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Getting past “I’m stuck” with Instant Messaging

April 7, 2011

One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to get my students to get past that moment of getting “stuck” and not knowing what to do. One approach I’ve taken to dealing with this is asking students to reach out to me when they’ve spent 5-10 minutes on a problem and feel they aren’t making progress. I’ve encouraged students to email me, but I’ve found that this leads to never ending email chains that really take a long time to address a student question, and besides, many students these days don’t check email at all.

Recently I’ve been trying something new with making myself available via skype and IM for student questions. It turns out to be a pretty big time saver. I can usually guide a student to a deeper understanding much more quickly than via email, and overall, I think it’s useful. Of course, at the moment, very few students have tried it out, so I haven’t been swamped with requests yet. I’m also not really sure how much my feedback is really helping students to master ideas on their own—the eternal “am I helping too much?’ question that always plagues me.

So I’ve decided to post a transcript of a somewhat recent conversation and see if you have any feedback (click on the images to embiggen them).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2011 7:39 am

    I’ve done a lot of IM’ing with students just like this and I think it’s great. I agree with the long chains of emails with the ~5min delay. IM definitely beats that. Of course lately I’ve just been using my online office hours but that actually has a larger barrier because it takes so long to start up. What I want to do is IM for quick questions and then the student and I can decide if we need to jump into elluminate.

    I also like how you can just be honest with students about your available time when you help them at night. They seem thankful for any help so you can say “gotta go, kids are being wild” in the middle of the conversation if you need to. During the day in physical office hours I don’t seem to be able to get away with that.

  2. April 9, 2011 12:56 pm

    I believe e-mail to be a superior medium, because of the longer delays. Students have to think a bit about the questions, and I have time to think a bit about the answers. I want students to answer their own questions as much as possible, and not to rely on other people to answer them for them.
    With a e-mail I can take the time to do some web searches and suggest keywords to the students that lead them to good answers, without having to spoonfeed them.

    I think that IM is likely to lead to being too helpful.

    • April 9, 2011 11:47 pm

      this is a good point. Both forms of communication have their strengths, and if I were working with older students doing weekly problem sets, email might be a better method. As is, I’m working with very young students who I want to give very quick feedback and engage in dialogue about physics, when they’re often faced with an hour of nightly homework in every class (something I’d like to see change, and have worked to change by reducing the homework load in my class), so the prospect of having to wait around to get help via email can be impractical.

      • April 10, 2011 4:58 pm

        The age and homework loads are both good points. My students are generally in their mid-20s and early 30s (though the can go up to mid-50s). Homework loads are variable (often quite high), but assignments tend to be a minimum of week and often the full quarter, rather than daily drill.

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