November 11th, 2011

Getting Students to Ask for Help


I was on the first floor of a college library, needing to get to a teaching and learning center on the fifth floor and standing in front of two elevators, but for the life of me I couldn’t find the call button. There was the large panel with the instructions not to use the elevator in case of fire and various key holes for use in emergencies, but no button. I looked elsewhere, around the edges of both doors. Still no sign of a button.

I could see that one elevator was on the third floor and the other on the fifth, but neither was moving. Well, maybe someone else would come—not likely, it was just after 8 a.m. and not the time you’d expect to see a lot of student traffic in the library. The call button had to be somewhere … I must be losing my mind. Why couldn’t I see it? I was going to have to ask. Reluctantly I walked over to the check out desk and heard myself saying, “I know this is an incredibly stupid question, I’m sorry I have to ask, but where is the call button for the elevator?” The person pointed it out. I never felt more senile.

The experience reminded me of Stuart Karabenick’s (and colleagues’) excellent work on help-seeking. We often complain that students (particularly those who need it) don’t ask for help. Karabenick’s research and my experience make clear that it isn’t always easy to ask for help, and the stupider you feel or the more confused you are the more difficult it is to ask. In my case, I had to ask a student working at the check out desk. If you’re a student, you often have to ask the teacher, that venerable source of information who knows everything in the world about the material and thinks it easy! It takes courage to ask and we shouldn’t forget that.

Karabenick’s work (which includes a variety of studies, books and edited anthologies on the topic) verifies what we all suspect. The students who most need the help are not the ones most likely to ask for help. But his work establishes other interesting aspects of help-seeking. For example, the nature of the classroom itself affects the decision to ask for help as well as the kind of help sought. If it’s a classroom that emphasizes mastery goals, as in learning the material so it is really understood, students are more likely to seek help and they want help that goes beyond finding out the “right” answer. On the other hand, if it’s a classroom where students are regularly compared to and with other students, then students are less likely to seek help and what they want is not focused on understanding the material but finding the answers they need to out perform other students.

Of course, how the teacher raises the issue of getting extra help also makes a difference. Struggling students don’t need to be confronted in public. Embarrassment doesn’t make it easier to seek help. Better to convey the message privately with a note on the back page of the paper or exam, in an email or when you can talk to the student without others present. It also makes a difference when the teacher presents extra help as something beneficial for every one. There is always more to be learned and more ways to learn it. If you’re doing something well or have the potential to do it well, get some help and you may well excel.

Is sugar coating the message necessary? Yes, because it’s not about what you have to say; it’s about how you say it. Teachers have a responsibility to let students know that they are doing poorly in a course and need help. But that message can be delivered in ways that increase the likelihood that students will stop avoiding the issue and start getting the help they need. Just like bad tasting medicine, the sugar on the outside makes it much easier to take.

Here’s references to a couple of Karabenick’s studies of help-seeking in college classrooms.
Karabenick, S. A. (2004). Perceived achievement goal structure and college student help seeking. Journal of Education Psychology, 96 (3), 569-581.

Karabenick, S. A. (2003). Seeking help in large college classes: A person-centered approach. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23 (1), 37-58.