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I'm currently a computer science graduate student on a low stipend, and have started spending a few hours per week tutoring undergraduates to help make ends meet. I love teaching and want to be a help to students, but I also want to make sure that I don't personally cross any ethical boundaries in doing so, or be complicit in students doing so.

Some obvious transgressions are tutoring for a class for which I am also a TA (conflict of interest), and writing code or otherwise outright doing work for students (plagiarism), but what other ethical considerations do I need to keep in mind to remain above-board in doing this?

Students sometimes ask me questions about their assignments. How much help is too much help? If a student is asked a "trick" or unclear question, is it appropriate for me to clarify it? If they're having trouble debugging a program, can I help them localize the issue to a few lines of code, or do I need to remain very general about things? Can I review code they've already submitted to help them improve by, for example, showing a better way of managing memory in C, or showing how to optimize or shorten their programs? Can I write short code snippets illustrate a point in a lesson?

I've also noticed that some questions on homework assignments are very basic. For example, in our systems course, the students were asked "True or False: a register is a small location in RAM". The answer was in the lecture slides. It makes me nervous to not be able to distinguish a request for a basic fact from a request for a homework answer. The assignments are only visible to students during the term, so I can't tell unless they show me (as was the case here). Should I give an indirect answer like "I can't just tell you that; did you review the lecture notes on CPU architecture?" as I did this time? Was doing that unethical?

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You seem to have a pretty good ethical sense based on your question, so I think you won't go far wrong following your instincts.

But if you have the opportunity, it is a good idea to go visit the prof teaching the course for which you are tutoring and ask for any additional general guidance.

It is usually a good idea to answer "trivial" questions with other questions. "What do you think the answer is? Why? Explain your reasoning." That sort of thing. Often the student will get a flash of insight. But if you can point to a flaw in reasoning you help the student without giving direct answers.

Good professors when asked questions by students seldom give out complete answers unless it is in the context of a continuing conversation. Instead, a "minimal" hint is given to get the student over a block and which lets them proceed. If a student repeatedly has problems with the same issue or block, an additional exercise will be given that tries to give the student practice with the reasoning.

But the technique of asking for an analysis of any issue that leads to a block is a good way to diagnose the student's thinking and help them get over it.

Giving students general problem solving strategies is also good, but probably less useful, as it doesn't usually have a diagnostic element. But even "Where did you look for an answer?" can help. Especially if followed by "Where else could you look?". You could then suggest other sources if appropriate.

I'll note for completeness that some students are misled by the resources that they use. Some of those resources are wrong and some may be written poorly leading to ambiguity. I've had students get in terrible jams by using perfectly rational thought processes applied to bad input data. That is rare, but it can occur.

  • "some students are misled by the resources that they use. Some of those resources are wrong [...] I've had students get in terrible jams by using perfectly rational thought processes applied to bad input data." The three intro CS classes gate the major by requiring students to clear a certain GPA threshold to proceed. This sort of thing happens so frequently in the notes I wonder if it is deliberate. – ArnoldF Feb 11 at 0:49
  • Sorry it took me so long to come back and accept this! – ArnoldF Mar 7 at 18:58
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@Buffy has hit all the points. But I'll add that I've noticed that different departments have quirks. Often the quirk is just the department heads personal bias. It could be that at Nebraska College, tutoring students in your own department is fine, as long as there's no conflict of interest. But at Kansas College, the department head thinks that the same situation is unethical (I mean, after all, the undergrad has already paid tuition which, in part, pays your stipend, and now, here you are double-charging him.)

So my advice is that you ask the department head his views. His views may be unreasonable, but....you know.

  • Yes, this applies especially if you are salaried (receive a specified annual, etc. sum to cover whatever hours are necessary for you to get everything done). If you are paid hourly based on hours actually worked for the department, taking an extra job "off the clock" for work not assigned to you by the department can be perceived as more ethical. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Mar 18 at 14:19
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Try to ensure that any advice or assistance you give is consistent with what is permissible under the rubric of any assignment the student shows to you, especially if said assignment counts towards a qualification. Good tutoring involves guiding the student to find solutions for himself/herself, rather than doing the work for him/her.

Ultimately, the onus is on the student not to cheat. However, as a private tutor, it is your responsibility to provide the right guidance to him/her so that he/she acts ethically. If a student acting in good faith does something unethical as a result of erroneous guidance on your part, you may be held liable. So, always refer a student back to the regulations of his/her course. You can do this by asking him/her to check any relevant guidelines/rules in any relevant handbook/rubric. If in doubt, confirm with him/her as you go along what is and is not permissible (if the student acting in good faith, he/she will appreciate such clarity and understand his/her responsibilities). If you think he/she is misleading you about this, insist upon seeing the relevant handbook/rubric for yourself. If you have evidence that he/she is actually cheating, report it anonymously to the relevant authorities.

One final point about private tutoring: it may be worth making clear to the student that you cannot make any guarantees about his/her academic performance (because nobody can make such guarantees), since it ultimately depends on him/her.

  • I'd also note that the onus is on the instructor to prevent those that cheat on homework (which is universal nowadays) from gaining too much advantage in their class grade. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 8 at 15:22
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Another feature ... When you become a private tutor for someone, then you are in a superior position. That means any romantic relationship between the two of you is not allowed.

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    Can you clarify in what way a tutor is superior to their client? Is my grocer or pharmacist superior to me because I pay them to do things for me? And what is the authority that will “not allow” a tutor to have a romantic relationship with their student? – Dan Romik Feb 13 at 2:14
  • This is not true in my country. I agree with Dan Romik and have the same questions to you as he. – user104541 Feb 17 at 23:00
  • Not that I would want to, but I don't see the conflict of interest here, either. Any such students would be paying me for my services. If anything, the fact that they pay me puts them in a superior position since they can fire me. – ArnoldF Mar 11 at 10:30
  • Could you clarify your country in which this is not allowed? Do you mean by law/religion or something else? – Hatschu Mar 12 at 18:00
  • Maybe this holds in dictatorships, but not in democratic nations – user109129 May 24 at 18:47

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