Why Students Ask–or Don’t Ask–for Help

By Sarah D. Sparks, American Educator, Winter 2014-15

In a typical classroom, there are those students who raise their hands constantly and others who try to overhear the teacher’s response to other students’ questions without ever asking their own…. These behaviors can tell educators…a lot about what a student thinks about learning, his or her engagement,…and the student’s confidence….

That makes help-seeking behaviors uniquely useful as educators look for ways to improve not just students’ test scores but the deeper “academic mindsets”—among them, perseverance, intellectual curiosity, and a “growth mindset”….

To get help successfully, a student has to understand that he or she has a problem, decide whether and whom to ask for help, do so clearly, and process the help that’s given, says Stuart A. Karabenick, a professor…at the University of Michigan School of Education….

[Student help-seeking] can depend on the subject, the classroom context, and the student’s personality. “The term ‘help-seeking’ suggests a deficit, but we need students to think of this as managing resources to solve a problem,” Karabenick says. “You are always in the process of learning, and therefore you never know as much as you should. One has to learn the skills to acquire the knowledge you need.”…

Afraid to Ask

Help-seeking is both academic and social in nature. Adolescents look at their classroom as an academic and social minefield,” [says Sarah Kiefer, associate professor of educational psychology, University of South Florida]. As students move from elementary to middle and high school, the costs of looking foolish in front of their teacher and classmates start to weigh heavily in their decisions about how and when to get help.

One 2012 study…found that as children got older, they became less likely to ask classmates for help in understanding concepts, but far more likely to get “expedient” help—like copying homework.

Similarly, in a forthcoming study of sixth-grade girls, Kiefer…found that students were often reluctant to ask for help from others who were more popular than they were or who were perceived to be at the top of the class…. It was just “too risky” socially.

Expedient help “is not cheating exactly,” Kiefer says, “but [students] are like, ‘I just want to get the homework done.’ It’s less threatening to their self-efficacy and self-worth” than to admit they don’t understand the lesson….

Kiefer’s research has found that students from low-income and working-class families are often taught that they should not “bother” the teacher by asking for help, while middle-class students are often taught to be “squeaky wheels” and ask for help aggressively. While teachers often appreciated the working-class students’ politeness and patience, they were also more likely to overlook them in favor of giving help to the more assertive students from better-off backgrounds….

“We have to figure out what are students really striving for in the classroom, not just academically but also socially?” Kiefer says. “If you can take away the mindset that ‘I don’t want to look like a loser,’ and promote a growth mindset, that’s huge.”

When Helping Hurts

If students who actively ask for help get more support in the long term, does that mean students will learn more if they all become squeaky wheels? Not necessarily: too much help can hurt as much as too little. “Too often, we don’t give students the opportunity to make sense by themselves,” says Ido Roll, a researcher at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at the University of British Columbia….

Roll also suggests that low-skilled students may not have enough prior knowledge to understand high-level help. Think of giving dining suggestions to two people—a native of your city and a visitor. The native, like [a high-skills student], understands the layout and traffic of the city enough to benefit from somewhat convoluted, backroads directions to the hot new hole in the wall. The visitor, like [a] low-skill student, might be more confused by your insider knowledge and would benefit more from either a longer, straighter path to the restaurant or the opportunity to stroll around and explore a restaurant district.

“Too often, we are adding cognitive load when we give help,” Roll says, because the information provided by a teacher…often still requires a basic level of understanding of the subject, which a student may not have. “I’m all for giving help, but giving help is not telling you what to do,” Roll says. “It’s giving resources to help you make sense of it yourself.”

That can be challenging, even for experienced teachers. “Teachers may not know why students don’t ask for help,” Karabenick says. “It may be that ‘I don’t know what I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t know how to ask,’ ‘I’m afraid to ask,’ or ‘I just don’t need help.’ ” “One of the major skills a teacher needs,” he says, “is to be able to distinguish among these.”…


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