleness was not included in the in-class examples of extensive properties. So I thought this was a legitimate question, and gave him a definition.

The other student asked what "unpaired" meant in regard to electrons. We had covered that concept extensively in lecture, so I told him he should know it.

I got quite a few people raising their hand to tell me that "the right answer isn't one of the options!!!" (@#$%& Scantron tests! One of my big beefs...) I hadn't written the exam myself, but I'd proofread it for the prof AND made the answer key, so of course all of the questions did have correct answers. I told the students that if they didn't think it was there, they should pick the closest answer. I wonder how many of these will come to my office after I post the grades to tell me that the answer key is wrong! *roll eyes*

Doctor Pion said...

My usual reply is "I don't know, I haven't plugged in the numbers to get the final answer" ... whether I have or not.

I will answer an interpretation question about an answer, like whether X is an acceptable variant for writing a vector. However, most of the questions I am asked during an exam get the reply "no comment".

If I am collecting a homework problem, I will not tell anyone if their solution is correct until the papers are turned in. Further, if I tell them the correct answers after the papers are turned in, all late penalties are immediately doubled.

For problems that are evaluated by the computer, I will gladly go over their solution and help them find the mistake they are making.