Am I being unfair to this student? Physics homework help.

One of my main goals as a teacher is to be willing to help students when they are having difficulty with the homework or the concepts we are learning in class.

Every year I have my faithful visitors to office hours who I can rely upon to show up each week with questions about the lecture and problems sets, and I think it’s really great that a) they’re putting such a consistent effort into the class and b) they seem to find my help valuable and keep coming back, since there are other instructors for this course who they could go to for help. If a student is really struggling, I am willing to take them step-by-step through the problem. I don’t do the problems for them, but I do ask prompting questions and give hints if they get stuck.

However, this semester I have one student who just brought me his completed homework and wanted to know if it was right. I told him I wasn’t just going to check his homework before he handed it in; if he had any specific questions, I would answer them, but I wasn’t going to just tell him whether his answers were right or wrong.

After pondering a while, I’m thinking that maybe this was a bit unfair. He’s not asking for the answers, he just wants to know if any of his solutions are wrong so he can work them again. He has completed all the problems (four days before they are due, no less), which shows that he’s willing to do the work on his own, and arguably he is asking for a lot less help than the students who show up and say, “I looked at problem 5 and don’t know where to start. Can you help me with it?” Yet I’m much more willing to help that student through the whole problem than to just tell this guy whether his answers are right or wrong, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Bear in mind that if I do tell him whether his answers are right, I’m pretty sure he’s going to show up every week all semester and expect the same service.

What do you think?

I think you are right. If you show him that his answers are right or wrong now, he may show up for office hours for the rest of the semester asking the same questions. As with every semester, let the student learn from your lectures, and eventually he’ll be confident enough in his own abilities to not have to ask you. As a fellow teacher I deal with this same phenomenon, and as with every year, the students are raring to go during this first week of classes, and even into next week and the next, but as I am sure you are aware, that will die down and the “course work” from other classes will bog them down and things will reach their terminal velocity by the end of the add-drop period :slight_smile:

You are doing the right thing.

Eh, I don’t know. If I were learning something new, and had done my homework well in advance, it would be a valuable learning aid to know whether I’d done it right or not. I mean, I’d find out when I would hand it in four days from then, or when we went over it in class, or whatever the procedure in your class is. I’d like to work on stuff I’ve got wrong on my own ahead of time so I can try to figure out where I made my mistakes on my own.

Interesting dilemma. Mr profs. just solved this by having about 90% of the homework assignments be from the ones that have answers in the back of the book. That way, when you’re done, you can check your final answer. If it’s wrong, you know you made a mistake. I was usually pretty good at finding them myself (forgeting to convert properly, or I did a derivitave a little wrong.) Also, when they do finally come to you, they know exactly what they’re going to ask.

Now, it’s hard to only use problems with answers, as sometimes the type of problem you want them to solve doesn’t have any to go with it. But it’s good to throw in one or two problems per assignment without answers, just so the students are more prepared for a test, when they only have one shot at it.

Oh, I forgot to add, if you either don’t use textbooks with solutions, or you jsut create your own probelms, then what you can do is just tell them if the fianl answer is right, and give no toher information.

If he asks you if the answer is 1.76 eV, say nope. Maybe tell him it’s suppossed to be 2.3 eV, but wait for him to see if he can find where he made the mistake, that way you’re not holding his hand through it, you’re forcing him to learn the material.

Students after the first few weeks generally learn the materials and course semantics enough to deduce homework assignments on their own. For instance, some of my intro to stats students this semester have already come to my office hours, and our first class was Monday…Once they get a hold of what’s going on, and what is required of them, they will do just fine. W

Students after the first few weeks generally learn the materials and course semantics enough to deduce homework assignments on their own. For instance, some of my intro to stats students this semester have already come to my office hours, and our first class was Monday…Once they get a hold of what’s going on, and what is required of them, they will do just fine. We are here to teach, to mold young minds to learn for themselves, some need a little extra, others - the majority - do not need a walkthru, but more of a directional sign…Thats what teaching is, getting your point, and coursework across efficiently, and effectively so the students can grasp the topics and learn effectively.

The class has just started, the poor kid is trying to see if he really understood it or if he needs to show up for extra help. Let him know if he is on the right track. Some students have outside obligations that make extra hours tough. (You know jobs, caring for siblings, rough home life) Cut some slack but let him know you wont do it all the time.

Why not have him pick one of the problems, and go through it with him/her? You help out, and settle any honest insecurities the student has, but you’re not going to get run over and pushed into giving away the answers early. Plus, you can find out if there is a problem early on.

A bit more information . . . this student actually took Physics 102 last spring (out of sequence) and is taking Physics 101 this semester. The courses are taught by the same team of instructors, using the same textbook, with the same grading policies. So it’s not just a new class, beginning of the year insecurity thing. He should know the drill by now—better than any other student in the class, in fact.

He was in somebody else’s lab last semester, so I didn’t have to deal with him. I find it interesting that he didn’t say, “But Prof. Smith did this for me last semester!” (Prof. “Smith” will be in tomorrow, and I’m going to ask him about this student.)

The answers to the odd-numbered problems are in the back of the text. He just wants to know if the even-numbered ones are right or not. I’m sure as heck not going to just tell him what the answer is. I’m conflicted enough about telling him whether it’s right or wrong. Just giving him the answers is definitely not appropriate, unless everyone else in the class gets all the answers, too.

Argh! I really wish I could say why I dislike this behaviour . . . I want to say that it’s asking for special treatment. But then, the students who come to my office hours for help get “special treatment,” too, in a sense, so why doesn’t that bother me? Is it because they have to park their butt in my office and work through it with me? I did offer to answer any specific questions he had, or work through any problems with him that he wanted help on, but he said, no, he just wanted to know if they were right or wrong.

If he simply wanted to know if they were right or wrong, let him find out in class, or when he get’s them returned like the rest of the class…Did he take the classes out of order on purpose? I know some less than honest students do this to boost thier GPA by sliding through a cake class, by taking the prerequisite 2nd. Generally at my school one would need the department heads approval to do this…

My sense is you should go with your gut, you probably think he is wanting special treatment because that is exactly correct. He’s obviously not asking you to walk him through something, and his blatent, bluntness speaks volumes to what he really wants…a yes or no.

Let him find out in class. I am not usually this cynical at the begining of a semester…I’m usually more open to students needs, and not knowing this student personally, I probably can’t be of much more help…

I think that you should tell him if the answers are correct. For that matter, I think you should give the final answers to all your students. I know that when I was in college (long long about 5 months ago) I would work and rework problems where I knew I had the wrong answer and learn a lot in the process. When I didn’t know if I was right or not, I would do the problem once and call it a day, even if something in my solution seemed, well, shaky. I was, by the way, a mechanical engineer with a physics minor.

Two more notes. I think that giving the solutions helps a student develop the skill to troubleshoot. I believe this is a valuable skill. When you are working in industry, you will come into situations where you know you have the wrong ‘answer’ (for example, that batch of soap is off color) and then have to troubleshoot to find the problem in your process.

Second note. The way in which you grade homework also should be taken into consideration. If you just look for a page of work and then check for the proper answer, this may not work. If you look at the steps, check the free body diagram, partial credit type of thing, then by all means I think you should distribute the answers.

I’m a strong believer in formative evaluation, so I used to read, mark and hand back assignments that were handed to me 3+ days before they were due so students could learn something…

That said, you could use the Bricker Challenge method of marking for these physics problems: tell the student how many are right. Let him figure out which are incorrect.


I was going to suggest the “give him one answer to see if he’s on the right track” approach but seeing as how he has the answers to half the problems already he should know if he’s on the right track already. If his odd-numbered answers are checking out with the answers in the book then he obviously knows and understands the concepts behind the problems. I see no need for you to use your office hours checking his math unless he wants to turn the assignment in early.

I think my question isn’t whether it’s a good idea to give answers to students in general, but rather whether I treating this student unfairly if I help some students work out problems from start to finish, but refuse to just look at his paper and tell him whether his answers are right or wrong.

It is not within my power to set policies for the course. They are set by the main lecturer and I need to follow them so that students in my sections are treated according to the same standards as everybody else in the class. I cannot assign different problems to my students, or give them the answers, or offer them the opportunity to turn in their homework early to be evaluated before it is graded (leaving aside whether I would actually want to do any or all of that, which is another question for another time.)

All I’m really worried about is whether, within the policies of the course, I am being fair to this student, given the level of help that I cheerfully give to other students. Is there some kind of an ethical line between the request he is making and the sort of help that I give in office hours?

I will be discussing this with the other instructors next week at our meeting, when everyone will actually be here, but I find that I am some what preoccupied with it in the meantime.

Thanks to everyone, though, for your responses . . . Great food for thought. . .

Seems like an obvious solution then. If he’s not sure if he worked the problems right, and the answers to the odd numbered ones are in the back of the book, and you can’t tell him the answers to the even numbered ones, then tell him which odd numbered ones are worked in the same manner as the assigned even numbered ones.

If he really wants to, he can work the odd-numbered question and see if he got the right answer, then make sure he worked the even-numbered question the same way.


It seems wrong to me to help him out, too. In effect, he wants ALL of his work graded and a chance to fix it. If you’re not allowing “do overs” for all of your students, you are being unfair to them by effectively allowing this student to pad his grade.

Working out the process of a few problems, or if he had one or two that he thought were right, but wasn’t sure, I would definitely help him, and it sounds like that’s what you would do, too.

Sounds like maybe this kid has to always get everything right. I used to be like this kid, so I understand where he’s coming from, but of course, he needs to get used to the fact that without mistakes, he won’t learn.

Is the point of homework to help this student learn the material, or to test his knowledge of the material? Letting him stew with no help until it’s graded and passed back only tests his current knowledge. After the fact, I guess he could rework the problems for his own benefit, but he might prefer to use that time on the other questions he’s getting no help with.

If you’re goal is to help him learn the material, let him know if any are incorrect, then leave it to him to figure out where he went wrong. FlippyFly is right that finding your errors really helps you learn the material, and improves your ability to do better work inthe future.

Physics TA checking in …

I’d be hesitant to help a student in that manner. One of the big things that we hope for students to get out of the course is some confidence in their problem solving, as well as the ability to assess whether or not an answer is reasonable. Plus, we give relatively little credit for ‘correct answers’. I can see the arguement that it’s the first week of classes - but I can’t think of a reasonable way to help him once and then back off. Having had a bazillion students in first year physics classes - I’ve seen this type of thing and he’ll likely be a student that’s looking for assurance and verification all semester.

If he came to you saying ‘I solved this problem and got that the speed of the baseball is 764 mph and that seems unreasonable, but I can’t find my mistake’, then you have something to work with. If it’s just ‘am I right?,’ then I can’t think of a useful thing you could do.

If possible, you could encourage him to find others to work with and check answers.

I think this is at the heart of the matter. By simply looking over his completed homework before it is due, you are in effect giving him two chances to the do the assignment, while everyone else gets one. This doesn’t seem fair, unless everyone has two chances which would of course be a grading nightmare for you. (I taught physics in grad school, so I know what a pain in the ass grading problem sets can be.)

What I would do is this: tell the student he’s welcome to come to office hours and work the problems in front of you, with you offering help and advice when/if he gets stuck or makes mistakes. Don’t let him use his completed homework as reference – he has to work the problems from scratch. Doing this will give him the same opportunities as everyone else, and moreover prepare him incredibly well for the test. If he can work those problems from scratch twice in a row, he will ace the exams.