Why Students Don’t Ask for Help, and What You Can Do About It

Academic advisers, be they professionals who do advising full-time or faculty, can do much to enhance a student’s experience in college. But students never benefit unless they seek out advisers. In surveys, students acknowledge the importance of receiving advice, but many do not receive it—34 percent in one survey reported that never during their academic careers had they met with an adviser. As seniors, only 19 percent reported that they had met three or more times with an adviser.

What factors influence a student’s decision to seek advice from advisers? The answers are not surprising. Students seek help when they get positive information about help opportunities—for example, how attending a review session will benefit their performance on an exam. First experiences getting help are predictive of follow-up requests for help.

Sometimes cultural background and gender are factors—for example, students not part of a majority group may be less likely to seek help, especially if they feel isolated and “different.” Men sometimes find it more difficult than women do to admit needing help. And, sometimes the students most in need of help are the least likely to request it. They fear what others will think of them, that they are “bothering” a busy faculty member, and what seeking help will say about their abilities and likelihood of success.

For some kinds of advice, students are more likely to turn to their peers. One study found that students preferred peers when they needed developmental advice (such as how to study), long-term career planning, and careers options. They preferred faculty for advice on institutional policies and personal issues (such as health).

What can faculty do to encourage students to take advantage of all the academic advice institutions make available to them? Here’s a quick list for ready reference and to get you started:

  • Talk in class about help services available to students.
  • Present getting help as an important, expected part of the learning process.
  • Create a supportive, positive classroom environment.
  • Emphasize collaboration more and competition less. Competitive learning environments that pit student against student in the quest for grades have been shown to adversely impact decisions about getting help.
  • When poorly performing students seek help, focus on the skills that with practice and effort can modify subsequent performance.

Most of us grouse about those students who won’t come for help and those advisees we never meet. Most of us have thought very little about the reasons why and are surprised to learn that this area has been the subject of considerable research—all with implications for practice in the classroom.

Reference: Karabenick, S. A., and Newman, R. S. (eds.). Help Seeking in Academic Settings: Goals, Groups and Contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006.

Excerpted from Help! Students Who Need It; Students Who Seek It, The Teaching Professor, May 2006.