My TAing mostly involves helping students working on their programming assignments during classes.

A student asked me to give him private, paid, tutorials for the module, being concerned that all 'usual' resources to which he has access for free (book, classes, a bit of time outside of classes with me) won't be enough to cover his starting gap in this course.

Is this ethical? In particular, is it ethical from the point of view of other students in the course? They might think he is getting a privileged treatment, if he doesn't tell them I am being paid for that time. Should I ask him to notify them? Worse, they could think I am giving out solutions to him (I won't, but they might not think that's the case).

Should I speak with the professor of the course myself about this? Or could I ask the student to discuss his difficulties with the professor first, and eventually ask the professor himself if I can private-tutoring him?

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    Closely related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/58187/… Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 14:35
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    Did you TA the same course the last year or do you have contact with somebody who did? Maybe some of the students from the past year were good enough to make a good tutor. And maybe some of them would be interested to earn some money in this way. As a TA, you are in a good position to judge who understood the topics well enough to be able to do this.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 16:44
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    To clarify, the TA only requires me to attend classes and help students in class. I take no part in grading
    – Three Diag
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 16:54
  • Often not; it depends strongly on what your university regulations say; there's a clear potential conflict of interest for watering down the quality of the TA classes. At my university several postgrads got suspended for doing this.
    – smci
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:29
  • Agreed, no. You have an inherent power relationship with this student, however minor. Receiving money as a result of this relationship on top of what's already been paid is unethical. Last semester's TA is a great suggestion, or you can tutor this student next semester.
    – Raydot
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 19:19

5 Answers 5


Should I speak with the professor of the course myself about this?

I'd recommend telling the student you can't do it, and mentioning to the professor that you were asked but turned it down (to avoid any rumors). There are massive issues here:

  1. Being paid extra compromises your ability to grade the student's work. It looks too much like a bribe, and the fact that the student will presumably stop paying you if the tutoring is ineffective (as measured by grades) creates an ongoing incentive to grade leniently or supply inappropriate degrees of help. Even if you feel you can avoid bias, the apparent conflict of interest is so strong that other students will almost certainly be upset. Think about it this way. If the extra money doesn't matter to you and you have enough time, why not help the student for free? The fact that money is changing hands at all indicates that the money matters to you (as it would for most people), and that is evidence of dangerous incentives.

  2. It could look like you are extorting money from your students. This is the flip side of the first point: in addition to your incentive to offer too much to those who pay extra, you now have an incentive to offer too little to those who don't hire you as a tutor. Some students always grumble about how unhelpful their TA is (regardless of the facts), and you really don't want them speculating that your supposed unhelpfulness is intended to pressure them into paying for extra tutoring.

  3. I'd bet this is a major violation of university rules. Of course you'd have to look into your own case, but I'd be shocked if any university allowed course staff to accept paid tutoring from their students.

I'd be wary of asking the professor whether this is acceptable. For most questions, asking can't hurt, but here the ethically questionable aspects are so strong that asking whether it is OK could look bad. If you ask, you should be sure to make your understanding of the ethical issues clear, to avoid giving the impression that you think it's fine and just want to check whether the professor has any objections.

If the student needs a tutor, I'd recommend pointing him towards official university channels. For example, perhaps your department maintains a list of students who would be willing to offer tutoring. The important thing is to avoid any appearance of conflicts of interest. Recommending hiring your friend instead of you is better than accepting the job yourself, but it could still look awkward. (Students might wonder whether you were receiving a commission or kickback from your friend, or whether securing jobs for friends was enough of an incentive to influence your behavior.)

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    +1 You could also refer the student to one of your peers who knows the material well and is not TAing for this class or any class the student currently takes. Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 21:30
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    I also had the feeling that talking to the professor about this required some extra care. Thanks for spelling all possible issues out.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:06

It's too much of a risk of a conflict of interests - even when trying not to, as an insider you might give undue advantages to the student, or, even if not, other students might argue you did. You probably have qualified friends though who could help your student, and you could consider referring your student to one of them (they, too, need to of course check if this is ok under the terms of whatever contracts they are employed by by your university, if any).

Whatever you choose to do, it's a good idea to discuss it with the professor you TA for. Always be transparent, and avoid to be wrongly perceived as trying to hide your actions from your superiors.


I don't think it matters if you aren't grading, this is a big conflict of interest still. It is your job to help the students, so you shouldn't accept money to help some students more than others.

Make an effort to point him to a tutor who is not involved in the instruction of the course in any way. You don't want to look bad in the eyes of the other students, and you certainly don't want to jeopardize your TA-ship for a few bucks. You can always tutor students who aren't in your class if you need extra money.

  • Yeah my comment above was just to calrify. It looks like this has serious ethical. drawbacks. Also to further clarify I was asked for it by the student.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 17:59

This came up where I teach, and I was also told that this would be an ethical violation, even for students who aren't in my own classes. As others point out, it raises the possibility that you're giving preferential treatment to the student in question (maybe giving advance tips if you know the form of the exams?). Or the other way around: potentially a person could intentionally sandbag their own classes or TA sessions to generate extra business tutoring on the side later on.

I've heard this come up numerous times in other instructors' classes, and every time the inquiring student gets weirdly argumentative when told that it would be an ethical violation on the part of the instructor. If someone has a good way to de-escalate when that happens, I'd like to know.

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    and every time the inquiring student gets weirdly argumentative when told that it would be an ethical violation. Well, there's an obvious selection bias here: the students who ask this question are precisely the ones who don't understand/care about the ethical issue. Anyway, if you want to avoid arguments you can just say you're not interested in the tutoring gig. You are not obligated to give a reason.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 23:04
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    "student gets weirdly argumentative" -- it's not that weird, you've just accused them of attempting to bribe you to show unethical favouritism! People tend to get defensive when accused of wrong-doing and try to justify what they're doing as not wrong (whether they agree it's wrong or not). Even if you do your best to make clear that they were not to know and won't be held to have done anything wrong in asking, I'm sure there will be many whose instinct is to argue the call. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:51
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    Perhaps the formula, "I'm sorry, that would put me in a conflict of interest" would be more successful than, "I'm sorry, that would be an ethical violation on my part". I'm just guessing though. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:55
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    @DanielR.Collins: Yes, saying "Sorry, but I'm not allowed to" emphasises that you don't make the rules, and hence there's no point arguing - whereas saying "That would be an ethical violation" can be interpreted as giving an opinion that is open to debate...
    – psmears
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 11:55
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    I believe for student it might not be immediatly obvious why this is an issue (it wasn't for me, even though I had a hunch and came here). I took the easier path and explained that University policy prevent me from private tutoring. I saw no benefit in actually explaining twisted incentives or ethical issues.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 17:15

I see this as ludicrous-- why are you being so overly righteous and saintly?

When close to 80 percent of all faculty are hired as part-time or contingent with little or no benefits, and must cobble together assignments to make a liveable wage, do administrators hold back on this unethical financial exploitation? No, not even a blink! The question should be-- do instructors need to have more ethical or so-called 'conflict of interest' considerations than their administrators? Of course not! Teaching is our profession and obligation (even though we are not treated professionally by many of our employers.)

Secondly, at at least one university where I have taught, the renowned University of Southern California, even publishes faculty members' private tutoring contact information and along with prices on the main university website: http://ali.usc.edu/find-an-english-tutor/

Of course educators are ethical, and tutoring is definitely an ethical enterprise.

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