Why Don't More Students Ask For Help

Academic InsightWhy Don't More Students Ask For Help

October 19, 2021

“Speak up” or “raise your hand if you need help” is easier said than done. Although teachers urge their students to ask for help if they are stuck or don’t fully understand, numerous factors may keep learners from doing so when they need it.

Student perceptions of help-seeking

Many of us may avoid asking for help because we see it as a sign of weakness. In the classroom context, worries around competence can be especially powerful barriers. Educational psychologist Allison M. Ryan of the University of Michigan and her colleagues observe that students may perceive that asking for help means they aren’t capable or smart, which can be damaging to their self-image. This perception can be especially potent for students who have had lower academic achievement.

On top of this, asking for help involves recognizing that you need support and then expressing this to someone else, sometimes publicly (i.e. raising your hand in class). In this way, asking for help is “both academic and social in nature” and adolescents in particular see their classroom as “an academic and social minefield,” says Sarah Kiefer, a University of South Florida professor who also studies help-seeking behaviors. Students may not ask for help for fear of looking incompetent to others, including their teachers and their peers.

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Why help-seeking matters

Helping students push past these worries and develop confidence in seeking assistance is crucial. Researchers note that “help-seeking” is an important strategy for learning and growth. Beyond simply enabling students to succeed in discrete, immediate tasks, encouraging students’ help-seeking behaviors can cultivate productive long-term habits.

Elsewhere on Yup’s blog we have written about the value of cultivating a growth mindset - the belief that your abilities are not fixed but can grow through effort. Seeking help is a key element in developing this mindset and growing as a learner. In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck quotes a seventh-grade student who seemed to implicitly understand this:

“‘Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.’”

How do teachers help or hinder help-seeking

If students are able to internalize the value of help-seeking over perceived risks, that still does not necessarily mean they will take action and seek help.

Time is an obvious potential impediment, if teachers aren’t available right at the moment students need support. Research shows that other dimensions of the learning environment, however, can encourage or discourage help. For instance, in her survey of research on this subject, Allison Ryan notes that middle school students often referred in interviews to classroom norms and rules like “no talking during seatwork” as reasons they did not seek help. Student perceptions around the culture of the classroom are impactful, too, as a 1998 study showed: “In classrooms where students perceived that the focus was on understanding, mastery, and the intrinsic value of learning—compared to classrooms where the focus was on competition and proving one’s ability—students were less likely to avoid seeking help with their work when they needed it.”

Stuart Karabenick, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who wrote extensively about help-seeking, encouraged teachers to explicitly teach help-seeking behaviors in their classroom. He also urged them to be mindful of the impact of their own behaviors, like rushing to answer a complex question from a student, rather than giving it full consideration; this may decrease their habits of asking questions in the future.

"Your actions communicate how seriously you take seeking help,” Karabenick affirmed. “That's what [students] pay attention to."

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How Yup removes barriers to seeking help

Yup takes help-seeking seriously, and our Math Learning Support system responds to the challenges students face in seeking support.

Barrier to help-seekingHow Yup can help
*Personal and social concerns -* I don't want other people to think I'm not capable and need helpAnonymity - Students work independently with a Yup tutor via our chat-based platform in a secure, private, and comfortable environment
*Logistical concerns -* Time is an issue and help isn't available when I need it*Accessibility and flexibility -* Through Yup, students can access expert tutors 24/7, and Yup tutors work with the students for as long as they need.
*Intimidation -* I'm nervous about asking my teacher for help beyond class time because I know they have lots of other responsibilities.*Approachability -* Yup tutors are eager to help, that's why they are here! Empathy, alongside pedagogy and precision, is a key pillar of our teaching framework and we train and evaluate our tutors to ensure they make students feel heard and supported.

Administrators and Teachers: Explore how Yup can serve as a supportive space for your students to get the help they need. Contact partnerships@yup.com to learn more about bringing Yup to your school or district.

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