Jeremy Côté

Nudging Along Versus Waiting

The eternal question as a teacher or tutor is what to do when a student is struggling. Should you give them a hint, re-explain a key concept to them, or let them sit there and struggle? It’s not always clear which approach should be taken.

I’ve often felt the pull to take the first route. After all, they are struggling! Shouldn’t I help them out? This meant I would give them some sort of pointer in the right direction. The result is that the problem gets done faster, and they understand what to do.

Now that I’ve reflected a lot on this, I’m not sure this is the best route to take.

Yes, it addresses the confusion and gets them moving again. But, the problem is that they aren’t fixing the problem. Sometimes, a student needs help and isn’t going to figure things out on their own. However, I think those moments are a lot more rare than we want to admit.

I notice this all the time when I’m working with students. I can see them struggling, and my instinct is to help them. I know what they should be doing, so I want to give them that knowledge. Seeing them struggle doesn’t seem right. Each time this happens though, I mentally restrain myself and give them more time. It’s not that I’m trying to frustrate students. Instead, I’m trying to instill in them a sense of persistence. I want them to succeed, but I also know that success is only “real” if they understand on their own.

To further complicate things, it feels like I should be doing something more than just sitting there as they work. After all, students pay me for tutoring. It feels like I’m not doing my job if I just sit there and let them struggle.

What I’ve found is that it takes a certain amount of courage to sit with a student and not rush to help them as they struggle. I’m not talking about courage in the heroic sense, but more in the sense of doing the right thing even when it’s difficult and uncomfortable. Despite wanting to jump in and help a struggling student immediately, I know that doing so will only help in the moment, not the long term.

Do I sometimes feel useless when working with students? Absolutely. But I also recognize that this is just a feeling I have, and it isn’t indicative of what’s happening. We often have the tendency of linking being busy with doing useful work. The reality is that this isn’t the case in every scenario. Sometimes, you just need to sit tight and wait.

Of course, I don’t let students struggle without ever helping them. I’m there to step in if they are struggling and getting nowhere. However, I wait until they actually try something. Sitting and staring at the paper won’t get a problem solved. You have to attempt the problem before figuring out if you’re wrong. When I’m working with a student, I look to see if they are making any sort of progress. While they still have momentum, I won’t interfere. I’ll only step in when it seems like their progress has ground to a halt.

It’s scary to just sit back and not help a student when they are struggling. But, just like checking the back of the book for the answer doesn’t encourage perseverance, jumping in to help a student at the first sign of struggle isn’t helpful either. The goal shouldn’t be making each problem seem easy. It should be to improve the skill of problem-solving. As such, it doesn’t matter if one particular problem is too difficult to solve. It’s about developing the grit to see a problem through to the end.

This will only come if we, as tutors and teachers, don’t jump in at the first sign of confusion. It’s worth letting students struggle a bit, because that’s the reality of mathematics. It isn’t always clear, and students should recognize that. If we’re always there to ensure that students have a smooth ride, we are setting them up for a big shock when they are on their own with a mathematical problem.