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 3300 Lorraine
 Ann Arbor, MI  48108
 (734)997-1220 (Main)
  997-1223 (8th & 6th A-L)   997-1221 (7th & 6th M-Z)  (734)997-1885 FAX
 Gerald Vazquez, Principal

Student’s Reluctance to Seek Help With Schoolwork

Why do some students avoid asking for help in class when they need it? At some time during their educational career, all students will be confronted with situations when they need help in the classroom. Whether they are unsure about procedural issues, ie. how to complete an assignment, or confused about the lesson taught in class, ie. their answer differs from the teacher’s answer to a math problem, then students must decide whether to seek the help they know they need. When students do not seek this
help, they put themselves at a disadvantage for learning. During the recent group I conducted, with Kathy Doolittle, for 6th grade boys who had failed two (2) or more academic classes, one common theme rose to the forefront, ie. none of the boys would seek out academic help when they needed it. Since this is a rather common dilemma, especially among underachieving students, I’ve summarized the most recent research on this topic.

Help-seeking is an important self-regulatory strategy that contributes to learning. Inevitably, students
will encounter ambiguity or difficulty in their schoolwork and will need assistance. In such a situation it is adaptive for students to use others as a resource to secure the necessary help which will allow them to continue the learning process. The literature regarding help seeking suggests that “help avoidance” increases as students move on into middle school.
The 6th grade boys in our group said that they would either just “skip” the question or problem they didn’t understand, or “guess” by writing down any answer, rather than ask for help. When asked the reason they decided to “handicap” themselves by not asking for help, they responded that they feared either public reprimand from the teacher for “not paying attention” or the worry that “other kids would think I’m dumb”. In his book, Questioning and Teaching: A Manual of Practice, James Dillon writes, “95% of questions students’ have, never will be uttered”. Rather, he says, most students decide to keep quiet and pretend that they know and understand. Other students, however, who want to maintain a sense of autonomy will try to “figure it out for myself” before requesting help. Ryan and Pintrich discovered in their study, “Should I Ask For Help?  The Role of Motivation and Attitudes in Adolescents’ Help Seeking in Math Class” 1997, how many students worry about possible negative judgements from their classmates regarding their cognitive competence, ie. “I think the other kids will think I’m dumb if I say I don’t understand how to do it”. Students perceive requests for help as proof of low ability. However not asking for help becomes problematic since failure in classroom tasks also indicates low ability. Students who find themselves in this dilemma between exposing inadequacy by asking for help or exposing inadequacy thru failure will often adopt a “covert-avoidant” pattern of copying answers from a friend or right out of the textbook. In a study by Nelson-LeGall, “Academic
Help-Seeking and Peer Relations in School” 1985, he found that 83% of 7th graders would direct their
request for help toward peers compared to 17% who would seek out the teacher. The reason for this discrepancy was less public display of the need for help. Students also considered the reaction of the helper before they will ask a person for help.

Students’ ability to internally monitor their comprehension and determine their need for help increases with age. However, the student must also consider the “risks” involved to decide whether he actually asks for the help he needs. The need for help, Ryan & Pintrich found is often perceived by young adolescents as evidence of their lack of ability. Developmental characteristics of young adolescents’
include increased self-consciousness and sensitivity to social comparison, and an increased desire for autonomy and supportive relationships with both classmates and teachers. Students who are concerned about their social status or reputation are more likely to avoid seeking help. This is a particular concern for low achieving students who believe asking for help is yet another indication of their lack of cognitive competence. This desire to be popular influences the decision to seek help, depending on whether the student believes he/she is liked and respected by his/her classmates, since help seeking is a public behavior and often a threat to one’s peer status.
Feeling comfortable or skillful in relating to others lessens the perception that there will be a negative reaction from their asking for help. Students who believe they are socially competent are not likely to feel threatened by asking for help from others. This pattern, according to Ryan & Pintrich, highlights the importance of considering help seeking not just as an academic self-regulatory strategy , but also as a social interaction with others and recognizing as well that social competence can play a role in the dynamics of help seeking. The social structure of the classroom also factors into whether students will feel able or willing to ask for help. Classrooms characterized as caring, supportive, and friendly are likely to allow students to feel comfortable interacting with the teacher or other students. This classroom climate particularly benefited students who doubted their ability to succeed. Caring and responsive teachers appear to buffer students from inhibitions of help seeking.

Ryan, Gheen, and Midgley describe in the Journal of Educational Psychology ,1998; “Why Do some Students Avoid Asking For Help? An Examination of the Interplay Among Students’ Academic  Efficacy and Classroom Goal Structure”, how the classroom context exerts a powerful influence in shaping the goals students perceive to be of importance. The research on goal orientations indicates that the goal orientation students’ possess are important precursors to various motivational, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. There are several different labels attached to these goal orientations, ie. mastery, task, or learning goals (all of which describes a learning environment where students are focused on self-improvement, learning thru mistakes by taking on more challenging tasks, and continued mastery of the curriculum). In contrast, performance, ability, or ego goals emphasize competition and out-performing others, the importance of getting high grades, and public recognition for superior performance. The goal structure of a classroom is communicated to students in many ways, including the types of academic tasks they are given, how they are recognized and evaluated, and how they are encouraged to do their work. A mastery-focused classroom goal structure communicates to students that understanding, developing competence, and the intrinsic value of learning are the primary reasons for involvement in schoolwork. A performance-oriented classroom goal structure communicates  to students that getting good grades, demonstrating competence, and proving one’s ability relative to others is the purpose of school. In mastery-oriented classrooms students are more inclined to seek out help to gain mastery, while in performance-oriented classrooms students are likely to view the need for help as indicative of low ability and feel threatened with the prospect of asking for help.

The perception of help seeking as a dependent behavior competes with young adolescents’ desire for
autonomy and subsequently impedes many students asking for help when needed. There appears to be a relationship between a students’ sense of self-efficacy and help seeking behavior. Students who do not feel capable of doing well in school are the one’s most likely to avoid asking for help. Subsequently, the students who need the help the most, seek it the least.

Teachers who believe their responsibility is to attend to the social-emotional as well as academic needs
of students, reduce the likelihood that students will avoid seeking help. Also, cooperative group learning is explicitly designed to promote students’ collaborating with one another. When working collaboratively students experience a relative lack of social comparison and presumably less inhibition against help seeking. To the extent that teachers demonstrate that problems and uncertainty are a normal and even expected part of learning; students may recognize that it’s normal not to be able to solve all problems independently. Demonstrating to students that they deserve and should expect answers to their questions regarding academic problems, provides them a sense of empowerment and control in their own learning process and this may be especially important for African-American students.(R. Newman, “Children’s Help-Seeking in the Classroom: The Role of Motivational Factors and Attitudes” Journal of Educational Psychology 1990.)

Bill Moran  MA MSW


Ann Arbor Public Schools