I'm a teaching assistant for an introductory programming course. A student in the course approached me and asked if I would tutor them for a different discrete mathematics course in return for payment.

I grade all of the material for the programming course, and so I feel like there's a conflict of interest in receiving any payment from the student, even if its unrelated to the programming course.

Am I overthinking it or is it right to think there's an issue here?

  • 4
    Though the original question is not related, see academia.stackexchange.com/a/127216/63475 and the other answers there, tldr: yes this is a problem. You are completely right to see an issue.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 1:43
  • Can you tutor the student and then pay someone else to grade that student's work in the programming course?
    – Allure
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 2:09
  • 7
    I'm not in academia so this isn't an answer, but every employer I have worked for over the last 30+ years has had what they call the "newspaper test". Basically, if you read about the circumstances you described in a reputable newspaper would you, personally, have any cause to suspect even a hint of impropriety? If the answer is yes, don't do it. I would say your situation, should you take the money, would fail the newspaper test hugely, even in the corporate world (which, to be fair, is the only world I know).
    – Spratty
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 13:32
  • 2
    If you want to help the student anyway, you can consider introducing him to a friend or colleague that does not have this conflict.
    – Bernhard
    Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 6:19

4 Answers 4


You're correct in feeling uneasy.

Even if you are not yourself improperly influenced, there would definitely be the appearance of possibility of improper influence, which is as important, in terms of the impact on other peoples' actions, as actual impropriety.

Even tutoring _for_free_, since you are in the same dept as the people giving the other course, could be perceived as improper, for various reasons.

Best to keep "squeaky clean", I think.

  • 2
    I should mention the programming course is in the CS department, whereas the discrete math course the student is taking is offered by the Math department. I'm not sure it'd be seen as improper with regard to that. Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 0:57
  • 7
    Less obviously so, but, still, same university, blah-blah-blah. It's not necessarily a reasonably criterion... Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 1:54
  • Even if it's a different university, it might still appear improper. Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 17:18

In the US university where I was a TA we were specifically instructed not to get anything worth more then $15 from a student while we are responsible for their grades. Otherwise the student or other students in the group can send a complaint to the dean and accuse you that your grading was biased.

In other countries, where customs, policies and procedures are different, the situation can be different (e.g., in Russia it would likely be fine). But if you work in the USA - I advise against accepting that offer.

The comments to my answer prompted me to add this update:

There are two issues here: an issue of personal integrity and an issue of administrative consequences. For the personal integrity, you can answer yourself: can you stay unbiased if you accept the offer? There are methods to handle it, like announcing all the policies in the start of the semester, using automatic grading with transparent standards that you cannot override, etc. You know yourself better than anyone, so you have to answer that question for yourself.

Now, the administrative aspect. Even if you know you were fair, someone can suspect and accuse you AND your student of cheating the system - and that's the issue of consequences. Consequences will depend on the local laws and policies and practices of your institution.

  • 6
    I sincerely hope that it is not going to be fine in Russia. At least, it should not be. Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 1:21
  • 24
    Bizarre accusations against the Russian system. Unless you have evidence? Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 10:23
  • 6
    @Mayou36 that, too. But also, in Russia grades mean much less than in the USA, there is even no GPA stated on the diploma. So the conflict of interest is much lower. There are literally cases when a professor would say something like "Only God knows physics good enough to get an "A", I know enough to get a "B", and you... okay, here is "C" ". I am not exaggerating. The first time someone asked me about my grades was when I was applying to the PhD program in the USA - and that was something I did not expect at all.
    – aehie
    Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 12:24
  • 6
    @stevenpcurtis I got an undergraduate and a MS degrees in Russia - from two different universities.
    – aehie
    Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 12:27
  • 7
    @stevenpcurtis As another graduate of a Russian university I don't think that was meant to be an accusation. Most of the teaching staff in Russia, TAs in particular, have severe financial trouble due to terrible funding and have to resort to doing odd teaching and consulting jobs to make ends meet, which is why giving extra lessons to one of your students in an unrelated field may be accepted as okay-ish, especially if the university is small and the teaching resources are scarce. It's still a morally grey area which could get you in trouble of course, but it will be less likely to happen.
    – undercat
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 4:54

I personally think it could be managed, but many others would disagree, including some people with direct authority.

I think it would be wise if you did a bunch of checking before you take this on. Check with the professors in both courses as well as the department head/chair. If any of them suggest it is a problem, then it is a problem. If all say ok, then it is probably fine, as long as you have some rules for yourself about what you can and can't do.

One or more of those people may ok it but suggest some rules as well.

You don't want to do anything improper of course, but you also don't want anyone else to think that you might be doing something improper.

  • 3
    I think that the likelihood of everyone being okay with this is so minimal that it's not worth the time spent asking. Most folks will default to a CYA answer of "no". Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 14:26
  • 1
    @DanielR.Collins, that might depend on your relationship to the people involved.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 14:27
  • 1
    The thing is, OP would likely not be able to make the call of whether this is managable or not, themselves. And - it might get OP into trouble. Finally, the student might actually need a different kind of support than paid tutoring. See also my answer.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 15:17
  • 1
    Of course, it can be managed -- most conflicts can, and this is a small one. The issue really is "is it worth the trouble"? Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 13:39

You should not accept...

You would be in an unacceptable conflict of interests if you accept payment directly from one of the students whose work you check and grade.

Also, you would likely be violating university bylaws/regulations, and could be subject to disciplinary measures and/or termination as an employee. I'm not saying that will happen, but it's not impossible.

... but offer to meet and talk.

Having said that - it's possible that what the student needs is not a paid tutor, but rather, s/he is having difficulty coping (more generally than just with discrete math), and wants the help of someone authoritative, familiar, who seems to have his/her best interest at heart. Consider offering the student to come by your office (*) during reception hours, or at some other time, for a talk. If nothing else, you would be helping him/her with a bit of emotional support.

(*) - if you don't have an office, that's a problem. Unionize, strike and get offices.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .