Be Less Helpful: The Reddit Version

Here, I am referring to Dan Meyer's "Be Less Helpful" mantra. I like it, but maybe you aren't familiar with Dan. Here is his take on a high school physics problem. Or maybe you would like the video version:

Be Less Helpful - CMC North 2009 - Dan Meyer from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

What does this have to do with Reddit? Check out this comment posted in physics. Basically, someone is asking for help finishing physics homework by that night. I really like the following two comments. First, another user said:

"This might help you in the short term, or for this course. But it won't in the long run. Physics is all about understanding. If you don't understand it, root memory and letting others do your work might get you through the first year but it won't get you to the end i.e. your degree. It is better to flunk out in the first year than to spend all the money and flunk out in the second year.

I am not saying that you shouldn't ask for help. I am saying that you should keep thinking about the material, keep trying to understand it and do the work yourself."

To which the original poster says:

"I'm not getting a degree nor do I have any intention of it. I'm putting up with my final gen-ed course and am stuck doing it with a professor who doesn't do more than read her powerpoint in class."

So, here are my comments on this reddit thread. Really I think the main issue is different viewpoints.

Student View

  • I am a student and I like bulleted lists (Rhett does too)
  • I just want to be a -blank- major, why do I have to take physics?
  • How am I supposed to solve these problems if you don't show me how to solve them?
  • Maybe if I had some sample solutions, I could figure out how these problems work and I could get the answer.

Instructor View

  • How can you have your pudding if you don't eat your meat?
  • Really though, you will never really understand physics if you don't do it. You learn by the doing.
  • I am going to get you to think about things in class because if I just tell you the answer, you won't get it

So, there is the problem. A lack of communication. Really this comes down to "what is the goal of this course". The student says "to pass so I can move on". The instructor says "to learn physics". And maybe that is why there is a conflict. Obviously, I think the purpose of the course is to learn physics and the goal of school in general is to learn (not job training).

Be Less Helpful

So back to Be Less Helpful...If the goal is to learn, then the student has to do stuff. Telling the answer, unfortunately doesn't help. If I had to summarize Be Less Helpful, I would say that it is just like learning to ride a bike. If you keep holding on, they will never learn.

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So the goal of learning is just to have knowledge? Not that you would ever apply that knowledge to anything similar to employment, you'll just use it at cocktail parties?
I taught writing to graphic designers and artists. Invariably, one student would always say, that they didn't need to learn how to "write," that their design or art was the most important aspect. My response was to bring in the Request for Proposal forms from the local Arts Council, which invariably had a requirement for a 2 page description of the art form. That is, the artist needed to describe in clear, complete, correct, and concise terms how the art work met the needs of the proposal.
Students often need to see the carrot on the end of the stick. Learning physics helps you in your future career by x, y, and z. They also need to accept that they learn more from failure than they do from success. Success only teaches you to repeat. (Hey that worked - I'll do it again!) Failure forces you to examine the problem and your response.
That said, instructors that simply read PowerPoint slides are not teaching, they are reciting. The goal of school (or university) may not be job training, but it is employment preparation.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

the goal of a trade school is preparation for employment. the goal of a university should be teaching critical thinking and scholarship.

This reminds me of a comment a fellow student made in my stats class but sums up how I feel about all my engineering (which is essentially based on physics) classes. When the professor asked if we understood it, a student replied:
"Yes, until I do the homework."
It seems like I can listen to lecture, go read the chapter in the book, and get to a homework problem and be perfectly stumped. I can look back at my lecture notes, look all through the chapter, and have no clue about how to solve the problem. I have no idea how or why this occurs. Obviously the textbook writers have crafted the homework questions that you should only need the book and maybe a theoretical understanding of some prior related topics. And yet sometimes it comes off as a whole new "thing" which I need to learn and for which neither lecture nor book prepared me. I think many of my fellow students get around this by working in groups where they can pool their knowledge and suggestions. As someone who works essentially solo I find myself in the pickle many people who post online needing instant homework help. I know that isn't exactly the point of your post, but it seems somewhat related to the frustration of students.


The trick is to do the exercises first, or at least try. Then you list (carefully, and perhaps as a drawing) what parts you can do and which you can't, what you do know and what you don't. You also list what you think is connected and what you think isn't. And you map out a few plausible lines of attack (never mind that you can't actually carry out all the steps yet).

And /then/ you read and listen to the lecture.

Another trick is to explain (to others or on paper) why something that you learned yesterday is still true today. You probably can't do it -- but then you know which steps you didn't /really/ learn yesterday.

By Peter Lund (Denmark) (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

the goal of a trade school is preparation for employment. the goal of a university should be teaching critical thinking and scholarship.

I guess the relevant word is should. At no time during my undergraduate or graduate education was critical thinking "taught." I will agree that it was an expected by-product of the instruction, but methodology was not emphasized as much as acquisition of knowledge. It's even worse for the Art and Design students because their work is judged by subjective standards.

Furthermore, thinking and scholarship (especially if that scholarship is research in an NIH funded discipline) ain't going to pay the bills, namely the student loans many accrue over the course of their studies. One is a naive fool not to prepare for future employment during those college years.

When all the others hear that our best graduate student (the one with two Cell papers) has decided to enter an MBA program, they make noises like "oh that she had such promise, such as shame," and so forth. I respond that the PI taught her well, and that she can read the handwriting on the wall. Her PhD, well that will get her a job in hell, and the MBA, well at least it places her in the upper reaches of perdition, not in the bowels.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

Just to add a point. Your teacher might be very happy (I know I was) if when you got stuck on a homework problem, you just showed all the work you did, wrote what you thought you should do and why you were stuck. I got that maybe 5 times in about 5 years I taught. Generally I was so happy the student was thinking about the problem I didn't even mark it down, and once even had them do the problem and then help work it for the class.

I think the "Be Less Helpful" philosophy would be better stated as "Be More Vague". Like you mention, if the instructor just tells the student the answer, they won't understand. But the instructor still needs to guide the thinking process and push the student to the correct answer. So being helpful is extremely important, but telling the student what to do is pretty counter-productive.

By being vague and offering only hints, it keeps the students on the right track, yet puts the onus on the student to get the rest of the way.