I’ve been trying to be less helpful to my math students so that they can develop strategies for coping with unfamiliar situations. Last week, I had my final Math 8 class of the year. My students had been preparing for a year-end exam and I wanted to show them some sample problems so that they could focus their studying time on the topics in which they need the most practice. Truth be told, I also wanted to scare them a little bit, so that they would would take their studying seriously.

I put four different types of questions on the board. I insisted on silent, individual work for the first 8 minutes; however, as they worked I told them to do as much as they could on their own and that they would have a chance to ask question at the end of the 8 minutes.

After 8 minutes of independent work, I told students that they could now ask for help. Many came rushing to me with the usual refrain, “I don’t get it!” and “how do I do this?“. But I said that I wouldn’t tell them anything for another 10 minutes. Instead, they had to ask each other. During those 10 minutes, a few students finished the questions I had posted and started asking, “did I get this one right?”, but I wouldn’t tell them. Instead, I reminded them on the exam, they would have to check their own work.

Once students got the idea that I wasn’t going to help them (at least not right away), I really enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations. They were comparing answers, finding errors, justifying their approaches and explaining their thinking.

Eventually, I did give students the answers. The best part of that process was that a student identified an error I had made, and was able to explain how he knew it was wrong. After that, I was available to answer the questions that students had and offer help to those who needed it; however, many students had found that they didn’t need my help after all.


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