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I am relatively new to teaching University undergraduate classes in mathematics. One of the harder things I've had to do is to say 'no'. To somehow respectfully deny a student what they're asking for.

For example, very recently, a student has been demanding too many appointments outside of office hours and during these appointments, the student asks me to solve various questions for them and also almost entirely help them on their homework. As their instructor, I am certain that the student isn't actually understanding anything, but is rather making me do their homework.

My question is, how do I tell them that their homework is not meant for me? Another question I have is, I feel like making compromises on my research time and family life to spend doing a student's homework doesn't seem like the best use of my time. So am I required to meet them outside of office hours? Or is it frowned upon if an instructor says no to meet outside of office hours?

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    Since you were very generous with the time until now, you may want to consider scaling it down gradually. So, you say sometimes yes, sometimes now and increase the proportion of 'no's with those of the yes. This will avoid looking like you drastically moving the goalposts on which students rely. – Captain Emacs Nov 9 '17 at 10:35
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    The two questions are fairly different: how to help a student for his homework and managing your out of office hours could be entirely seperate posts. – everyone Nov 9 '17 at 10:39
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    @CaptainEmacs That is an answer, should go into the answer box. – pipe Nov 9 '17 at 10:45
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    during these appointments, the student asks me to solve various questions for them and also almost entirely help them on their homework. — (1) Advertise in class that you will not answer homework questions outside office hours, ever, period; that's what office hours are for. And then stick to your guns. (2) Don't solve questions for students, ever, period. Teach them the process to solve problems on their own. – JeffE Nov 9 '17 at 20:59
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    @MCMastery There's nothing passive about clearly pointing out the site policies and suggesting an alternative. Answers in comments can not be vetted by the community, nor be accepted. It's just "my 2 cents noise". Stack exchange was designed specifically to avoid such answers. – pipe Nov 10 '17 at 14:59
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I would limit the amount of time you dedicate to a single student to a maximum of 20 minutes a week. This is a reasonable amount of time to discuss the main problems a student has. This does not mean that you cannot make exceptions, but it is good to have a general rule.

As a side remark: You will not make everybody happy. If somebody wants an appointment and you say "no", and he insists, you can still say "no" and walk away.

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    I see. It's the right balance between making the student feel satisfied and not overdo my efforts that I'm failing to strike. Thanks. This helps. Would +1 if I had the reputation to do so. – tangentbundle Nov 9 '17 at 8:36
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    It would be really cool to be upfront about it even. As a student I would have loved being able to talk a whole 20 minutes with a TA each minute with a clear conscience! – Henrik Nov 9 '17 at 13:33
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    I don't think this would be a productive approach for the OP without a very serious reevaluation of their approach to mentoring. If they are actually just doing student homework for them during office hours then just cutting them off at 20 minutes isn't going to do anything except make everyone unhappy. – KennyPeanuts Nov 9 '17 at 15:45
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    @KennyPeanuts Of course, time is not the only important factor. But clearly communicating that you will not spend two hours a week with a single student is a good first step. Some students think your job is to be their private teacher, and the time limit alone already shows them that you are not. – J. Fabian Meier Nov 9 '17 at 16:02
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    To me 20 minutes per week sounds very arbitrary. Moreover, meeting too briefly is not conducive to the OP's other goal of getting the student to do the work themselves. For say, an advanced undergraduate course, I would typically be able to show a solution to a homework problem in less than 10 minutes but to help them solve it would typically take half an hour or more. – Pete L. Clark Nov 10 '17 at 1:36
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One of the harder things I've had to do is to say 'no'.

[...]

how do I tell them that their homework is not meant for me?

It seems that you are struggling with a far more general problem than the specific one you asked about (which other answers have given good responses to), so I will address the more general problem: by your own description, you are a person who finds it very difficult to say "no" to requests from others. This is not good, and is the heart of your problem; the issue with office hours is only a particular manifestation of it.

It's therefore important to emphasize that saying no is a very, very important life and career skill, and I strongly recommend that you take steps to master it as early as possible. If you do, you will be handsomely rewarded in increased quality of life and professional and personal success.

Here are some recommendations for things you can do to get better at saying no:

  1. Spend some time reflecting on why you find it so difficult to say no. It may go back to something in your culture or upbringing, an insecurity you have that causes you to have an extreme reluctance to displease others, or something else. If you understand the causes, you may have better success fighting this tendency.

  2. Spend some time thinking of all the times when this trait has caused you to do things you didn't want to do, or to not do things you did want to do, and to think how much better off you would be if you didn't have this problem. That should help with motivation to work on fixing the problem.

  3. Practice saying no by doing role-playing thought experiments in your head (or in front of the mirror, or with a friend) in which you imagine situations where someone asks you to do something you don't want and you say no. Imagine their negative reaction, and practice doing it even knowing that the reaction will be negative.

  4. Practice saying no in the real world. You can start with the office hours situation, but I'm sure plenty more opportunities will come along soon enough. Over time, it will become much easier.

These are my own ideas. This article has several more suggestions and an analysis of why some people find it hard to say "no". Good luck!

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    Cultural forces are irrelevant to the fact that being able to say no, in a way that will be understood and acted upon, is an important skill. When cultural expectations are to say yes, learning how to say no becomes even more important. – Nij Nov 10 '17 at 7:16
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You mentioned that you feel like you are solving there homework for them. This is indeed something you should not encourage. In fact you should try to never answer questions about current exercises directly. Students will of course always try, but it is entirely fair to just tell them no, or to come back next week, after they handed them in and then you can discuss their solution.

If you do not want to cut things as short, for example during the actual office hours, what you can always do is try to deflect the question. When I am asked about some specific exercise problem, I usually try to explain the general underlying concept instead. I may even discuss an older different but related problem, but I will never give more than just a small hint.

In general, if you want to be helpful to your student, it is always good to remember that your job is not to get them good grades or to help them pass the exam, but to help them learn something instead.

  • I also believe this is a concern that should be taken care of, although it isn't the main question. – everyone Nov 9 '17 at 10:37
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    Also, refer the student to academic tutoring services office if your university has one. Or offer to connect them with students of your from past years who did well and may be available for private tutoring. – Dawn Nov 9 '17 at 13:01
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    @everyone I disagree, I think this is the actual question the OP is asking even if they don't realize it. The reason that they are having problems with mentoring, is not because they can't say no to student requests for help, but rather because they are not mentoring properly. If the OP adopted this approach, the office hour scheduling problem would be solved. – KennyPeanuts Nov 9 '17 at 15:42
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    Re: Last sentence. This may possibly depend on the institution, actually. For example, many colleges now subscribe to the "College Completion Agenda" where the top goal is to maximize the number of associate's degrees awarded, by any means possible. I agree that the responsible instructor should try to uphold collegiate standards. But be aware that this may run counter to explicit guidance given by some in charge of reappointment and promotions, for example. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 10 '17 at 5:08
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This question is not tremendously dissimilar from one I asked in the past. As I am now a first year faculty member (also in mathematics) at a small liberal arts college, I can certainly relate to your question. While I have my limits, I am suspicious that I am more accommodating than the average instructor, so my answer can serve as an alternative.

Note: At my school, we are expected to be somewhat available and responsive to student requests for our time, and straight-up refusing to meet with students outside of my office hours could have minor repercussions. Expectations are highly dependent upon the culture of your institution, so I suggest you ask around to see what your administrators/department/students expect.

Regarding "too many appointments": If I have a student that I'm concerned is becoming too demanding of my time outside of office hours, I significantly limit the time I offer to meet with them. In practice, this tends to look something like this:

  1. Demanding student asks me for an appointment outside of office hours. I tell them to email me their request and I'll send them a list of available times.
  2. Once they've emailed me, I'll send them a response with just a few times that may or may not be convenient for them. For example, I'll often include "7:30 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.," which is the time before my first class starts. The best part about that particular time: I know they can't have anything scheduled that early, so they can't tell me that none of my times fit their schedule.
  3. If they say can't meet at any of those times, too bad. That's my only availability right now. I also remind them that they're always welcome to make an appointment at our school's STEM tutoring center.
  4. In the event that they show up to my office without an appointment, I either tell them that "I'm currently dealing with other obligations and don't have time to meet right now" or "I can meet with you for five minutes, but that's it." The latter allows me to give them something without flat-out shutting them down, and only five minutes of my time for them walking across campus and climbing up to the fourth floor of my building doesn't provide much incentive for them to do it again.
  5. If they start emailing you questions, take a long enough time to reply so that it's not convenient for them, and give answers that only contain hints or pointers (see below).

Regarding "doing the student's homework":

  1. Make them work for your answers. Offer them hints, point them to other resources, do similar problems, but avoid working on the exact problem if at all possible.
  2. Refuse to help them with problems that they haven't seriously attempted. If they tell you that they're stuck and don't know how to start, go back to my first point.
  3. If your problems are from a textbook that has answers provided to odd-numbered exercises (or something similar), refuse to look over any of their work until they've cross-checked their answer. Even if they have, encourage them to think about it for a little while before asking you a question.
  4. Give them concrete "threshold" that they must get past before they ask you another question. This has the dual function of not giving them too much and also prevents them from overburdening your time. An example exchange:

    Student: "I'm stuck on #5."

    Professor: "Ok, here's a hint on #5. I want you to go think about that for a little while. Once you've spent at least X minutes/hours thinking about that, you may ask a follow-up question if you're still stuck."

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    Student: "I'm stuck on #5." Professor: "What have you tried?" Student: [blank stare] Professor: [pleasant smile] Student: [blank stare] Professor: "Are we done? Okay, bye! See in you in class tomorrow!" – JeffE Nov 9 '17 at 20:52
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    Related to your points (1) and (4), there is a certain kind of 'threshold' that I have found from my own experience to be extremely effective at helping only the students who really need help. Namely, keep giving them simpler but unrelated problems as in (1), such that a complete grasp of the solution to the simpler problems would actually aid in finding a solution to the original problem. You can estimate how long they ought to need to solve the simpler problems, and tell the student to come back after at least that amount of time to continue. The good students will. The bad students won't. – user21820 Nov 11 '17 at 14:27
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I don't know why you can't just say

No, I am sorry but I am generally unavailable outside of OH, I would be more than happy to schedule an appointment with you but my time is limited.

And then you state the times you are available outside of OH in the week and ask that you meet only a number of times to your discretion.

As for homework, although it is your job to help, it is not your job to do for your students. The policy that my professors as an undergrad was that students at least have attempted to solve the problem before they approached the professor during office hours.

I'd be more than happy to help you with your homework, however part of learning is struggling. I would like for you to try a couple of times before coming to me for help. I won't give you the answer, but I will certainly try to direct you down a path where you can find the tools you need to solve the problem.

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    Easy. Stop meeting after hours. Set a precedent. You don't owe your class anything other than your teaching hours, that's it. Give an inch and they'll take a mile. – Eppicurt Nov 9 '17 at 8:28
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    @Hades you aren't "generally available outside of [you're] office hours," you're supposed to be doing your own research or spending time with your family. So: Stop meeting after hours (as suggested above). – user2768 Nov 9 '17 at 8:36
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    I see the point. Will do so. Would upvote all answers and comments if I could. – tangentbundle Nov 9 '17 at 8:39
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    So now the sudden change in my availability is not going to bode well with the class. It seems like you feel that you have locked yourself in with your earlier more generous behavior. That is simply not the case. It is never too late to correct a past mistake. Simply tell the student you have decided you cannot afford to keep spending that much time helping him. Whether it "bodes well with the class" is irrelevant; it is the right thing for you to do, and the students will have to accept it. – Dan Romik Nov 9 '17 at 13:24
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    @Hades: I don't know who's going to notice the sudden change other than the one student. If it helps you feel more honest, schedule appointments with the student half an hour before another meeting, then 20 minutes into the appointment say, "I have another meeting I need to go to." If you don't mind a white lie, say it whether you have one or not. – Matthew Leingang Nov 9 '17 at 14:47
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Since you were very generous with the time until now, you may want to consider scaling it down gradually. So, you say sometimes yes, sometimes no and increase the proportion of 'no's with those of the yes. This will avoid looking like you drastically moving the goalposts on which students rely.

4

Change your mindset

Students are supposed to learn on their own (for sure, you see that 99% of the students need a little to no help at all). If someone is not able to do that, he/she most probably does not belong at this place.

What you can/should do: Answers for exercises are usually for the exercise class. If there is once in a while a group of students (see the group? usually, if students do not understand something, they ask each other. If they don't/don't get answer from their colleges, that should tell you a lot already), sure, take your time to explain it to them. But if someone comes regularly to fully use up the time you give him, things are wrong.

Rather give him a small hint and let him go again (after the 2-3 occurrence) and tell him to figure out things on his own.

Remember: Not providing the assistance means you help him to better find his way. "Helping" someone in this situation is like taking pain pills instead of visiting a doctor: It somehow feels good at the moment for both parties, but in the long term: a) he won't graduate most probably b) you will have used up a lot of your time.

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    Re: "for sure, you see that 99% of the students need a little to no help at all". Depends greatly on the institution. At our open-admissions community college, most students need tons and tons of help, and there is a veritable legion of administrative tutors and support programs to try to support the college completion agenda. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 10 '17 at 5:13
  • @DanielR.Collins, sure but the OP mentioned he is a teaching assistant for University undergraduate classes in mathematics. My answer is not a general statement about students but quite specific about this case. – Mayou36 Nov 10 '17 at 9:56
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    The situation I refer to is a subset of university undergraduate classes in mathematics. – Daniel R. Collins Nov 10 '17 at 13:56
  • @DanielR.Collins, true, may depends on the school you are at. But from the OP's question it seems to be a normal university (probably not even in the states) without special help provided for the students. Otherwise, his question would be differently formulated – Mayou36 Nov 10 '17 at 15:01
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  1. To make it easier to say no, say when you're next "available" instead, and also specify how long you're available for. Specify a time the next week instead of the next day.

  2. If the student complains that they still need more help, refer them to the tutoring department or student learning center. That's what it's there for. You're in no way ethically obligated to do anything outside of office hours.

  3. I used to tutor a lot, and sometimes had students who would try to get me to do the work for them. The solution is to use the crap out of the Socratic method. When they ask a question, ask them a leading question. Stick to your question mark guns. They may try to make you frustrated enough to just give them the answer at first. Don't let that happen. Use it to teach them how to find answers on their own.

    them: "How do I multiply two four digit numbers?" you: "How might you divide the task into smaller parts?" them: "I don't know. Just tell me." you: "What might you try doing if you had to guess?" them: "But I don't have any guesses!" you: "What does your book/handout say? What does google say? What did the TA in the learning center say?"

  4. It's not at all rude to look at the clock and tell them that's all the time you have "for now" and that you have to work on other things. If they whine "but I still have questions" see number my point 1.

  5. Meeting outside office hours is only potentially required if it's necessary for ADA compliance. Even then you can usually come up with reasonable alternatives.

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