This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on March 29, 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
After teaching statistics classes for more than 25 years and seeing so many students struggling to be successful, I became increasingly frustrated by the fact that no matter how much I believed myself to be approachable, available, and willing to help students outside of class, very few took advantage of the opportunity. I began to wonder not only what barriers existed between me and my students but also how to investigate those barriers and seek solutions.
Students are often reluctant to seek academic help from their instructors, despite the fact that many of them could benefit from the help. Teachers are being encouraged to develop supportive relationships with students, and most are willing to do so. In the case of students seeking help, what we need is clear information about those teacher characteristics that motivate students to ask.
The probability of student help-seeking behavior is a function of several independent and interacting factors that include qualities of the student, instructor, and environment. To better understand the student perspective, we recruited 75 undergraduate students (20 men, 55 women; median age = 20) from a medium-size public university in the mid-South to participate in small focus groups. We asked students three questions about what encouraged and discouraged them from seeking help from professors. Questions one and two solicited open-ended responses by asking student to “describe the factors that keep you from seeking help from professors outside of class,” and to “describe the factors that make it easier for you to seek help from professors outside of class.” After discussion of those questions, we asked for responses to a third question: “Reflect on professors you’ve had in college and on the discussion we just had, and rank the top five reasons you believe students find it difficult to seek help from professors.”
Top ten barriers and facilitators to seeking help (responses to questions 1 and 2 respectively)
- Time / Professor has good personality
- Office hours / Professor uses and answers email
- Professor attitude / Professor is encouraging
- Intimidation / Professor cares
- Don’t want to feel stupid / Professor is inviting and open
- Professor approachability / Professor is willing or eager to help
- Don’t know what to ask / Professor has many and flexible office hours
- Professor doesn’t keep office hours / Professor gives their phone number
- Work schedule / Professor has accessible office hours
- Laziness / Professor knows students and their names
Top ten reasons students find it difficult to seek help from professors (responses to question 3)
- Professor’s personality
- Office hours
- Time issues
- Professor doesn’t care about student
- Professor’s approachability
- Professor doesn’t reiterate to visit him/her
- Class difficulty
- Going won’t help
Responses to all three questions included some student factors (e.g., laziness, fears of intimidation or appearing stupid) and some environmental factors (e.g., time issues). In order to overcome time conflicts that may limit face-to-face interaction, we should consider how electronic tools such as cell phones, e-mail, discussion boards, chat rooms, video chatting, and course-management websites can make us more accessible.
However, instructor factors dominated the responses to our questions. Student perceptions of instructor qualities serve as the primary barriers and facilitators that determine students’ likelihood of seeking academic help. This is interesting because help-seeking is a behavior initiated by the student—we can’t help them unless they ask. For that reason, it likely represents a form of self-serving bias in explaining the attributions for their own lack of initiative. Whatever the explanation, the findings suggest that instructors have a significant impact on whether or not students take advantage of the help teachers can provide. Those of us who care and are committed to helping students should be cognizant of the things that we can do to break down the barriers and facilitate student help-seeking behavior.
We gathered from what these focus groups reported that the most effective and direct way for instructors to encourage students to seek help is an honest review of our behaviors and a willingness to adapt our teaching styles so that we appear more transparent and accommodating to students. In truth, most of us are available, approachable, and ready to provide help. We just need to constantly remind ourselves to regularly communicate these qualities to our students. It is easy to forget and just assume that students know they can ask us for help. It’s also easy to forget how vulnerable students feel when they are struggling with the material. It is, after all, a bit embarrassing to have to ask for help, especially when you feel totally confused and think you will look foolish in front of the professor. Student trust and awareness of our willingness to help will grow if we regularly reveal our desire to do so. When students do come for help and we provide it, that makes it easier to ask next time. It also increases the likelihood that students will invest more time and effort in the course. And who knows? If they get the help they need, they may just encourage others in the class to ask.
William J. Lammers, PhD, is a professor at the University of Central Arkansas.