As an instructor, it might be tempting to measure the success of student visits by how quickly you can provide a correct answer—but excelling at this particular metric might come at the cost of a student building their own ability to answer similar questions in the future. The 5G framework1 for student consultations not only offers a structure for answering a variety of student questions, but is a tool that can be used to build a student’s future success as well as providing a way to measure the outcomes of consultations. It consists of the five following steps:
Setting the tone for the consultation
Setting an appropriate tone is an important first step when meeting with a student one-on-one. Coming to see you might have taken a significant amount of courage on the student’s part (as learners, we all live in fear that we’ll be told our own question is stupid by an expert). Additionally, you might be responsible for a large enough class that while this individual is familiar to you, you might not know much about them. It would then make sense to take some time to establish some form of rapport—that is getting on the same “wavelength” as the student. Some steps that you can take to get there can include:
- Introducing yourself and reminding yourself of their name
- Assuming the student wants to learn and improve
- Clearly defining your role
- Expressing an intent to understand students’ point of view (by putting yourself in their shoes)
- Being professional and avoiding sarcasm
Granted, given the “rules” of being a reasonable human being, these steps may seem obvious. But if we consider the vulnerability that a student might face coming to visit you and the status (and power) you hold as a teaching assistant or instructor, its worth making these points explicit as we know that setting the appropriate tone is an important factor in student learning2.
How you can help?
At this point in the consultation, you can see your role as helping the student clearly state the nature and scope of their problem while also working with them to set a realistic goal to meet that “solves” why they came to visit.
It can be very easy, especially as someone who is competent with the material that the student is learning, to see and identify the nature of the problem for the student. This approach can short-circuit the student’s own opportunity to learn: as new learners themselves, they might lack the ability to pull all the components of the problem together. By giving them time to identify the problem and critique their own work first (even if the diagnosis is wrong) will help you understand the construct they’re working with.
It can be helpful here to use active learning strategies and repeat the problem back to the student (e.g.: “If I understand clearly, your problem is…”) to check your own understanding. At this stage, you can continue to build rapport by identifying your own experiences (even challenges you faced as a learner) related to the material.
The act of active problem solving
With the problem clearly outlined by the student and a goal set, you can now work to actively engage the student in a process of active problem solving by asking probing questions to help them uncover a solution. Asking these questions can also act to build the metacognitive capacity of the student as it provides them with a series of questions they can ask and answer when facing a similar unknown in the future. Ask:
Given what they know about their problem (as outlined in the “get” step):
- What information do they already have?
- What information do they need to solve the problem?
- Where can they find this information?
- How will they use this information to solve the problem?
- How will they check to see if they have solved the problem correctly?
Students could be on a threshold of understanding and only need a small nudge, or might need significantly more help. Acting as a consultant, you can gauge the student’s ability to answer the questions and provide more or less direction accordingly. The goal at the stage would be to push the student to the edge of their comfort level3 in solving the problem while not frustrating them.
Do they get it?
At this point in the consultation, you now have the opportunity to engage the student in discussion and check for understanding. To review a student’s level of understanding, you could ask them to explain the solution back to you (testing for conceptual knowledge) or, at a more sophisticated level, ask them to apply their knowledge by answering a new question.
In gauging a student’s current understanding, you’re also answering for yourself if you have achieved the goal you set out earlier in the consult and, more broadly, if the student is more confident in their ability to approach the problem. If the answer to either is no, then you have the opportunity to cycle back to the “get” stage to re-assess where their comprehension now lies.
What should they do next?
Finally, the 5G framework closes with the development of a plan of action going forward. While the term plan might sound formal, really what you want to leave the student with is a notion of what they should do next and how they should go about evaluating their success. While that evaluation might most obviously be the completion of some kind of assignment, you could consider offering a lower-stakes (e.g. ungraded) assessment to test their understanding and build confidence.
I would argue that the 5G framework is effective because it: 1) builds rapport and empathy with the student; 2) build the student’s metacognitive abilities to answer future “unknown” questions through active problem solving and; 3) offers a way to assess if the student has met their own objective (and in turn, if you have met yours). In using this framework, and as you build your own confidence in answering student questions, you’ll have a structure that you can build on and adapt to make your own.
- The 5G framework draws its inspiration from a framework outlined on page 53 in Nyquist, J. D., & Wulff, D. H. (1996). Working effectively with graduate assistants. Thousands Oaks: Sage Publications. It was my colleague, Dr. Natasha Kenny, who made me aware of Nyquist & Wulff’s work, so a tip-of-the-hat to her as well. [↩]
- There is a body of literature that demonstrates how emotions are related to academic achievement; in short, feeling good about learning is correlated with an increased motivation for learning. For more information, see: Villavicencio, F. T., & Bernardo, A. B. I. (2013). Positive academic emotions moderate the relationship between self-regulation and academic achievement. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(2), 329-340. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2012.02064.x [↩]
- This, in the learning literature is pushing the student into their “zone of proximal development”; a concept attributed to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. When a learner is “in the zone”, they’re supported (by you, the “expert”, through feedback) to bridge into an otherwise unreachable area and solve their problem. As researchers have outlined, instructor questions can help to establish and consolidate a learner’s understanding. [↩]