November 3rd, 2009

‘Help’ Sessions and Struggling Students


A recent study published in the Journal of College Science Teaching found that poor students did not attend optional help sessions scheduled just prior to three exams in an introductory biology course. I didn’t find the results surprising, and I’m thinking you won’t either. Typically it’s the best students who show up for review sessions (just like it’s often the best teachers who come to the teaching workshops). There is no need to excoriate them for showing up—they are good students because they take advantage of opportunities that help them learn the material.

The issue is the poor students who need to be there but aren’t. At the beginning of this course, students were asked if they intended to participate in the three help sessions, and 88 percent said that they did. Only 41 percent actually showed up. And in the two help sessions after the first exam, only 5 percent to 13 percent of the attendees were students in the D and F category. So those who most needed to be at the help sessions were not.

I suspect that Stuart Karabenick, who has devoted a significant amount of his career to studying the help-seeking behavior of students, would say that part of the problem here results from labeling these review sessions “help” sessions. If you aren’t doing well in a course, do you want everyone to know that you need help? If you are doing well in the course, then it’s fine to go to a help session. You know you don’t need help. But as we all know, admitting that you need help—to yourself and then to others—is a very hard first step.

And then there’s the matter of how these help sessions were structured. TAs (who knew biology but had no knowledge of the test) conducted the sessions. They did not lecture, but they answered questions. Can you ask questions when you are struggling with course content? I think you can ask for help in very broad, generic ways—“I don’t understand mitosis.” It may be that the worry that you might ask a “stupid” question will prevent you from asking any questions.

The way review sessions are designed makes a difference. In this case, faculty offered good students another chance to review the material and improve their understanding of it. They did not offer struggling students help in a format that responded to their more serious learning needs.

Reference: Jensen, P. A. and Moore, R. (2009). What do help sesssions accomplish in introductory science courses? Journal of College Science Teaching, (May/June), 60-64.

For a collection of articles on academic help seeking, see: Karabenick, S. A., and Newman, R. S., eds. Help Seeking in Academic Settings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations, 2006.