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I am a STEM major and have a good friend who is a non-STEM major. We are both taking a CS minor, me because it is relevant to my field of study and he because he wants a backup plan in case his preferred career path doesn't work out. Thus, while I am a much stronger math student than he, we end up taking the same courses where the CS minor is concerned.

Part of the CS minor's requirements are a series of math courses. We took the penultimate one last year, together, and I struggled with helping him through it. These are not math classes or concepts which either of us have been formally exposed to before. However, I have self-studied some things, and am better at grasping the concepts the first time around (during the lecture), while he needs more reinforcement and multiple explanations for more complicated ideas.

Because we are friends we naturally did the homework together (doing homework in groups is encouraged by the professors in this series of classes). I felt awkward sometimes, as I had two goals the whole time: do the homework as quickly as I could do it well, and teach him the concepts. Our working relationship was not quite that of tutor and student, which I have more experience with - I tutored calculus on the side - but it was also not that of two equal friends struggling through the homework together. Besides homework, we also prepared for tests together, and I shared my notes with him.

With the coming of fall classes, I have been thinking about how I could improve the next time our classes overlap, which will be in the winter term. How could I better approach helping/tutoring a friend in the same course as me?

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    $\begingroup$ Note: I have posted about this question to meta but didn't receive much feedback, just a single encouraging comment. $\endgroup$
    – bobble
    Aug 23, 2022 at 14:56

3 Answers 3

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I had two goals the whole time: do the homework as quickly as I could do it well, and teach him the concepts.

If you really want to help, the first goal should be scrapped entirely, IMHO. The best thing a stronger person can do for a weaker one when doing the homework together is to delegate all actual work to the latter and just to give hints when the weaker person is genuinely stuck. As to the rest, I would let the other person decide when and how much help he needs (though you may nudge him a bit now and then when you see that he is falling behind). Just play it by the ear: there is no recipe that fits all people and all situations. If you feel like he may see you as dominating him, just ask him to teach you something he is better than you at and that you are really interested in.

Just my two cents :-)

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    $\begingroup$ When poorly executed, this technique teaches learned helplessness. To have constant access to "hints" from a stronger person encourages one to cash in on such hints to save mental energy and effort. Beware: this requires the stronger person to have good judgement about what constitutes being "genuinely stuck". You can tell when things have gone wrong when you detect resentment from the weaker person, desperate for the next hint which is being withheld withheld while the weaker person is feeling frustrated. Listen for the desperate "I need your help" (bad), vs. an on-topic question. $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Aug 24, 2022 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Wyck "When poorly executed, this technique teaches learned helplessness." Agreed, but isn't everything else, when "poorly executed" result in something disastrous? :-). One has to proceed with trial and error and almost none of us is perfect even in the things we do every day. What's your favorite way of helping a student or colleague who is weaker than you? $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Aug 24, 2022 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Wyck isn't necessarily disagreeing with your answer, just adding an important footnote of something to beware of and avoid for future readers who go this route. Note that they even give a specific suggestion for how to avoid this potential problem, beyond just knowing it exists which itself is very helpful. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2022 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterCordes Have I made an impression that I was disagreeing with his comment? Apologies if I have. I just wanted to clarify his point of view further :-) $\endgroup$
    – fedja
    Aug 25, 2022 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ @fedja: When your reply starts with "agreed, but", it sounds like you were defending / justifying your answer against a perceived criticism that risks imply one maybe shouldn't do something. Glad to hear that wasn't the intent, just letting you know why I got that impression. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2022 at 11:33
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Although I do think this is appropriate here, it's more a question about interpersonal relationships than about math education.

First, what is the problem you want to solve? The only problem you named was sometimes feeling awkward. I am curious: Do you feel any resentment? Do you think your friend feels any? What boundaries would you like to set that you didn't before?

Getting clarity about these things will help.

If you'd like more help here, you'll have to define your problem more clearly.

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    $\begingroup$ I felt awkward because my goals seemed in constant conflict; fedja's answer pointed out that I could get around the problem by dropping one of them. $\endgroup$
    – bobble
    Aug 24, 2022 at 1:05
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I think you should prioritize your own learning. You are not getting paid to help him. Others are. Maybe avoid these group projects also, or get in a different section or take in a different order.

This sounds cruel. But you need to prioritize. Your job is to learn, not teach. That's what parents or governments are paying for.

Nothing wrong with a quick tip. But stop studying together.

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    $\begingroup$ The best way to ensure understanding is to teach. By tutoring the other student you're allowing yourself the ability to double check your understanding. Even in my hardest math classes in college I "tutored" my friends, not because I was way better than them at the subject, but because it allowed me to spot gaps in my understanding. Often, I would say something, then realize I didn't know if that was always true, then learn more myself to fill in that gap. $\endgroup$
    – Robin
    Aug 24, 2022 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Robin This may be true, but leads to strained relationships when you're being "used" by your classmates for assistance without any consideration in return (and some sense of implied "you're my friend so you owe me the answers"). I found much better relationships with others when I kept my tutoring to paid tutoring with strangers, and stopped working with others on homework. $\endgroup$
    – Opal E
    Aug 24, 2022 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ That's a saying, not thoughtful. I think the hidden assumption is sn unconstrained time availsbke. But this is surely not the case for most people or for this kid doing several courses. Furthermore, I think the hidden assumption is that the teaching is in addition, not instead. So if you had a choice of drill and no teaching or teaching and no drill, teaching would not be the best way to learn. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2022 at 13:03

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