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The Fine Line of Giving Homework Help

Jordan Catapano


Not too long ago, I chatted with a student on her way to math tutoring. Our school offers tutoring in math – as well as in other subjects – throughout each period of the school day. This student, as it turned out, goes to math tutoring for homework help every day.

“Are you going to ask questions about your homework?”

“Well, I go there for homework help.”

“Why? You can do your homework here in study hall.”

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“But I don’t understand the homework.”

“But you said you go to tutoring every day. Is it because you don’t understand the homework every day?”

“Yes. I’m bad at math.”

“Did you try the problems by yourself first?”

“No, like I said, I’m bad at math.”

On the one hand, I thought it was a good habit that the student was advocating for herself and taking full advantage of the math tutor. She turned in her homework every day, and most of the problems were done correctly thanks to her tutors’ homework help.

However, something left me a little unsettled after our conversation. Although she was getting help with math, I wondered how much she actually needed it. Was it possible that the help this student – and many others like her – received was actually doing her a little more harm than good?

When Homework Help is a Bad Thing

We’re teachers, and we help. That’s who we are and what we do. If a student approaches and asks for anything, we’re hardwired to find a way to help them out somehow. But at times it might be possible that our help stops being helpful. Our help could in fact be inadvertently teaching students to rely too dependently on others.

Now at first what I’m saying might seem negative. “Isn’t it good to rely on others? Shouldn’t we teach students to utilize helpful resources?” you might be asking. My answer is “Yes – we should encourage students to find help … ” But that comes with a big “HOWEVER.”

“… HOWEVER, students should also learn how to rely on and teach themselves.”

Let’s use the student I had a conversation with as an example: She stopped doing homework on her own. Instead, she brings her math assignment down to the tutoring center and receives guidance on nearly every problem. The tutor is an experienced teacher who knows how to productively guide her. But is the student actually learning? When she encounters a moment in a problem that she can’t do, she has a tutor immediately on hand to ask, “How do I do this?”

What would it look like, however, if there were no tutor around? The student, alone in her room, would be forced to look at her notes from class; she would study the sample problems in the book; she would try, get the wrong answer, try again, get another wrong answer, and then try one more time and come out with the right answer. She would repeat this process throughout her homework until she was done. She still might miss quite a few problems, but she would get more right than had she not tried at all.

Which scenario gives the student more ownership of the knowledge: When she freely receives guidance on every difficulty, or works through the problems independently? While we might agree that receiving help is good, we might also agree that at some point, too much help turns into too little learning.

Where We Might See This Happening

A student doing math homework in the tutoring center might be one way we encourage dependency in students. But consider other ways we might also facilitate a culture of dependency:

  • Overabundance of tutors for any subject material.
  • Lack of supplemental notes, videos, or resources that students can study independently.
  • Lax due date policies that encourage procrastination or subpar work.
  • Excessive expectations that students cannot feel confident completing on their own.
  • Limited student choice and/or ownership over skills and topics.
  • Incentives for meeting with school tutors without considering other steps students could take for learning.
  • Giving students answers or steps without asking students to do anything themselves first.

There might be the English tutor who coaches a student step-by-step through a writing process, though never requiring the student to produce a draft or conduct an edit without the tutor’s guidance. There might be a history teacher who tells students answers before students have a chance to think through the events themselves. There might be the world language instructor who translates or defines words before the student looks them up in the dictionary or uses word attack skills or context clues to deduce meaning.

In all these instances, both the adults and the students mean well. And in many instances, providing help is exactly what’s needed. But when a system or culture of help becomes the norm, it may take away the personal struggle that’s required to make a student’s mind truly grow. When we work out, it’s the struggle with the exercise or the weight that helps our muscles get bigger; spotting or assistance works, but too much means that we’re going through the motions without achieving actual muscle growth. The same may be true for our students.

Advocating an Environment of Self-Reliance

So what’s the secret to genuinely helping students without encouraging over-dependence? How do we give students the boost they need without making them need an adult every time they work? We do not want to completely stop helping students. Here are some approaches to consider:

Require an attempt. When working with students, never accept a blank sheet of paper. If a student consistently approaches you with “I don’t get it …” then direct them to the resources available – such as notes, samples, and online supplements – and tell the students to try it themselves first. Give them permission to do horribly. Allow them to fail miserably. But ultimately, force them to rely on themselves first so they know how to figure it out the next time. When we help, we can show a student how to improve their methods rather than trying to turn “nothing into something.”

Progressive release to independence. This approach focuses on helping students heavily at first, but then steadily transferring the burden of responsibility onto the students themselves. We might help a student a great deal initially, but over time we do less and less direct guidance. This gives the students the support they may need at first, but slowly helps students understand the process of thinking they could follow to arrive at their goal on their own.

Peers helping peers, and other resources. Part of learning how to learn entails knowing where to go to help yourself. Students often approach teachers first since teachers teach the content and assign the work. However, students can learn that there are many places they can go to if they need some assistance. For starters, they can help one another: Collaborative discussion between peers breeds more confidence and understanding. Students can also be encouraged to utilize online resources: When students are taught how to use these sources in a positive way, their learning can literally become boundless.

Freedom and Choice. Give students more freedom to choose what they want to do. The students who work because they have to bring a different mentality than the students who work because they want to. If a student has genuine curiosity and interest in the specific topic they’re exploring, then figuring it out on their own won’t seem like such a chore. In fact, they are more likely to go above and beyond on their own, rather than fitting into the strict parameters of a teacher’s requirements.

The Balancing Act

We want to help students, but we also want students to learn how to help themselves. To successfully strike that balance, we have to be careful to neither abandon students nor allow them to take too much advantage of helpful offers. Helping students get to a point of independence takes time and experimentation as educators, and we just might find that each student needs their own unique degree of attention before their completely comfortable spreading their wings and soaring.

What do you think? Is there a point where too much help stops being helpful? How do you encourage independence in your students? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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