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Thread: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

  1. #1
    Crazy Cat Lady KevinWorkman's Avatar
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    Default The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    The gist:
    Spoon-feeding is NOT helping. It robs a person of the process of solving a problem by working through it, which is not only fun but is also a crucial skill to learn. Problem solving is much harder to learn than memorizing syntax. Even if a person looks through the syntax you provide, you’ve taken away the chance to practice problem solving, which will only make it harder for the person to solve the next problem. Spoon-feeding only makes you look like a newbie. If you actually want to help, a better way to do so is by helping people work through the problems (instead of simply posting the solution)- suggest breaking the problem up into smaller steps, or ask where they’re stuck. Spoon-feeding can lead to moderator action.

    The Problems with Spoon-feeding
    I was asked to write this a while ago, but then I got a bit sidetracked and honestly just forgot about the request until now, after noticing a few users offering spoon-fed answers.

    What is spoon-feeding?
    Before I get into the problems with spoon-feeding, I guess I should define what I mean when I use the term. Spoon-feeding is giving somebody a full solution before that person has really put a full effort into solving the problem. Helping somebody along with examples and links to tutorials is not spoon-feeding, but copying and pasting a complete code solution IS spoon-feeding. It’s not an exact science, and every situation is different, but it’s the difference between helping somebody with homework and doing homework for somebody- one is helpful, one is hurtful. Spoon-feeding is not helping.

    For example, say a person has a FizzBuzz assignment (print out numbers 1-100, but print out “fizz” instead of numbers that are multiples of 3 and print out “buzz” instead of numbers that are multiples of 5). Spoon-feeding would be if you wrote the program and copied and pasted it as a reply. A better way to start helping people is by asking which part of the program is giving them trouble, where they’re stuck, and what they’ve tried.

    What’s the problem with spoon-feeding?
    The problems with spoon-feeding are the same problems with taking a person’s homework and doing it for him or her. It doesn’t actually help the person learn, and it can actually lead to more serious situations down the road.

    Problem solving is fun, and offering full solutions robs people of that fun.
    Some people might feel the need to offer a full solution because they view the problem as interesting or a fun challenge. But if you think the problem is interesting or a fun challenge, maybe the OP does too. Offering a full solution is like ruining the ending of a movie or giving away the answer to a riddle too soon. Part of the fun of programming is the process of working through a problem and figuring things out, and spoon-feeding robs people of that process, which is extremely rude and not helpful at all. A better option is to give hints that the person can use to help solve the problem him/herself.

    Problem solving is extremely hard to teach (harder than memorizing syntax), so providing syntax as a solution is missing the point.
    Problem solving is not only fun, it’s one of the fundamental skills required to be a good programmer, and it’s one of the hardest to teach. Anybody can memorize syntax, but how do you learn how to work through a problem? The answer is by working through different kinds problems, over and over again. Offering a full solution before a person has worked through the problem is robbing the person of that process, and that prevents the person from becoming a good programmer. A better option is to help the person work through the process by suggesting breaking the problem up into smaller pieces or thinking about how a human would solve the problem in his or her head or with a pencil and a piece of paper.

    One can argue “but the person can look through my solution and learn from it”, which not only assumes that one’s answer is actually correct (see below), but is also misleading. Like I said above, anybody can memorize syntax, but the knowledge of how to use that syntax to solve problems is only learned by working through a problem, making mistakes, and realizing the uses of the language structures.

    Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.
    Given the FizzBuzz example, let’s say you provided the person with the full solution. Even if what you post is correct, and even if the user takes the time to understand the syntax, what happens during a test that asks the user to print out prime numbers or to calculate what coins add up to a certain change amount? All of those problems can be solved in similar ways, but the person would not understand the process of taking a question and turning it into syntax. And that would be your fault.

    Academic Dishonesty
    Not only does spoon-feeding rob a person of the fun and experience that comes with working through a problem, but it actually puts the user at risk. Downloading solutions from the internet is against most institutions’ academic dishonesty policies, which can result in failing the assignment or the course, or even being expelled. It might seem melodramatic, but I don’t want to be responsible for somebody being kicked out of school.

    Spoon-feeding does not impress anyone. There are other places to get practice.
    Another reason people might spoon-feed is because they feel the need to prove themselves. But if you want to prove yourself, keep in mind that the community of these forums judges you simply by helpful you are. Chances are, most of the regulars of any Java forum could have solved the problem but chose not to post a full answer, for all of the reasons outlined here. Offering the solution to simple programming assignments as if it was an impressive accomplishment is actually a sign of an inexperienced user. That’s not what these forums are for- check out Project Euler instead, or post a thread in the Café section of the forum asking for challenges. But when replying to a question, you should offer hints, examples, or links to tutorials instead of offering copy-pasted code.

    If you're spoon-feeding, chances are you're wrong.
    Given that most spoon-feeders are generally pretty inexperienced (oftentimes less experienced than the person asking the questions), I’m not exaggerating when I say that nine times out of ten, spoon-fed answers are actually incorrect. They almost always contain basic and obvious syntax or logical problems. This is obviously not helpful to the person who is receiving bad advice, misunderstanding important concepts, and probably handing in incorrect work, but it’s also bad for the forums. We have thousands of posts here and only a handful of moderators volunteering their time to answer questions and keep things organized, and it takes a very long time to correct bad advice. Also, if users come to the forums looking for an answer to a question and see that bad advice has been given, they’ll probably not trust other answers they see here.

    So what happens to spoon-feeders?
    There is a special place in hell reserved for them. Just kidding. Actually, all of the above being said, each situation is different, so it’s hard to make an all-encompassing rule about spoon-feeding. For example, when people are dealing with a bug (which is rare), offering workarounds in the form of full code might be okay. Or if a person has put forth enough effort and almost has the problem solved except for some basic syntax errors, fixing them might be fine. But for the most part, if something is obviously homework, posting full solutions is a bad idea. Each moderator is different, but I personally delete spoon-fed answers and will vote to ban users who continue spoon-feeding.

    This came out much longer than I planned, so kudos if you read the whole thing.
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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    im very new to java and i agree very much with this its hard to learn if someone just gives you the answer without you even knowing why the problem was happening or what the code that fixed it is doing. if you are spoon-fed then the only person its hurting is yourself...knowledge is power so why not gain as much of it as you can

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Thanks Kevin. This thread has been stuck and promoted to an Article in the official forum rules section.
    Please use [highlight=Java] code [/highlight] tags when posting your code.
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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Greetings,

    I absolutely agree with the rule!

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Hello.

    I am new to programming. I have been having a gripe with the book that I am learning intro programming through java on. Maybe it has something to do with the heretofore unknown to me concept of spoon-feeding in such a context.

    I am at such a basic level right now and there are so few examples, and I have such a lack of understanding in Java, that as I am doing my homework I am wondering, "What gives?"

    Is it somebody's idea of a joke? Just how big is the spoon-feeding debacle, or is it some sort of bizarre left-brain-peen going on... this isn't art/creative work in respect to its being undefined.

    Not to give anybody grief or anything... just tossing my two cents.

    IMO, getting people on track is more important than, what seems to me, reinventing the wheel. A person can learn through imitation and repetition quite well so long as they understand how to play...

    The problem that I have to solve is how to use my time effectively! I guess I should set up my own rudimentary exercises so that I can drill the little intricacies of java into my head...

    There must be some phenomenon going on because I definitely caught it from the book and it also explains why people struggle so much with programming...

    maybe one day I will write a java book...after all the other books that I need to write... or if we ever figure out how to contribute on a massive scale and organize the internet better.. tax code, etc...

    they need to present code in smaller simpler ways that allow people to learn the basics. Drill students on multiple choice and matching things together so that we can learn how to do the simple stuff...

    /rant

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    I definitely understand how you feel, especially because that feeling of "why isn't there just a simple example of how to do this?" doesn't go away after you're "done" with the basics. I think many programmers (and maybe other technical fields) have a mindset that goes something like "this was hard for me, so it should be hard for you" that stops people from saying "here, this is how you do it, in an easy step-by-step guide". I think that's unfortunate, but that's not what I'm advocating here.

    Showing example code is absolutely fine, just like showing somebody similar math problems would be okay if you were helping somebody with their math homework. But you wouldn't just do all the person's homework for them, would you? That's the point of this article.

    I'd love to discuss this with you more, but the gist is this: doing somebody's work for them doesn't actually help them, especially because a huge portion of the point of the work is to learn how to solve problems. Showing similar examples, syntax, similar problems, etc. are all fine. But saying "here's how you do it" prevents the person you're trying to help from actually learning anything.
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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Just an aside on creativity...

    Not only is the craft of coding, creative (I'm aware of this only dimly, not being a "real" programmer), but learning that craft - or learning anything - is deeply, fundamentally, creative. Learning doesn't create a sculpture or a concerto; it creates an understanding.

    It is because creativity involves the practice or exercise of an art (here the art of reasoning and analysis) that spoonfeeding is so basically pointless.

    Of course, once you have understood something there is a strong sense that the understanding was "out there" all the time. So couldn't some more well informed soul simply have told us teh answer? Have given us the understanding? But such a view overlooks the fact that we aren't machines whose actions are programmed: we are people whose understanding is developed. Back, then, to practice and exercise and the essentially creative aspect of gaining understanding.

    This isn't to say that we can't be helped! Pointed in the right direction, or have our attention drawn to some detail we have overlooked. But the understanding is ours to create: it is not "out there", but something we create to impose order on and make use of what we find.

    -----

    Our society is not good at recognising this aspect of learning. (Perhaps is it fearful of creativity in general?) Rather, we are encouraged to be good consumers of merchandise and not to think too much of its origin. We are members of some gigantic cargo cult. If we aspire to understanding, we are encouraged to believe it will take the form of having the mysteries of some priestly technocaste revealed to us.

    Education (I ought to give the word sneer quotes), especially, plays its part. Its sleight of hand subtly replaces understanding with degrees and diplomas and learning with correct answers to assignments and tests. The mighty unifying power of understanding is replaced by so many fragmented "learning outcomes". Little wonder we end up feeling that we can buy, beg or steal understanding the way we might a loaf of bread.

    -----

    I don't mean to sound jaded, though! There are far too many people on forums like this asking questions and giving help for that. People engaged in the creative dialogue that accompanies experiment to produce learning.

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Thanks for showing me this.

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Thank you very much, I see what I need to do. It seems hard but I will try.

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Z

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Ok

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Well, some people just want to be spoon fed...

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    I understood the spoon-feeding problem....and i assure i will not repeat this...

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    Default Re: The Problem with Spoon-feeding

    Sometimes I've been a victim of spoon-feeding.. This article helps me not to do it again.. Thanks.