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As a teaching assistant (TA), how to handle the situation where a student comes to office hours asking to check their homework? I.e. the student hands in their solution to the homework and ask the TA to check for any mistake. Assume homeworks are worth somewhere between 20% and 50% of the grade.

If country-specific, I am interested in the United States. If field specific, I am interested in computer science, linguistics, neuroscience and maths.

  • 26
    Excuse me, but how exactly is "a student seeking out available resources to improve the quality of their work and understanding of the subject matter" EVER a bad thing? What on earth could a TA be there for, if not for exactly such a task as checking/reviewing homework assignments with students? The least significant part of a TA's job is proctoring and grading. The most significant part is providing peer-review and guidance. – dwoz Sep 22 '15 at 20:59
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    @dwoz I've never said it's a bad thing. – Franck Dernoncourt Sep 23 '15 at 3:10
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    @jwenting this certainly isn't my intent. Which sentence make the question look non-neutral? – Franck Dernoncourt Sep 24 '15 at 15:07
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    @FranckDernoncourt it might seem that way, but it's not unfair. Other students can ask you too. That's what you're there for ... – ell Sep 24 '15 at 16:32
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit It might be an American English thing? It's similar to how we say we're "going to the movie" instead of "going to the movie theater to see the movie". We encourage students to "come to office hours". – Corey Harris Sep 26 '15 at 18:27

12 Answers 12

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Answering from the point of view of a physical scientist, and in keeping with my personal take on what kinds of help are appropriate or inappropriate.

(I haven't been a TA for a long time, but I teach at an all-undergrad department so I have to be my own TA.)


These are great teachable moments if you have the time (and it can take a lot of time).

You don't check their homework, you ask them to explain their solutions to you.

But there is a catch: you don't let them get away with "I used this formula, and I solved for [variable]"; instead, make them explain their logic and the conceptual basis of their work step by step. When they are stuck or are proceeding incorrectly, you probe their understanding of the problem in a Socratic style.

The kind of questions you might ask include:

  • Conceptual basis

    • What physical principles apply to this problem?
    • Are their any hidden assumptions here? If so, what are they?
    • What statements in the problem or facts about the world brought you to select that particular approach? And why did you use that expression of the principle in mathematical form?
    • How well do the explicit assumptions in the problem match the real world (i.e. is this a PhysicsLand (tm) cartoon or a somewhat realistic treatment)?
    • Are these results reasonable for the real world? If so, why? If not how do you expect the world to differ and what neglected effects would make the answer more realistic?
  • Math basis (where they'll want to spend all their time at first)

    • Why is is that the right value for that variable?
    • Why is that substitution allowed in this case?
    • What does it mean that there are two solution to that equation? Which one do you use and why? Is the other one meaningful as well?
    • Does this situation actually meet the preconditions used in deriving the result you want to use?
    • Can this problem be stated as a special case of one we're already done? Why or why not?
  • Problem solving basis

    • What is the goal here? (You'd be surprised how often they lose sight of that.)
    • What can you learn from what we've been given? (If you don't know how to proceed just try shotgunning it; forward version.)
    • What list of thing would get you in position to find the answer? (If you don't know how to proceed just try shotgunning it; backward version.)
    • Do we already know the correct solution to a simpler version of the problem? Does that hint at a way to proceed here?

Most students will find those questions very difficult at first, but as they become more adept at handling the questions they should see their homework and exam scores improve markedly.

If they have the patience they will solve the problem for themselves right there in your office.

Though this is very time consuming most students will not be regulars. Some will simply become frustrated at what they see as your unwillingness to "help" and look elsewhere; and others will get better at the discipline: as the term progresses they'll bring you fewer problems and ask more perceptive questions about them.


In addition to wanting to talk about formulas first, they are going to want to talk about values ("and then I plugged in the 18 from the problem..."). Don't let them do that either. Make they say what quantity it was ("and then inserted the given initial velocity ...").

Beginners are all about numbers and formulas, but learning the discipline is about principles first, problem solving process second, and particular results last.


Philosophical note: As I see it the purpose of homework is to facilitate learning. I wouldn't even grade it except that there is no other way to insure that they will do it. That's why it doesn't bother me that they are getting a lot of support doing the homework for my class: when they come to me I get to make it a learning experience for them. (The first time they come in they may think they are going to get one for free, but they're in for some skull sweat.)

Admittedly, I get to decide that for my own class and when you are a TA, you may have to abide by the professor's opinion about how much and how directly you should help with assignments.

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    don't let them get away with "I used this formula, and I solved for [variable]" - See highly relevant video – ff524 Sep 22 '15 at 2:16
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    Ouch. Painfully true to life, except that I was never as perky and attractive as the TA in the video. – dmckee Sep 22 '15 at 2:29
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    How about giving them a blog of SE wirtten by Jeff about how SE has improved his life? – Ooker Sep 22 '15 at 8:01
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    Re grading: One of my favorite professors has a homework grading policy I have always liked. If you turned it in, seriously attempted every problem (and explained why you got stuck if you couldn't get it) and got at least 75% of the questions right, it was a 100%. If you attempted them all but got less than 75% right (even if it was 0 right), it was a 66%. If you didn't seriously attempt them all, no matter how many were right, it was a 0%. – tpg2114 Sep 22 '15 at 13:39
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    I love using a technique like this on people who come to me for help with questions when I'm not the TA. The only real danger I've found is that it's too easy to accidentally go overboard and suddenly realize that three hours have disappeared on what should have been a pretty simple problem! – chipbuster Sep 23 '15 at 5:39
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When I was a TA, my preferred approach to this dilemma was to offer to work a problem that was thematically similar to the problem, but different in its specifics. For example, if the problem was working out an application of a particular algorithm to a scenario by hand, then I would make up another scenario with similar properties and we would work the algorithm on that. In those cases where a student tried to then turn us back to the homework problem again, I would say something like: "I'm not going to work on homework problems, but we can work another similar one if you like."

I found this approach valuable because it let us address the skill and content questions and concerns that the student had, yet at the same time made sure I wasn't doing their homework for them.

  • This is what I do with my kids to help them with their homework. For example, give the following problem. 2x +5 = y, solve for x Then I may instead work out this problem with them. 9 + 6y = 2x – David Baucum Sep 24 '15 at 17:34
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The answer may very much depend on departmental practice. I've been in departments where the TA's office hours were essentially going over the homework and helping you arrive at an answer, and departments where that's absolutely not the practice.

Assuming it's not the practice, something simple like "I'm sorry, I can't tell you if your answer is right or wrong. If you have a specific question about a step, I'd be happy to go over that with you."

  • This is essentially what I do. However, I'll also offer to discuss other example problems that are not part of the homework assignment if the student would like to do that. – Brian Borchers Sep 22 '15 at 2:58
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    s/can't/won't/ in the suggested reponse – Ben Voigt Sep 23 '15 at 19:16
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    "If you have a specific question about a step, I'd be happy to go over that with you." Then they could just ask about every step of the problem. – user8001 Sep 25 '15 at 11:58
  • @user8001 "How do I do the next step" is not a specific question. If they want to solve their homework during my office hours and ask a question when they grind to a halt, I don't mind. And if someone wants to try and rules lawyer my help...well, that's certainly a strategy. – Fomite Sep 25 '15 at 15:23
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Standard answer around here is "I don't know" or more politely "I won't check your work other than for grading it".

Want to ask about a knotty point? Go ahead. I'll even solve a very similar problem with you. Still outstanding homework is off limits.

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    I asked vonbrand and not even the TA knows how to resolve this problem! – Ángel Sep 22 '15 at 16:36
  • @Ángel , it's the lecturer in my case 😊 – vonbrand Sep 30 '15 at 1:02
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This is a good time to teach a student good study practices. E.g. remind them to review their work regularly, do their work on schedule, use course resources such as texts. Tell the student how learn to get the right answer on their own.

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    Aren't TA office hours supposed to be one of those resources? I've found that working through a problem that actually counts towards their grade gets students' attention in a way that very few things do. – Josh Rumbut Sep 22 '15 at 20:07
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Maybe set 3 homework problems, only grade problem C, but tell the students that if they completely understand how to do problem A and B, and then C will be easy for them. Give them as much help as they need on A and B.

Even publish a worked solution for A and B a short time before C has to be handed in.

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    How does this answer the question? – corsiKa Sep 23 '15 at 17:37
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    @corsiKa "What to do with such students?" "Solve problems A and B, but not C." Actually it is a variation of jakebeal's answer. – BartekChom Sep 26 '15 at 9:28
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A TA who holds office hours for students should by all means consider homework assignments "fair game" for discussion during student interactions. Typically, the best approach during those meetings isn't to correct/grade the assignment, but rather to confirm whether the student's approach and methodology was appropriate, and deliver guidance or identify resources that will aid the student.

However, "proofreading" a homework assignment for a student who wants you to catch their "sloppy" is not really why a TA is there.

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In a practical point of view, it would be best to teach the student at this stage. Neglecting might affect the interest of the student within the subject. This is the time when the student can learn the most as he/she is readily prepared to accept inputs. Doing so would greatly boost your reputation among eager students since a true teacher grows the interest of her/his students.

As it may not be ethical to solve homework problems of individuals per se as you stated that this makes up as part of the academic score. But it would be better to make the student understand how to solve the problem. If several students have the similar doubt, then it would be best to solve the problem as a group intimating the remaining students of this special solving session. After all, the motive of homework is to make students learn and remember as well as verifying what they have learnt.

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I tell my students:

I will mark your assignment any time you like. If you want me to mark it well before it's due, I will be happy to do that. But I will only mark it once. Hand it in, and I'll mark it,

So that rules out "please look this whole thing over and let me know how close it is to being complete." I think that's a real imposition and it interferes with learning too. However, if someone wants to come to me and ask whether one particular thing is headed in the right direction, or if they are stuck and want me to unstick them, I will. I will answer any specific, crisp question that they ask. But I won't just take the whole thing, put energy and effort into looking it over as a whole, and then hand it back for them to improve. That request comes from a desire to get 10/10, not a desire to learn the material of my course.

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A lot of these responses seem to be based on the idea that education is somehow a battle between teacher and student, and that they can only learn from suffering. People learn from one on one instruction, and anything else is an expensive waste of time. Denying them that so as to make absolutely sure that they don't benefit unfairly ... I suppose that's a sign of the relationship between students and teachers in the university setting - the student pays but the teacher tries to avoid being responsible for the outcome, acting instead as though he's the point of the whole thing. That none of this is clear to a lot of university staff makes me wonder exactly how much intellectual life goes on at your various institutions.

  • In case you did not understand the question, homework problems weigh 20 - 50% of the grades. Checking the correctness of homework for an individual student may be unfair to the other students. – scaaahu Sep 23 '15 at 9:25
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    This answer comes very close to saying "I am paying for the education, so the instructors should do what I say." Among the many things students are paying for is the opportunity to be certified in a particular subject. This question is asking how to provide effective instruction without undermining the assessments that go into this certification. I don't see how this post answers that question. – David Hill Sep 23 '15 at 19:37
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    Also, the tone of the question suggests that at least some of the students are wanting a "premark" - getting a grade from the TA before actually submitting the exercise. Depending on how much time the TA has for such things (in particular - is there enough office hours for all students to do this?) it could be quite the advantage... – Allen Gould Sep 24 '15 at 16:31
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    I am having great difficulty where this notion of "unfairness" comes from. It would seem to be a misplaced notion...or a lack of understanding of what "fairness" means. If a student is allowed additional resources that are denied to others, for example given additional time to complete, then that's possibly unfair. If student A's paper is graded to a different standard than student B, that's unfair. If student A avails herself of resources that student B could access as well, but declines, then that is not an example of unfairness. – dwoz Sep 24 '15 at 17:25
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"Check my homework" is an unreasonable request. This is a teachable moment that can help you teach a student how to ask a question, which is more important than anything going on in an idiot dual class. You need to get the student to ask questions that can inform you where the student is conceptually weak, so you can try to patch the holes.

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If each solution counts as a negative score to them, and if you have a solution manual, tell them the problems they got wrong. Students sometimes know the subject and are just trying to get the best grade they can.

If you don't have some sort of solution manual of course it may be difficult to tell them every question they got wrong. However if you don't have other students during office hours who have actual questions about the subject, what's the point in not receiving their request. Office hours are for the student. If you don't have any other student requests, go through the homework with them.

Of course if each question doesn't hurt the student's grade if they get it wrong, then you should expect them to give real questions about how to solve a problem.

protected by eykanal Sep 24 '15 at 21:05

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