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I am a Grad student and this is my first time as a TA, in a first-year undergraduate course.

My concern is students that come to office hours completely unprepared, asking things that have already been covered in lectures or answered in the course's mailing list multiple times. I am always trying to be helpful but I feel the majority of them are either wasting my time, exploiting me and not making the most out of the office hours.

For instance, many students arrive at the final day of the deadline asking how to set up Git (this is how they submit their assignments), which has been covered in the first lecture a month ago. Others keep telling me that they can't solve the exercise, and when I ask them what they tried they reply "I don't know". Some even have the guts to ask me for the solution.

Others have arrived in groups admitting they solved the exercises together when they are meant to be solved and submitted individually. Others send me personal e-mails with their homework without signing with their name or id, when they are not supposed to submit homework like that.

I even had four students arrive and wait for me inside my office, because there was another student there before and he invited them inside. Then he left and they were waiting inside. When I see students waiting outside the office, I greet them and open the door and they all rush in and take a seat by themselves. When I asked them kindly to wait outside because I cannot handle multiple students at the same time they went grumpy.

I've had a student visit outside office hours, because I spend a lot of time in my office. When I gave him feedback on what to work on and if he has qustions again visit me on the office hours, he kept working on his homework next to me with no intention for leaving. I told him multiple times that I have things to work on as well and should work on the feedback I gave him individually, but he did not pick up any hints. I did not want to be rude and tell him to leave, and he spend about 40 mins extra.

This is my first time as a TA and I do not want to seem rude or arrogant to the students. I am always there to help but I cannot be of service if they have not prepeared or studied the material individually as well. I understand that as first year students most of them are just kids, some with no manners and waiting to be spoon-fed, but I have no idea how to tackle this issue without having many students hate me. I am really getting burned out by having the same interactions over and over, and answering questions that have been covered fifty times already.

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    Talk with the instructor of record. Tell them what you have expressed here and ask for their advice on how to handle things going forward. One more thing: semesters crash to a close rather than softly and suddenly fading away. So talking with the instructor of record ASAP is best. Best of success!
    – Ed V
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 12:21
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    @gnometorule it makes me wonder how can a freshman who grew up with the internet is unable to answer most of their question with some Googling. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 16:52
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    I don't understand, what is the issue with multiple students? Unless the school has some policy against it, or some discussion requires privacy, they would benefit from listening in, and I understand why they'd want it. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 18:26
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    Hmmm. Problems with GIT, you say. Why should that be? xkcd.com/1597
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 13:17
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    You need to learn what "rudeness" actually is. Telling someone they need to leave is not rude in the situation you describe. Being firm is not rude.
    – user9482
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 7:06

6 Answers 6

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As a TA, your role is to be a resource for the students. It is not really your job to judge whether they are "making the most of [your] office hours," or if they are managing their time effectively. Office hours are for their benefit: if they choose to spend the time having you review material that has already been presented several times, that is their loss, not yours. Yes, it can be boring and frustrating to have the same interaction over and over, but you can use this as an opportunity to practice giving these explanations in the best, clearest way possible.

However, you should set boundaries. If you have been clear that you do not accept homework by e-mail, then you should reject e-mailed assignments, or penalize their grade accordingly. If students visit your office outside of office hours, you can send them away. Perhaps the most difficult thing is to set boundaries with students who are trying to get you to do their homework for them. Yes, it will make them grumpy, but that's okay, they will respect you more when you make it clear that you will not work through entire homework problems end-to-end (or at least, not very often; I would probably be willing to accommodate a conscientious student who was totally stuck on something).

One last note: your comment about "only handling one student at a time" seems a bit strange. My experience is that many students will show up, and you can rotate your attention from student to student; when you interact with one student, other students can listen and learn. If your office is physically too small to accommodate multiple students, you might want to look into booking a conference room or classroom and holding your office hours there.

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    Re: Homework submission. If they insist that you got it and somehow it is OK, then give them a real life example. Paying taxes. The government gives you specific methods of payment, but mailing cash in an envelope is NOT one of them. You do that, it gets stolen, you're out the money. It doesn't matter if it is registered mail, or that the post office is part of the government, or whatever. You can't do that, and you bear the responsibility of doing something stupid.
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 2:12
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    It seems stupid at school because it is suppose to be mimicry of real life with no real consequences. You do stupid things in real life, you go to jail or die (taking medicine incorrectly, for example).
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 2:13
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    You could also try explaining to them that taking homework in the LMS and sporadically over email would be like making classroom announcements over the LMS and sporadically texting them updates individually. Frustrating to keep track of. I have found students to respond well to explaining the human reasoning behind rules. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:35
  • @Nelson Where did you get the notion that school was "mimicry of real life with no real consequences." School is very much a part of real life and there are plenty of very real consequences. Not every institution is so lax. Plenty of people fail out, plenty of cheaters are caught and kicked out. And yes, that in fact is a pretty big blow to their job prospects and expected lifetime earnings. School was actually much tougher than my "real life" job afterwards. "Real life" is a cakewalk compared with school.
    – ttbek
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 9:30
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It seems that your problem could be framed as a lack of appropriate boundaries and teaching strategies. While it might be awkward to try to enforce new boundaries if these students have been taking advantage of your generosity, this might be the only way to keep doing your job effectively without getting frustrated and burning out. Below are some strategies which might help you in this regard.

students that come to office hours completely unprepared, asking things that have already been covered in lectures or answered in the course's mailing list multiple times

Have you told them that their questions have already been answered elsewhere, and they need to look there first? Pointing them to existing resources may be the best way to get them going; tell them to come back to you "when they get stuck". It's not unreasonable to expect that students should try to get as far as they can on their own first.

Others keep telling me that they can't solve the exercise, and when I ask them what they tried they reply "I don't know".

This might point to a deeper issue if they truly don't understand what's going on in the course. Here you might have to spend more time with some students so that they at least understand how to get started on the exercise. This will require a delicate balance; it should be clear that you won't just give away the answers "for free" during office hours.

Some even have the guts to ask me for the solution.

Others send me personal e-mails with their homework without signing with their name or id, when they are not supposed to submit homework like that.

I even had four students arrive and wait for me inside my office

Here you will just have to learn to say "no". If it's against the course policy (or otherwise unacceptable), then simply explain what the expectation is going forward. Otherwise, the students may not consider these things to be a big deal.

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My concern is students that come to office hours completely unprepared, asking things that have already been covered in lectures or answered in the course's mailing list multiple times.

It's perfectly normal for inexperienced developers (or anybody else) not to pick up the ability to do practical things from lectures alone. For example:

...many students arrive at the final day of the deadline asking how to set up Git (this is how they submit their assignments), which has been covered in the first lecture a month ago.

I've taught Git to dozens of new developers and in general I'd be very surprised if someone without previous experience with a version control system, or at least a fair amount of previous experience with the development process, could learn to use Git from a lecture alone. Some people will manage it (especially if they have previous experience with these sort of things) but many won't. Even the process of merely installing Git for Windows involves answering a dozen questions that will not have obvious answers to someone without a fair amount of experience.

This is an area where the course is badly designed: one of the first assignments, due within a week or two after the lecture that covers Git, should be to fetch a repo, add a commit, and push that commit back up. I'd expect a good number of students to need to be walked through this by a TA. (I generally find that I need to walk new developers through each basic procedure three or four times before they can reliably do it on their own.) This should be reinforced with every subsequent exercise, and these should be frequent. Practice is the only way to get comfortable with Git. Leaving this until they could fail an assignment with actual work in it because they couldn't commit and push is just asking for major problems and panic at the last minute.

Others keep telling me that they can't solve the exercise, and when I ask them what they tried they reply "I don't know". Some even have the guts to ask me for the solution.

The issue here, again, is that inexperienced developers often don't even know how to approach problems. You can't give them the answers, but you can have them sit down at their laptop with you sitting beside them and offer suggestions on the next step to take when they're stuck. Ideally you'll be giving them hints such as, "try this, but first think about what result you expect from your change, and then compare the result you get with what you expected and, if it's not the same, see if you can figure out why you got the result you did and where you went wrong in your thinking." I would consider it normal to go through a dozen "loops" of this in any session with a student.

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They are abusing your office. And you. Don't let them.

Find policies that are reasonable, but that push them to not waste your time or the time of other students. Do not be drawn into discussions. Do not listen to excuses.

Get a classroom for your office hours. Do not let them into your office. You should be able to find an empty classroom. Possibly you need to talk to your uni to reserve such a classroom so you don't step on toes of other persons wanting classroom space. Explain that at times there are too many students for the size of your office, and you need a larger space for office hours.

Once you have the classroom, tell the students to go there. Go there yourself. Do not be in your office. Put a note on your door where the classroom is and that they should see you there if they want to.

When you are doing office hours in the classroom, you basically have been paid for these hours. (I presume, right?) So be there for the full time. Take some work of your own in case nobody shows up.

When they ask "how do we do the thing we were told in the first class?" type questions, suggest that this should be something they already know. If there are other questions people want answered, you should consider what is the best use of their time. If they have other more useful questions, answer those first. If they really only have the first-day-cover type questions, answer them after the other more useful questions are all asked and answered.

If you must answer the they-should-already-know questions, answer these in front of the whole room. Hopefully it means you won't have to explain how to log in to each individual student.

If you are supposed to deal with one student at a time, then pull a couple chairs over into the corner by the white board, and ask everybody else to go on the other side of the classroom and work quietly.

If they seem to have "smartened themselves up" a bit, then you can, at your own option, let them back into your office. Treat it as a privilege you are giving them rather than something they are entitled to. If they start abusing it again then go back to the classroom.

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You should take care of your mental health. Total lack of empathy and the feeling of being overwhelmed by "things" (like answering the same questions over and over you mention at the end) are marker of excessive stress (excessive stress may lead to burnout).

Breath in, breath out, learn how to set your boundary.

In a comment you mention

it makes me wonder how can a freshman who grew up with the internet is unable to answer most of their question with some Googling.

Well, can you? The questions you pose have already been asked, on this site and on other site. A brief google search gives you already a lot of feedback, ranging from satirical comics (like xkcd, as commented by @Buffy wrt to the git issues) to more academic resources.

Good luck and think about the students doing things "right".

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You could try not announcing any office hours and let students write you an email and ask for an appointment. You could then require that they state their problem in detail and describe what things they already tried, much like here on stack exchange.

You could also use the first 10 minutes or so each each lecture to recap things a lot of people have asked.

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