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Hand over the pen

If a student asks me for help, say during an office hour, then the path of least resistance is to start explaining and write out a solution for them. It’s an easy process just to explain the details and ask the student if they have understood. The problem is that no one likes to say they don’t understand and so students will often write down what I write down, say they understand and leave when in fact they are hoping it all make sense when they read it back later.

To avoid this, instead of writing down the explanation I hand the pen to the student and let them to write down what we’re doing. Obviously, I make sure that I don’t merely dictate the answer — the student is expected to be thinking.

A benefit of this approach is that we are forced to go at their speed instead of me racing ahead. Also, I can easily tell what they are having trouble with and react accordingly.

If we have being using a board rather than paper, one drawback is that the student does not have a written record of what emerged. In this case I advise them to take a photograph. (In the case of paper I let them take it away.)

A word of warning. This can be a painful experience for the lecturer and student. I would advise a bit of sensitivity for a student visibly struggling or else they may not ask questions in future. This is particularly important when a student asks a question after a lecture and other students are watching.

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