I'm not sure where to ask this so I thought I'd ask you here.

I'm in my 3rd year at university doing maths and some of the modules are a bit tricky. I know this and I know the way that I need to work in order to understand the material and pass the exams well. Due to this, I try and spend a lot of time learning the theory (and recently its been through loads of questions on here). However, what I noticed with some of my friends is that they don't put in the same amount of effort as me (quality wise).

Let's take the example on semidirect products. A lot of us have been struggling with constructing SDP's, however I've tried very hard to learn the theory on them and what the answer's are looking for and what the methods I need to do (and why I'm doing them) to try and learn how to construct them. A lot of that has been on Math.SE but I've been referring to online PDF's and lecture notes as well. Now, my friends know that I put this in and try and learn it and so I can do the work properly, so I think they're trying to take advantage of that.

Today I showed one person how to do a question regarding compositions on Möbius transforms and they just refused to think for themselves. I said "think about it, because I'm not going to tell you what the answer is" and they still wouldn't think (just kept saying "I don't know"), so I didn't tell them the answer. Eventually, after some BIG hints, they got what to do. Now I've noticed people are relying on me to tell them how to construct SDP's (as this is a main question in the exam). From my history, you can see that I've struggled a lot with this and I think I'm close to solving this problem now, but at the same time I can tell that my friends aren't going to learn it themselves. Mentally they've given up and so won't even bother learning it.

My question is this: Should I tell them the answer, when (it is when and not if because I WILL get it!) I figure out how to do it?

I feel bad because obviously I don't want to lie and say "I don't know how to do it" or mess up their exam, but at the same time, I feel like they had the exact same time as me to do this, and the same resources (online, books, notes, ask the lecturer, etc.) yet they still didn't do it. So it's their own fault. Plus, the time it'd take me to teach and explain it to them, I could spend that couple of hours doing my own work. Other examples, revise another module, etc.

What should I do? Do you academics have any tips?

I'm sure you feel like this sometimes when people ask questions on here clearly without thinking about and just expect you to answer it.

  • 1
    This is not an instructor. This is a student talking about working with his fellow students. Edited title to maybe make this a bit more clear since most of the answers seem to have missed this point.
    – Raydot
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 17:51

6 Answers 6


In my experience, undergraduate students are a lot like children. They will be as lazy as you allow them to be. They will resist learning. They will resist doing the work and putting in the time. It's human nature...and it is something we, as teachers, must get the students to change.

Were I in your shoes, I would make it clear how to do something (as any teacher should) but I would certainly NOT do the work for them. If they keep saying "I don't know" then you should tell them "It's OK. Not everybody gets it their first time. Perhaps you get it when you take this class for a second time." I usually see my students' eyes open a bit on this one as they see that you are being so compassionate and understanding while still being refused to be manipulated. They also get the clear understanding that they will fail if they don't do the work.

We need to help students. That includes helping them to not be so lazy.

  • Are you sure about but I would certainly do the work for them?
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 6:21
  • Thanks...forgot the very important word NOT. I've edited my answer accordingly.
    – earthling
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 4:38
  • Undergraduate students ARE children. anyone under 30 is really still a child.
    – learning
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 20:48
  • 4
    No, undergraduates are adults. The people you're thinking of that resist learning and hard work are called humans.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:13

I've run into this situation far too many times. You're right to be frustrated, and you shouldn't have to devote your precious time to endeavors that bring you no benefit.

Be honest and say something like "I'd really like to help you, but I just don't have the time. If you'd like, I can share with you the resources that helped me understand it, but I have enough on my plate already."


If you have found certain resources useful in your quest to teach yourself then create a zip file containing the most useful to pass out to anyone who asks you for help. This is YOUR qualification and if you feel that you need to spend more time on your own studies in order to get the grade you deserve then don't waste that time spoon feeding others that are unlikely to be a part of your life 2 days after graduation.

Your facility should have some form of online discussion forum so if you really feel responsible for the outcome of your cohorts exam then create a potted version of your findings on there so that everyone can benefit and you can just direct any people with further queries there - the added bonus to this is that your tutor may well add some clarification to what you write so if you have misunderstood something you also gain from doing this.

  • 2
    +1 for "spoon feeding others that are unlikely to be a part of your life 2 days after graduation".
    – Alexandros
    Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 9:57
  • So I was just going through all my old SE stuff and your "unlikely to be a part of your life 2 days after graduation" is a pretty funny comment. Out of all the people I was referring to in this question, there is not a single one I still speak to, after three years of living, working a learning together at uni. Crazy huh
    – Kaish
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 4:42

I do agree partially with Paul, when he says that you can feel frustrated and you shouldn't feel forced to answer every question for them.

Although, I've noticed to be able to explain something, you need to understand them quite well. Even some times, you are forced to attack a problem from different point of views depending on who asks, since the same explanation won't be convincing to everyone. By doing so, you might make a new link between different part of the material, and increase your own understanding. In my experience, helping other students has almost always a net benefice and is a really good way to improve yourself.

Also, as you continue, having only the answer will not get you much further and especially in math where concepts build upon each others, you will have a net advantage over all the others.


I suggest repressing the natural urge of "They don't deserve this, I put in the work. They didn't, I deserve this." as while it may feel good, it won't get you anywhere. You might like to keep enjoying the fact that you have shown you are a hard working independent learner, to feel satisfaction (that you deserve).

Look at if from a Advantages and Costs of teaching


  • Teaching is a fantastic way to cement your knowledge. (Many say it is the best way.)
  • This gains you friends, or at least positive acquaintances. These people become your colleges, and industry contacts once you graduate.
  • Gaining a reputation as a self-less helpful person, can open up doors to you.
  • Teaching is a valuable life skill, that will help you rise through your chosen career
  • Improving the quality and reputation of your institution. Obviously this is only a small step, but a journey of a thousand miles begins that way. If it becomes known that "Graduates from X, really know there stuff." then you have increased the value of your degree, wrt getting jobs etc.


  • Time (this is a big one)
  • Boredom, repeating stuff over an over, one you have completely got it, gets you no where.
  • Grade Scaling: If your university scales the final grade, so that only your position relative to class average matters, letting other people fail will improve your score (by driving the average down). However you really have to cripple someone (or many people) especially in larger classes, to see any really benefit. It's a pretty cold strategy.


Look at the costs vs benefits, and be honest with your fellows, if it is not to your benefit to help them .

  • if you don't have time, tell them (that you don't have time).
  • If you have got bord, tell them you can't keep going over the same stuff, you've move on the other things.
  • If you are a harsh enough person to be motivated by Grade Scaling, tell them "We're in direct competition, helping you is only hindering myself."
  • 2
    "Teaching is a fantastic way to cement your knowledge." I totally agree here. But he is complaining that his coeds are not interested in getting taught. They just want the answers. If he tried figuring out how to arrive at the answers more easily, it would help him as well. But a mere game of withholding answers and finally telling them is just a waste of his time. They don't learn anything, he doesn't learn anything.
    – David
    Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 7:48
  • I never mentioned anything about withholding answers and finally telling them. (Indeed I do not address anything to do with telling them answers, only todo with teaching them. As what you said is obvious). Perhaps that comment was meant to be on another post? Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 8:47
  • Ahh you did you misinterpret "if you don't have time, tell them?" I will edit to clarify. Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 8:48

Students who don't put much effort in, do so usually because the material does not interest them. If you can make the material interesting enough to get them excited about it, they will begin to put in more effort.

And to answer your question, should you tell them the answer? In most cases, no, you should not. No one learns by being told the answer. People only learn by coming to an answer using their own mind.

On the other hand, if YOU don't know the answer, then you should first find the answer yourself, and THEN still don't tell them the answer but use the fact you now know the answer to help them reach the same conclusion (without telling them the answer).

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