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I am doing a maths PhD and naturally that involves leading exercise classes for undergraduate students. The idea is that the students just show up and work through the problem set and I'm there to discuss with them if need be. This is the third time I've done this and the first time was for a first year class which many students regularly attended, but the last 2 have been for third year classes and (as I'm sure is common) I am now lucky if 3 people show up.

Does anyone have any experience with how to encourage the students to engage with the classes? Or as a side question, is it even important that they do? They are given the solutions to the problems a week later anyway but I have no idea if they are actually doing them or not.

(This of course raises the possibility of never giving them the solutions but I am not very comfortable with that idea if there are students who for whatever reason can't show up. Maybe we could give them the solutions later in the term?)

In the first year class that I taught one problem each week was marked and counted towards the final grade. I don't like this so much as, especially being first years, they spent a ridiculous amount of time on the question and didn't focus on the others and were generally very stressed out by it. I wonder if it would be worth having a question marked that doesn't count towards the grade? In my undergraduate we had to hand in a whole set of problems every week but they didn't count to anything so it kept you engaged and you got real feedback but you also had the space to make mistakes. However this was an unusual situation because I went to Cambridge where the teaching is in much smaller groups (1 or 2 people) so you would show up anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you spoken to other students leading exercise classes for ideas that will work at your university? $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Oct 14 '21 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Not so much (you are right that this is the obvious place to start), but most people seem to have the same kind of problems but just aren't really sure if there's anything we can do about it! $\endgroup$
    – user294388
    Oct 14 '21 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ "I am doing a maths PhD and naturally that involves leading exercise classes for undergraduate students..." FYI: this is not a thing that exists in all locations. $\endgroup$ Oct 17 '21 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ If no one comes, then possibly no one finds it useful to come. This suggests that you should modify something about what you are doing. Students will not spend time attending classes they don't find useful. Sometimes this means students lack interest and find sitting in the park more useful. Sometimes it means the teacher is not communicating well. It can depend on the particular population of students. If one has reasonably talented students, lack of attendance means one is doing something wrong. If students are weak, it is less cause for worry. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Fox
    Dec 19 '21 at 10:39
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  1. It would be helpful if you told us more about the class and the demographic. Is this freshman calculus at Enormous State University? Or abstract algebra at Princeton? Kind of changes the answer based on the type of drill the peeps are doing and what their capabilities are.

  2. I recommend sharing written solution (or at least answer) keys at the sessions. Maybe that will drive attendance. But I think drill problem solutions (or at least answers) should be available immediately, even pre-emptively, in the book. When I self-study math or language or whatever, I do the drill first. Then turn to the back and see how I did. Then rework the problem if I missed it. Moving the corrective feedback even further back in the term seems like going the wrong direction. Heck, even having it a week later seems like an overly long feedback loop. How am I supposed to advance my knowledge if I have to wait a week to find my mistakes? And yes if someone wants to show up and take the key and leave, let them.

  3. To the extent you know typical questions, mistakes on graded tests, within their course, and can share that with students, that can be beneficial. But since you are not a long term professor, it's unlikely you know that in detail. But at least you have your own experience from doing the courses. (Although maybe not if you are some Oxbridge person and are at Cal now.) If schools really cared, they would pay (higher cost, higher experience) tenured profs to do these sessions and incentivize pay for teaching versus research...but clearly they don't and that is just the world we live in. All that said, the more you can help the kids to do better on their tests, the more benefit for them. But see my postscript first and don't spend extra time on it outside of the sessions themselves.

P.s. In terms of "is it important"? No. What's important is that you work on your own Ph.D., in particular the original research part of it. There are a lot of things wrong with the teaching methods at R1 schools, and a massive amount of money (including the opportunity time of the students) being spent poorly for the results achieved. But it's not your priority to fix them (nor can you). Just show up and collect your stipend and do your research. That's the most important thing...your research. You are a student too. And not getting paid much.

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How about offering participation in the classes for extra credit? Or, perhaps participation can be in place of a homework assignment, or in place of a quiz grade? This might take off the pressure of graded assessments, and encourage students to show up and engage with the material without worrying about a grade.

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