GPS Syndrome

A term I made up and have been using for a while is "GPS syndrome." And it turns out that enough people have picked up this term that I feel like I need to post an "official" definition. I most commonly use the metaphor when talking about and with teaching assistants (TAs) that overhelp students. So this blog post is mostly from a google doc I wrote for new TAs for one of their training sessions.


"Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility for the learning process to the student." (source)

The definition of GPS syndrome using education terminology is "When a teacher provides scaffolding to a student but does not fade it appropriately over time, therefore, leaving it there for too long. This results in a student that cannot function without the scaffolding."

I call it GPS syndrome from the idea that there are places that I have driven to many times, but I still need the GPS every time to help me get there. I cannot actually get to the place without it.

The same idea applies, but it is when the student cannot get to the answer on their own because they have only learned how to do it with help and prompting from the teacher.

Teacher Motivation

As teachers, our motivation is in the right place where we want to do everything we can to help the student. So we are often over-eager to give help. However, providing too much help will short circuit the student's own ability to help themselves. So this is a case of needing to exercise tough love.

Therefore as teachers, our goal is to properly fade the scaffolding for a student, such that they do not have GPS syndrome. A student cannot get GPS syndrome if a teacher refuses to provide more help than the student needs at the time.

Think of your goal as guiding them through the forest, not teleporting them to each milestone until they reach the destination.

Student Motivation

It is important to note that many students do not realize that they are asking for more help than they need. Why they are asking for that help can vary greatly. In my personal experience, there are a handful of students that feel entitled to help, but many have so little confidence in their abilities that they give up too quickly or need constant reassurance.

Your job as a teacher is to recognize which is happening. Be tough on the entitled students and build confidence in the fearful students. And in all of the students, guide them to develop their own skills to answer their own questions.

Common ways students ask for too much help

Here are common tactics students use to get more help than they necessarily need. The following section lists potential ways to react. The student's motivation and attitude will partially dictate how you react.

  1. Asking a question they should know the answer to given the part of the solution they have.
    1. "What is this variable for?"
    2. "Why is there an if statement here?"
  2. Stating something obvious and then asking what the next step should be.
    1. "I know I need to loop through the list, but what do I do with it as I'm looping?"
  3. Using the teacher as a correctness verifier
    1. “[Correct statement], right?”

Ways to respond to students

  1. Humor usually helps a lot
    1. "I don't know, what do you think? You will learn more if you commit to an answer first and then I help you figure out if you are right." - obviously, I know the answer, but I want them to take a stab at it
    2. "You wrote the code, right? What does that variable do?"
    3. "I am not an answering machine, what do you think the answer is first?"
    4. "How about you try and tell me what you think is the answer before I help. I won't always be around after all."
  2. Respond with a tactic they should employ so they could answer their own question
    1. “Have you done enough instances of the problem, so you think you understand what it’s asking for?” - Step 1 of the 7-steps
    2. “Of the instances you have, do you see a pattern emerging?” - Step 3 of the 7-steps
    3. “What’s an instance you haven’t done yet? Do your steps work for it?” - Step 4 of the 7-steps
    4. "Have you tried googling it?"
      1. Watch them google it and provide guidance on helpful keywords to use if they aren't using good ones
      2. See which link they click on:
        1. If it's a good one, say nothing
        2. If it's an unhelpful one, see if they figure that out on their own, eventually get them back to the search page and suggest a different link that would be useful and tell them how you knew
    5. "That might have fixed it, let's run the tests and find out."
    6. If it's an error message: "Let's read this message carefully to figure out what could be going on." Point out by asking them or explaining it yourself depending on the student's ability:
      1. Where the error is happening
      2. What the error name means
      3. What the message means
  3. Give the student time to think about it
    1. "How about you think about this for a bit, while I go help someone else? I'll be back in about 5 minutes."
      1. When I was a grad TA, I made a practice of leaving my water bottle with that student to ensure I go back, and to make clear to them, I'm obviously going to come back.
  4. Step away from the student's code
    1. If the student has half the answer, but it is clear that they don't even understand the part they have. Ask, "please explain to me what you think is going on here."
      1. If they can't: "Let's put aside the code you have right now and think about the bigger picture by using the 7-steps."
        1. Then refocus on a piece of paper, ignoring what is on their screen.
      2. If they can, they have probably answered their own question, and you can move forward
    2. Sometimes students will fixate on their code or some less relevant part of it too much. Stepping away helps break them out of it.


So what do you all think? Agree? Disagree? Nuances you feel are important that I didn't have? Any more ideas on how to help students?

This is a phenomenon that I articulated before I had a lot of education knowledge. The education terminology definition came after, so I think some of my thinking on it hasn't caught up with my education knowledge. I'd be happy to continue discussions on it to help refine my own thinking.


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