# How to deal with students wanting the answer versus working through the process

I am currently teaching an undergraduate forensic photography course, but I'm having a difficult time this semester. Many of my students seem disengaged, and they expect me to simply give them the answers instead of putting in the effort to find the solutions on their own. This has resulted in a negative classroom environment, making it harder for me to teach and for them to learn.

It's important to understand that this course is not just about memorizing things in the short-term, but about developing a skill that requires practice and persistence. I feel disrespected and frustrated when within 10 minutes of giving directions, there are those complaining that I didn't explain what they needed to do. No, I did explain, I just didn't spell out an exact way to do it.

I'm at a loss for what to do, and after just about four years of being an instructor, I've begun questioning if I'm an effective educator.

• I don't have an answer for you, but this is also a common problem in mathematics courses (my own area). The best that I have managed is to say (early, and often, and often, and early) that the whole point of mathematics is to explain how an answer was obtained, and that the answer itself is often completely irrelevant. In forensic photography, I wonder if you might be able to come at it from a (likely somewhat artificial, but maybe relevant) "how do you convince a jury?" point of view... Mar 20 at 23:18
• @Plop proof irrelevance is a topic of its own right. It's a central idea behind formal frameworks like homotopy type theory. But it absolutely doesn't imply that maths is only about proving things. Maths is actually much more about figuring out what theorems/conjectures are interesting, what the definitions should be, and what axioms are appropriate, than about just proving given theorems. Mar 21 at 11:09
• @plop What is a proof other than an explanation about why something is true? The proof IS how a mathematician explains how an answer was obtained. Mar 21 at 11:31
• I don't have time right now for a full answer, but when you "give directions" for 10 minutes and students complain that you didn't tell them how to actually do it, there has got to be some pedagogical issue (mismatch of expectations, insufficient pre-requisites, not so great teaching, etc.). Rather than having an emotional response it may be more productive to find out what that pedagogical issue is. Mar 21 at 12:29
• @Plop I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree. My original comment was that mathematics is about explaining why things are true or not. I consider a well-written proof to be a partial explanation of how we know that a thing is true (and it can be both "an algorithm" and "an explanation"; these are not mutually exclusive). Moreover, while I only responded to your comment that a proof is not an explanation, I also reject the premise of your comment, i.e. that math is only about proof. Almost no paper in mathematics is just results and proofs without exposition. Mar 21 at 13:25

Hmmm. The answer is 42. Always 42.

If your scale is small enough you can do two things. Instead of answering questions, ask your own questions. "What have you tried?". "How have you failed?". "What does the book say?" "What makes sense and what doesn't?" "What do you know that doesn't work?" "Why doesn't it work?" "Can you break the problem down?" "Can you explain it to your younger sibling?"

The other trick is to only give minimal hints for questions rather than answers, leaving the work to the student. "Have you tried...?" "What about...?" "Think about..." But this trick relies somewhat on the first one. Understand where their block is and give them a small push to get over it.

Sometimes you also want to ask the class "Who else has this problem?". If it is several people, you may need to devise a mini-lecture on some technique. But often if one person has an issue, others will too.

In some sense you are giving them more work. But that is probably a good thing.

• Agreed with this answer, I have oftened told students that I will not be following them to the workplace to answer questions for them, so I am trying to get them to think how to answer the question for themselves. What is that saying, give a person a fish vs teach a person to fish... Mar 22 at 18:38

If the student is just lazy and has no interest at all in the topic, then there's little you can do.

But let's assume they student is willing to learn:

there are those complaining that I didn't explain what they needed to do. No, I did explain, I just didn't spell out an exact way to do it.

So, whatever you explained didn't make sense to the student. Often times, after working for a long time in the field, we can forget that things might not be immediately obvious for the "uninitiated", compared to ourselves.

Ask at what step they're stuck. Usually they'll say "I don't have any idea at all where to start". Repeat your first instruction. Ask them if that's clear or if not, ask them what's unclear about it. Never give them the answer. Keep asking questions until they find the answer for themselves. And yes, this can get down to very basic questions like "what is 1+1". But the important thing is that the student learns how to do this for themselves. Backtracking so far until it makes sense and working from there.

The student will eventually get tired of asking you for help once they realise you ask them 100 questions first, so they will do those steps by themselves, for you. So instead of saying "I have no idea how to do it", they'll aproach you saying "I want to do X, I tried WYZ but I can't figure out how to get from U to V". Then you can again ask questions to point them in the right direction.

• "Afterall, he's there by choice" - I mean, that's not automatically true just because the course is in an undergraduate programme. I had to attend a lot of stuff I didn't care about in the slightest while attaining my CS degree, including an English course that was several levels below my ability, and a bunch of people were there because of pressure from their parents who were financing their education. Mar 21 at 16:34
• Yeah, I see that caveat. I too had to attend classes I really couldn't care less about. However, if it's required for your actual degree, it should give you the motivation to pass the class, even though a "barely passed" might be all you're aiming for. Mar 21 at 18:13
• This is a great answer. The only effective followup to "I spent 10 minutes giving directions and they are saying I didn't give directions" is for OP to tell them that and find out exactly where the disconnect is, and doing it the way you've suggested should work well. Sort of like a less antagonistic version of the Socratic method. Mar 21 at 18:44
• @Davor A class like Forensic Photography is going to be an elective course except maybe for criminal justice majors. And even then that sounds like an in-major elective. For anyone who it's not a mandatory graduation requirement they want to be there. Mar 21 at 22:56
• Adding onto this, the way the directions tend to be structured for the CS class I'm a TA for is that the answer is in there if you read it, but that's contingent on you understanding the principles from the lecture and the readings. Not attending lecture or doing the reading (or both) sets students up for failure in a major way. Mar 22 at 1:24

In teaching undergraduate mathematics, I've opted to provide all assignment solutions but base grades on weekly closed-book quizzes. This method acknowledges the ease of finding solutions online, focusing instead on the importance of self-driven practice for success. It reflects a broader educational challenge: fostering intrinsic motivation in students.

Intellectual curiosity varies among students, influenced by numerous factors. As educators, we can only structure our courses to encourage engagement and independent learning, setting clear expectations and offering support. Balancing guidance with the need for students to tackle challenges independently is key. If we have made our subject engaging and provided the necessary tools, we should feel content knowing we've done our part.

When a class does not match students' expectations, you need to spend time on setting expectations. (As opposed to changing the class to fit the students' preconceptions, or giving up and blaming the students, two common traps.)

At the moment they are expecting to be taught a technique with step-by-step instructions. When you don't, they think you tried but just did it badly. And so now they see themselves in the impossible situation of being expected to follow a sequence of steps they have not been given.

So I would suggest spending some time now, and at the start of the course in the future, explaining what you expect them to do in the course. Forensic photography is a complex skill that cannot be reduced to an algorithm. They must try different things, find out what works and what does not when there's no way to know this in advance. Talk about problem solving strategies. Explain how you take this into account when grading, otherwise the class will feel unfair.

Good news - once you get the students on board, courses that involve actual thinking and problem solving tend to have very high evaluations.

If every complaint on here about lazy students were justified, humanity would never have made it this far.

There are many explanations for the response you describe and thinking of your students as lazy or entitled is about the least productive one. Sure, you didn't use those words, but it shows in your answer that you think the problem is with your students' attitude, and not in your approach to the material. Whether this is true or not, it shuts down any avenue to a productive solution.

Consider the possibility that your students are communicating a genuine concern and being frustrated by your unwillingness to change anything. Sure, you don't want to give away the answer, and the students don't feel like they can get there with what they're given and no further instruction. What makes you think those are the only two options?

Imagine being taught improvisational piano playing, having no background in the piano whatsoever. You ask the teacher to tell you which keys to press. The teacher tells you, no, that's not what we do here. You can learn to play music somebody else has written down the hall. Here, you learn to improvise. Now play.

This might help you to understand your students' frustration. Just because your teacher doesn't want to tell you which music to play, doesn't mean he can't help you figure out how to do it.

You ask for which keys to press because you don't know any better. It's not the right question, but you're the student. How are you supposed to know where to start?

The truth is that there are plenty of other things to try, but it's the teacher's job to come up with them.

• The teacher could play something himself and describe what choices he's making.
• You could watch some great improvisers play and discuss what they are doing.
• The teacher could explain some basic chords and progressions that help with improvisation.
• The teacher could allow you to copy a few simple improvisations, just to help you get familiar with the piano. So long as you both understand that this is only part of the process.
• The teacher could design a curriculum from simple improvisation to more difficult so that each step seems manageable.

All this, the teacher can do to help you learn how to improvise. Just because some of these exercises are not full improvisation, doesn't change the end goal. It's just a matter of finding the right training wheels.

Most likely, this is what your students are telling you. They don't want you to tell them the answer, they want you to meet them half-way.

Maybe not. Maybe these students are really just lazy and entitled. But once you draw that conclusion, the battle is lost, so you might as well start with the interpretation that they are trying to communicate a legitimate frustration.

This may not be your problem but it could be:

Work through more problems with them during class. Treat it like a good math class and spend the majority of your lectures working through problems with a little cooperation from the class. They need to build confidence in a set of tools for approaching new problems themselves. They need to see how you approach the work and learn to think with those techniques. They won't get that from lectures on theory and technique.

If you do that they should be able to demonstrate the approaches in their own work, just much slower.