This summer I'm lucky to have an undergrad extending some work I did for my thesis.

The stuff I work on requires you to use complicated software, as well as strong familiarity with Linux commands. However, these have nothing to do with the work itself; it's just the "scaffolding" needed for us to do our actual research.

Since the start of the summer term, I've been encouraging this student to ask for my help they encounter difficulty with these "unrelated" aspects of the work. However, I'm wondering if this is actually counterproductive?

Here's the theory: though more frustrating for them, would it be better to force the student to "figure it out"? These are useful skills, after all, and maybe this will make their work more productive in the long run?

In other words, I have two opposite choices:

  • Trying to reduce the student's time spent on fiddling with Linux commands and our development software (at the cost of of my own time)
  • Forcing the student to become more familiar with these tools (but potentially running out of time)

What is the "accepted wisdom" in this situation?

  • Two questions: Are you sure those skills will be useful for the student also independently of this software? And does the student have to do something time-critical? Have you asked the student what they want?
    – user111388
    Commented Jun 1, 2020 at 19:41
  • It depends on the project, the abilities of the student, and your personal priorities. Experiment. Don't rely on a blanket strategy. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 1:43
  • Is this RA employed, or receiving credit? Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:48
  • The RA is employed. Do you think that makes a difference to the answer?
    – Mahkoe
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:55

1 Answer 1


This is focused on the educator aspect of it.

The goal should be to do as little as possible but help the student from getting stuck. Said another way, when asked for help, first try to figure out the crux of their problem and then give them enough of a hint (but not an answer) so that they can have an a-ha moment and get some enlightenment. It isn't easy and it takes practice, but that is the goal.

Sometimes you answer a question with another question. Sometimes you "solve" a problem by giving them a simpler problem. Sometimes you just ask them to explain it to you as best they can. Sometimes you point them to a page in a book (or similar). If you give them answers they will start to depend on you rather than on themselves.

Listen, as they ask questions, to see if they have some misconception that underlies the current issue. If you can dispel those, there is a better chance that they can move forward on their own with more confidence.

So, if the student is to learn they need both reinforcement and feedback. Reinforcement implies repetition and should come from them. Feedback comes from you. But the work needs to be theirs. Answers have little learning value.

And yes, it is hard and takes practice.

  • 1
    "The goal should be to do as little as possible but help the student from getting stuck." The student is working on the supervisor's research. The supervisor should be doing more than "as little as possible" to advance their own research. This answer gives effective teaching strategies, which are not the same as effective strategies for collaborating with an undergraduate researcher. Doing as little as possible is highly inappropriate. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 1:48
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist I interpreted this answer a little differently. I believe Buffy meant that I should do as little as possible of the actual work, not as little guidance as possible. Indeed, since receiving this answer, I have used some of the techniques that were suggested and I'm finding it's even more work than before! It's fast for me to apply an answer I already know, but much slower to teach the student to find it themselves!
    – Mahkoe
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 14:52

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