On Getting Help


Not Asking Questions

What Kind of Help Do You Need?

Seeking Help

About Study Groups: Getting and Giving Help

About Tutors

More Serious Problems

Everybody needs help sometimes. But few people ask for it. Asking for help is admitting that there is something that one needs help for. A request for help can be seen as an admission of ignorance or of incompetence. Both admissions make one vulnerable.

Lets look at questions. Who asks questions? Some questions are asked from people of lower status to people of higher status. ``Mom, can I stay out until midnight tonight?'' ``Miss Othmar, could you help me with this division problem?'' ``So how long have I got, Doc?'' All these questions are awkward, because in asking the question, the questioner admits his lower status, and in answering it, the answerer confirms her higher status. (This is particularly difficult for lower-status males asking questions; recall all the jokes about men never asking questions.) If one does not like the low status that asking the questions places one in, it becomes very difficult to ask the question. The fact that the answerer is providing help only compounds things: among social primates, providing help is a form of establishing dominance. Among grooming primates (like many baboons, and our cousins the Chimpanzees), it is usually the dominant primate doing the grooming (some primates spend far more time grooming than is necessary to find and remove ticks and other bugs: the extra time spent is for the groomer to establish dominance over the groomee). Another habit of our chimpanzee cousins is that after they go hunting for meat, the successful hunter doles out shares of his kill: even the normally dominant members of the troop have to ask for a share. Similar thought processes are embedded in our language: the word `lord' descends from the Old English word `hlaford', the keeper or giver of loaves of bread.

Other questions are asked from people of higher status to people of lower status. The most striking example is of an adult introduced to a child: we can almost hear the `dialogue' (accompanied by the adult's saccharine smile and higher pitched voice): ``And how old are you?'' ``Six.'' ``And what grade are you in?'' ``I'm in First Grade.'' ``And how do you like First Grade?'' [Giggles] The adult doesn't really need or perhaps even want the information: the purpose of the interrogation is to establish a relationship. Teachers engage in a similar dialogue. ``And how do we get the denominator?'' ``What do we do next?'' ``Why did Wellington choose Waterloo?'' The teacher knows perfectly well that Wellington chose Waterloo because of its deceptive terrain. The teacher is trying to test the students, and reinforce that particular lesson: both motives place the teacher at higher status than the students. In both of the above examples, the questioner was of superior status, but presumably benevolent. But a more sinister example is this: if one was interrogated in the bad old days by a KGB officer in Lubyanka, or a CIA-trained police officer in Chile, many of the questions would be designed to reinforce the status of the interrogator, and to undermine or destroy the status of the subject. Sometimes the information gained was merely secondary in the interrogation: the point is not that the dictatorship knows what you did ---it may have already known anyway --- the point is that you confessed to it. Requests for information involve more than just the information requested.

Some dialogues are mixed, and they become elaborate waltzes. A king and his counselors will ask many questions of each other, with each question --- going up or down --- designed to reinforce the relationship: ``And what course of action does Our Minister recommend?'' ``And what course of action does Your Majesty prefer?'' One can listen to a similar ballet of words when listening to a well-bred couple ordering a complicated dish in a snooty restaurant. Some dialogues are like Medieval stage plays, with the players wearing masks. Consider a research presentation, at a status-conscious (EurAsian) institution of higher learning. The presenter may be a Lecturer, and will answer a question from a mere privatdocent one way, and a question from a full-blown Professor another. Of course, here in the States, we pretend not to put up with that sort of thing, but all our egalitarianism does is push the status issue underground.

Not Asking Questions

Questions are about status as well as information, that makes getting information more complicated. And our distant memories are also involved.

  • Each of us went through the stage of asking our parents why the sky is blue, how to hit the ball with a bat, whether a friend can sleep over. And many of us experienced ... impatient adults. To small children, impatient (and dismissive) adults can be worrisome creatures, and as a result, many of us learned that asking questions leads to problems.
  • Each of us went to school. Although teachers said that they welcome questions (and some even meant it), we all knew what our peers thought of students who kept asking questions. And we all knew what happens on the playground to children who ask questions.
So many of us learned not to ask questions. But often the only way to get help is to ask:
Young Musketeer: I ask for no charity, sir.
Captain of the Guard: Then you're unlikely to get any, young man.
Pride or fear may bringeth the fall, and to avoid bumping one's head, one must learn to overcome one's pride and one's fears.

There are two points about not asking problems. In fact:

  • Insecure people do not ask questions. This is because many people know Aesop's (Libyan) tale of The Ass in the Lion's Skin: if we talk too much, we reveal ourselves a fool. (It is the man who silently watches who is often taken as profound.) But we should remember that (1) it is by making many assertions, and not by asking questions, that the ass reveals itsself a fool, and (2) silently watching is inefficient. (Observation: if you had not known that tale of the Ass in the Lion's Skin, the most effective way of finding out was by clicking on the link. Your computer does not sit in judgement on you, so you can go ahead. And you will NOT find what this tale is just by reading on.)
  • One of the recurring tales is of the couple driving in unfamiliar territory, and the husband, at the wheel, refusing to ask directions. Of course, they get lost. Even more troublesome are people being trained to do something sensitive (carrying out military maneuvers, performing surgery, cutting a gem) who do not want to admit they are confused and do not ask questions, with unpleasant results.
There are often problems with not asking questions.

What Kind of Help Do You Need?

First of all, before worrying about how to get help, one should consider what sort of help one needs. If you are confronted with a problem that you do not understand, then you want someone to explain it to you; if you understand the problem but don't know how to solve it, you want someone to give you a push. But it is important to remember that if the problem is an exercise,

you do NOT want someone to solve it for you.

The reason is simple: you are doing the exercise to learn how to do something and to understand something. You are not doing the exercise to learn the answer to that exercise. So what the answer to the exercise is is not what is important: what is important is that you need to know how to do that exercise --- and other exercises. You do not learn how to do exercises by watching other people do them any more than you learn to play the violin by watching other people play. You have to play the violin yourself; what you need is someone who will help you position your bow and instrument and, while your are playing, say things like, ``head up,'' ``move your arm in,'' ``are you chewing gum?'' etc. Similarly, when you have a problem that you cannot solve, what you need is someone who is willing to kibbitz while you work out the problem. A good introduction to this approach can be found in George Polya's How to Solve It.

Seeking Help

Now that you've decided what sort of help you need, how do you get it?

If you are in a class that isn't too big (as in more than thirty people), there should be time to handle short questions during class time. You can ask how to solve homework problems (or just for hints), or clarify examples, or ask about a procedure, etc. For more involved questions, or blocks of questions, it is often better to catch the professor after class or during office hours. Don't be shy about asking for help from a professor: your tuition and tax dollars are paying for his time, so take advantage of it. Be polite, of course. Professors are human beings, so there are a few pointers:

  • Raise your hand, say, ``excuse me,'' etc. A number of professors get frazzled or irritated by interruptions.
  • If you see something that doesn't look right, ask about it, but put it as a question.
  • If you have long questions, many questions, or personal questions (e.g., about how your paper was graded), ask after class or during office hours.
Classtime is usually an expensive resource, so anything that is going to take up much time is usually addressed after class.

Most universities require professors to have office hours, often three hours a week. Most students do not take advantage of office hours, even when they're lost. There are some reasons for this:

  • There is the usual reason that students don't like to admit being lost or at least needing help. Again, people don't like being in the position of asking for help for essentially status reasons. And again, it takes an act of will: if you do not seek help, you may not get it.
  • A student may feel that the problem is not serious enough to merit the professor's attention. Its like going to the doctor for a possible melanoma --- and being told that it's a blood clot. Of course, this is always embarrassing, but actually not that much, and it shows another thing.
  • Professors, being only human, like to think that the students care about the course material, and how they are doing. Coming to class, doing work on time, and asking questions, are all was of showing that one cares. So does coming to office hours and asking questions, even questions that are easy but can be used as launchpads for more serious problems. A university is, ultimately, a community of people behaving like people.
  • One human behavior is the formation of routines, and coming to office hours when one needs help is sometimes too irregular to launch a routine. Many professors notice the same handful of students coming to office hours routinely, and most others never coming because ... they never get around to it. Since coming to an office hour requires an act of will, not getting around to deciding to come is tantamount to not coming.
And, alas, some students do not come to office hours because once upon a time, a teacher gave them a hard time. Once again, professors are only human; it is usually a good idea to take courses from nice professors.

So much for why students do not come.

The argument for going to office hours (dare I say regularly) is this: of all the teaching methods ever used, the most effective is the one-on-one tutorial. The teacher can focus all her attention on the difficulties of one particular student (no trying to teach to the ``middle'' of the class) and can tailor explanations and examples to that one student. And that student can try to rework ideas in his own words, and do examples, in real time, in the presence of the teacher. Instant, accurate, descriptive feedback. And it works better than any other method:

  • Every Thursday afternoon, little Joey takes a piano lesson with Mrs. Phifflefiffer. He knows he has to have done all his practicing because ... he's going to be on the spot. And he spends an hour having his own performance worked on exclusively. And in his late teens, he's playing Chopin and, if his hands are big enough, Brahms.
    Every morning, for one hour, little Joey is one of thirty students in a classroom that slogs through the multiplication tables, geometric word problems, arithmetic algorithms, plane geometry, applications to this and that, elementary algebra, axiomatic geometry, etc, etc, and as we all know, at the end of all this little Joey has learned how to do plausibly well in state-mandated standardized exams. But but high school graduation, Euclid is beyond him.
Contrary to popular propaganda, Euclid is not harder than Chopin. The difference is not in the material, but in how the material is taught.

Visiting your professor is not the same as tutorial, but it's a lot better than lecture alone. In the short term, it consumes more time; in the long haul, you learn to master the material, as opposed to merely performing plausibly well.

One last point: sometimes a student cannot come during regular office hours. Most professors are willing to set appointments, but being human, they dislike having students miss appointments. In fact, many professors have a policy of refusing to give appointments to students who have already missed an appointment without excuse, so be sure to show up.

About Study Groups:

Getting and Giving Help

There are alternatives to going to professors for help.

Some people prefer to ask questions from fellow students, because fellow students may have a better idea of what it is that is difficult (and because fellow students are less intimidating). One way to do this is to work in groups. This is tricky: you get out of a group only what you put into it. If you come to the group to get other people's homework answers, you never learn how to do the homework yourself. (You also accumulate the resentments of the other members of the group.) However, if you have come to work, don't be shy about asking questions. Most successful groups consist of perhaps three to six members, who meet regularly (twice a week, say). One should not do homework during group time: usually, you don't have that much time to meet, so you waste valuable group time working on problems that you could have solved alone. Instead, you should prepare by doing all the problems you can do yourself (getting the easy ones out of the way), and work on the harder ones enough so that you understand what your difficulty is (or at least have a feeling for what the problem is). Much of the meeting time should be spent on three kinds of problems: those that many people know how to solve but feel queasy about (especially if different people got different answers), those that a few people know how to solve, and those that no one knows how to solve.

  • It is a good idea to have the group check their answers, so if different people get different answers, the problem can be reviewed. Learning how to check answers is a underrated skill, but it becomes important in real life because often one is called upon to see what (if anything) is wrong with a solution to a problem. Checking answers is often difficult --- errors are good at hiding in thickets of dense mathematics --- and sometimes the only thing to do is start over from scratch.
  • Sometimes a few people, or just one person, has the solution, which should then be explained by the solvers and checked by everyone else. One problem that shows up is that often it is the same person who always gets all the problems, and it is often the same person who gets practically none of them.
    For the first, if you are very good at math, explaining things to others is actually good for you because (a) you really learn a subject by teaching it to others and (b) it is good practice because it is likely that a lot of your adult life will be spent explaining things to slower people: the biggest demand for mathematically capable employees is for employees who can also communicate.
    For the second, if the problem is that you are slow, or have a problem with math, it is usually (but not always) a good idea to stay in the group. Some very capable people are just slow, and some are slow because they cannot do things unless they understand what they are doing thoroughly: if you fall into either category, you are actually doing the rest of the group a favor (though they may not realize it) by forcing them to clarify their thoughts and explain without hand-waving or vagueness or dubious logic. On the other hand, if you have severe problems with mathematics, or you are irritating the group by not preparing adequately, you may want to reconsider your participation.
  • Sometimes no one in the group knows how to do a problem. Groups are great for brainstorming: people get together, come up with ideas (most of which will not work), toy with the ideas, combine them, etc., until gradually (hopefully) a solution will emerge. This method for coming up with solutions is actually a group process, the person who finally says ``aha'' may be hitting a home run, but it was the rest of the group that loaded the bases. Anyway, being in a group also will give you a feeling for what kinds of problems are genuinely hard.

Here are a few words about getting and giving aid. Remember that asking for help entails an admission. This creates a social problem for both the seeker and giver of aid.

  • It is hard to ask for help, so if someone asks you for help, don't take advantage of it. This means: don't be snide, don't be patronizing, and don't make it an unpleasant experience (unless the questioner is someone you truly want to alienate and chase away. A question is an opportunity for both sides.
    • Strange as it may sound, it is hard to give aid. It is not just a redirection of resources (and time is a resource: time, says J.-L. Servan-Schreiber, is the stuff that life is made of). So it is best to be polite, and say thank you afterwards (even thank you for trying if the outcome was not the best: most people find it very hard to give bad news, or to try to help and fail).
    As observed in the Desiderata we all have something to learn from each other.

    About Tutors

    And there are ... tutors. Many departments provide a tutorial lab. It is usually staffed by graduate students (who presumably know all lower division mathematics and a lot of upper division math), and there are always one or two graduate students there, who are there to provide assistance. If you are taking an upper division course, you may have to find out which graduate students know something about your subject, and when their hours are. If you want more in depth or personal assistance, there are many advanced students who earn a little on the side by tutoring; the going rate ranges from $ 20 to $ 30 an hour (some of the outside agencies offer low-cost or even free tutoring; the quality seems to be about the same as private tutoring). Unfortunately, few tutors actually know how to tutor, so if you get a tutor, try to get the tutor to give hints and guide you to to the problems yourself, and not just show you how to do problems. Again, it is faster to just watch someone else do problems (and it is easier on the tutor to just solve exercises rather than sit and watch someone else try), but again, you retain what you become involved with, so you retain what you do yourself. Remember, you do not want someone to show you the answers, you want someone to teach you how to get answers yourself.

    More Serious Problems

    Finally, you may have problems with studying. Some people are debilitated by test anxieties, some have time management problems, some have difficulties concentrating on the text. Some particular problems are we call ``learning disabilities'', which are often difficult to diagnose, and like unpleasant phantoms, can cause all sorts of mysterious difficulties. You can try to deal with these on your own, but if they are seriously affecting your performance, you can get help. One place to begin is with your professor or academic advisor, who may have sage advice. Also, many universities have counseling centers (USF's counseling web-page can be reached by clicking here). Whatever you do, do not suffer in silence.

    Escape links

    Back to the classes page

    Back to my home page

    Back to the USF Department of Mathematics Home Page