Helping or Enabling? Can more help be less helpful?

As we embark on the sometimes infamous junior year research paper in US history, I am wrestling with a perennial problem – how to help students enough but not too much. My goal is to help them learn to help themselves. Sometimes, students see my role as helping them, period. There is a pretty big difference, as I see it.
Sometimes I feel like it’s a game of chicken where they try to wait me out by looking as helpless and clueless as possible, hoping I will cave and tell them what to do, or even better do it for them.

I can give feedback on whether I think a research question is too narrow, too broad or too obscure, but I should not hand them a question. In fact, I probably should not suggest questions to them for them to pick from. This frustrates them. A little frustration is healthy, though, right?

Helping kids find sources is not the same as teaching kids tips and letting them find the sources themselves. Too often, I think, I am quick to jump in when a kid is frustrated and find them a source. I love research, especially that moment of striking gold. I really should let my students experience that, rather than simply feeling the comfort of knowing I have found them a source that has my approval. There are times when I simply know more about the topic and thus know more about what can be helpful, but I still need to find a way to share my experience without hijacking theirs.

The challenge is also one of time. They have a limited amount of time to complete the project, so sometimes I feel like I need to get them unstuck so they can keep moving forward in a timely fashion. When is the intervention necessary to save a kid from giving up and drowning?

When it comes time to draft the paper, there will be a number of students who will not have figured out their thesis. They will want me to give them their thesis. Sometimes, I can see in their analysis what they are arguing and they cannot see it. I don’t want to tell them their point; they should be able to figure it out. I do admit that sometimes I try to lead them to it. I get frustrated when I can see what they are arguing and they cannot, but my frustration is really not a good enough reason to do a student’s thinking for them.

I think I am getting worse about letting kids find their own way. More help is not necessarily more helpful. The best moments I can remember are ones where kids faces lit up as they found the elusive source or their thesis crystallized in their heads. Sadly, none of those moments are from the past few years.

Is it possible that in an attempt to be more supportive of students, I am being less helpful?


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