5: Problem Students

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1 Overview

This session is run as follows:

  1. Have TAs list kinds of problems they encounter with students.
  2. As context for discussion of those problems, discuss the Grade/Learning disconnect and why student and TA motivation may differ.
  3. Work down their list of problems (in whatever order makes the most sense), discussing each.

2 The Axiom of Evaluation

3 Commonly-raised problems

3.1 Students who want the answer, not learning

This problem is particularly acute in CS, which has a lot of graded assignments where it is possible to ask for help on something that will be graded.

3.2 Students whose question is answered in the assignment writeup

We used to give various approaches to this, but TAs that tried out several converged on one best practice:

3.3 Students who insist on doing it the wrong way

Sometimes a student has hundreds of lines of code for a problem that should be solvable in a dozen lines, and resists any effort to re-direct them to a more elegant solution.

3.4 Students who have just started a 10-hour project 1 hour before the deadline

… or who started earlier but made little progress and still have 10 hours of work to do.

3.5 Students who seem not to have attended class or read the textbook

Let’s face it: this happens a lot, sometimes even in classes where attendance is required because it is so easy to find distractions in the classroom.

3.6 Students who are missing material that was pre-requisite to the class

This can happen for many reasons, the simplest being that with most courses’ grading schemes, you can pass learning only 70% of the material in the previous class, but all 100% could be required for a subsequent class.

3.7 Students (and faculty) who assume you are a computer setup expert

Hundreds of students × low chance of individual computer setup problem = high chance of some student having a problem

3.8 Friends who expect special attention

More often a problem with preexisting friends, but sometimes seen by students who try to befriend TAs during the semester too.

3.9 Questions you can’t answer

Sometimes (more often in upper-level classes, but sometimes even in intro) you are asked an on-topic question you don’t know the answer to

Aside: some TAs are worried that asking for help is a sign of weakness. It’s not; it’s a sign of learning, which we are all doing (even faculty). I’d much rather a TA who is learning to a TA who acts like they know what they don’t. I’d even rather a TA who is learning to one who has learned it all, as they tend to have more energy and engagement.

3.10 Students who blame you

Sometimes a student blames a TA (or the system or other things) for their personal difficulties and failures.

3.11 Students who are frustrated/crying/angry

The pressures and stress of facing difficult assignments can cause students to lose their cool and act in rude, offensive, and inappropriate ways. The right strategy depends somewhat on the level of emotional rawness you observe: