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I'm TAing a class that uses Piazza (an online student forum), in addition to the traditional office hours. A student made a (private) post, where he uploaded a MATLAB figure and asked whether it is correct. The figure is what the first question of the homework assignment asks for.

Am I supposed to tell him whether his answer is correct/wrong? Especially over an online forum?

I don't think so, because that would be giving out the solution. How do I reply without sounding "mean"? Do I tell him to come to office hours instead?

(It's my first time TAing ever...)

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    Related: I wrote a MSO post arguing against allowing questions like this on Stack Overflow because the OP is basically asking us to test their code for them. It's ultimately the student's responsibility to proofread their work. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Apr 12 at 17:43
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Welcome to the most standard "trick" students use to get answers out of professors/TAs :).

My answer is as a professor, but I think the basic principle works for TAs as well. What I usually do is turn the question back to them. Something like:

S: Is this answer correct ?

Me: Well, what do you think ?

now things can go in different ways:

case 1: S says "well I'm not sure". In which case you can say, "well how might you go about verifying that your answer is correct" ? this might then lead to a discussion of how to check answers without you having to commit to commenting on their particular answer.

case 2: S says "Well I think it's correct". Then you can say "Ok then :). I understand that you think it's correct" and leave it at that.

They might persist and say "can you tell me if you think it's correct". At which point you can say "No, but how would you go about checking its correctness" taking you back to case 1 and the "methodology" of checking.

The underlying pedagogical point is this: you don't want students checking answer correctness with you ahead of time because

a) learning to check your own answers is an important part of learning. It allows you to diagnose problems and identify the correct path to an answer.

b) it's unfair to those who don't ask, and it's a waste of your time

c) using this socratic approach allows you to assess how they are approaching the problem, and allows you to guide them in their approach, rather than spoonfeeding a prescribed answer. Everyone approaches problems differently.

p.s Students often also ask for hints. The material I teach is usually mathematical, so they're asking for hints for a proof. There you have some more leeway, but the trick is to draw them out into explaining their thought process, and then trying to gently nudge them without revealing the answer. It takes some practice and a lot of Socratic dialogue.

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    There are some good points here, but I'm not sure I wholly agree with this stance. A student wants feedback early, with a chance to rework the question if it's wrong. How is that bad? How does that hinder learning? As for fairness, it's only unfair if you give one student feedback but not others. If learning is the underlying objective (as it should be), then an early solicitation for feedback provides an opportunity for the student to learn the material better, and to get credit for any extra effort put into the work. I'd characterize this as a conscientious study habit, not a "trick". – J.R. Jan 31 '14 at 23:03
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    I think my calling it a "trick" maybe imputes more bad motives to the student than they deserve. But nevertheless, I don't think that telling a student whether an answer is right or wrong PRIOR to grading helps learning. Students do need to learn how to "debug" their answers (whether it's a proof, or a piece of code), and this dialogue teaches them how to do that. – Suresh Jan 31 '14 at 23:09
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    As a footnote, in my experience, it's been my better students who ask for feedback before the due dates, and it has always seemed like it's been in a spirit of wanting to have time to fix things. Perhaps if I taught more 100- or 200-level courses where a different student demographic was asking for help, I'd have seen more of this "trickiness" you're talking about. In any case, I think we agree that it's best when the professor's answer isn't a Boolean response. – J.R. Jan 31 '14 at 23:09
  • I know you mean this well, but the only thing I would learn from answers like this is to never ask you anything again. If the goal is to teach students to check their answer, then just answer: "I can't tell you the solution but you can check the correctness yourself using methods e.g., X Y or Z." Especially since you are against time-wasting, this would save everybody a lot of time, since we avoid the exchange of 3 "Socratic" messages. It's also more valuable for people who will read the answer. There is a reason why on SE "Well, what do you think?" answer is usually not appreciated – user2173836 Apr 12 at 16:57
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You can make an explicit policy or a little FAQ page saying that you won't answer if the results are correct, students will find out after you grade it.

The more general problem is that the student's question is just not a good question, it's not specific enough and there is not enough information about what the student's concerns are. So you can include in your FAQ that you are going to answer good questions, with examples of good and bad questions. If the student sends you a bad question anyway, don't just sent them a link to https://stackoverflow.com/help/how-to-ask but also be specific with your feedback.

E.g.,

Dear student, it's not easy to answer your question, since it's not clear what are your specific concerns. Please specify why do you think your answer might not be correct, and what did you try so far. See also the link in the syllabus on how to ask good questions.

You don't only want students to learn how to write good questions but also how to write useful answers, here you should mainly teach by example. These students might be your peers one day, and you will be asking them a question in order to solve your academic problem. I am sure you wouldn't want them to answer "Well, what do you think?"

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