Jacqueline von Spiegel
Program Manager for the Dennis Learning Center, Ohio State University
To be successful in college, students often need to seek help from others when they encounter academic challenges. With help, college students can overcome academic challenges, improve their learning, and work more efficiently (Järvelä, 2011). Furthermore, seeking help when needed is an adaptive skill that students can use beyond graduation.
Although help-seeking is an effective learning strategy, many college students are reluctant to ask for help. Help-seeking is a complex process requiring emotional, social, and cognitive competencies that college students may not have fully developed (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Additionally, the potential costs of asking for assistance may deter many college students from using this strategy (Karabenick, 2003). College faculty and staff are poised to help students meet academic challenges and advocate for themselves by scaffolding students through the process of academic help-seeking. By creating supportive college cultures and encouraging students to regulate their own learning, student affairs professionals can facilitate the development of help-seeking skills in their students (Collins & Sims, 2006). This article will provide an overview of academic help-seeking, discuss some of the reasons behind students’ reluctance to seek academic help, and suggest ways for student affairs professionals to support students’ help-seeking skill development.
Overview of Academic Help-Seeking
Academic help-seeking is a learning strategy through which students seek information or assistance from others that they cannot provide for themselves to meet academic goals (Karabenick & Dembo, 2011; Pintrich & Zusho, 2007; Ryan et al., 2001). Academic help-seeking often takes place within the classroom, as students may ask instructors or classmates to help them understand the course content or the requirements of an assignment. In college, students often seek help outside of the classroom from tutors, academic coaches, advisors, and mentors, among other higher education professionals.
Academic Help-Seeking as a Learning Strategy
Although help-seeking involves reaching out to others, it is an individual learning strategy within the self-regulated learning framework (Karabenick & Dembo, 2011). Self-regulated learning (SRL) is a self-directed process of actively engaging with one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to achieve personal learning goals (Dent & Koenka, 2016). In the SRL framework, learners engage in three phases while learning: prepare to complete the task (planning phase), work on the task (performance phase), and evaluate the process after the task is finished (reflection phase; Zimmerman, 2000).
Planning Phase of SRL. Before starting a learning task, self-regulated learners seek to clearly understand the task requirements, set goals, and make a plan to achieve their goals (Dent & Koenka, 2016). They also must have sufficient motivation to start and complete the learning task. Students may be motivated by an intrinsic interest in the task, an external reward, or a belief that they will be successful at the task (Pintrich & Zusho, 2007).
Performance Phase of SRL. When self-regulated learners begin to work on the task, they maintain self-awareness and control of their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and context (Kim et al., 2020; Zimmerman, 2000). During this phase, students employ learning strategies to help them learn effectively and efficiently. Learning strategies are specific methods that students use learn, including strategies to improve comprehension, focus, motivation, or time management (Wolters et al., 2005; Wolters & Brady, 2020). Effective learners are knowledgeable of and proficient at a wide variety of strategies and maintain flexibility in strategy use. Deciding which strategies will be effective varies based on the task, student, and learning environment. Self-regulated learners also monitor their progress, allowing for adjustment and adaptation of strategies during the task (Pintrich & Zusho, 2007).
Reflection Phase of SRL. After the learning task is complete, students evaluate whether they reached their goals and consider reasons for the outcome. These self-evaluations often lead to emotional reactions, which can affect how the student approaches the task in the future. For example, if a student fails an exam, they may see the failure as a reflection of their intelligence, which could lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and frustration. Thus, when approaching the next exam, the student may avoid studying due to their negative emotions attached to the previous experience. SRL is a cyclic and dynamic process, as effective learners adapt their strategies to improve their performance with each new attempt at learning (Pintrich & Zusho, 2007; Zimmerman, 2000).
Academic Help-Seeking within SRL Framework
Academic help-seeking is often categorized as a strategy that is enacted during the performance phase of SRL (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). For example, a student may ask their instructor a question during an exam. However, students can seek help from others during the planning and reflection phases as well. For example, a student may reach out to their advisor or coach to help them create a study plan for finals, or they may ask their mentor or tutor to help them reflect on their experience with writing a paper so they can make adjustments for their next attempt. Student affairs professionals may be more appropriate targets than instructional faculty for seeking help It is important to be encourage discussions of planning and reflection with students to help them develop their SRL skills, including academic help-seeking.
The Academic Help-Seeking Process
Help-seeking is not simply a single act, but a complex process involving multiple decision points. Researchers describe the help-seeking process as having eight stages (Karabenick & Berger, 2013; Karabenick & Dembo, 2011):
- Determine whether there is a problem
- Determine whether help is needed/wanted
- Decide whether to seek help
- Decide on the type of help needed/wanted
- Decide whom to ask
- Solicit help
- Obtain help
- Process the help received
The stages of the help-seeking process can be mapped onto the SRL framework (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Stages 1 to 5 are part of the planning phase, as the student prepares to seek help, Stages 6 and 7 are akin to the performance phase, as the student asks for help and receives assistance, and Stage 8 is the reflection phase, as the student reviews the experience. As with the SRL framework, this is a cyclical process, and the final stage informs the help-seeking decisions the student makes in the future.
Although it is presented as a linear process, the steps may not take place in order. Additionally, some steps may be below the awareness of the student (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). When students struggle with seeking help, they may not be able to identify where in the process the breakdown occurred. Student affairs professionals can support students’ development of help-seeking skills by using these steps to identify potential barriers to help-seeking and guiding students through the process.
Benefits of Academic Help-Seeking
Academic help-seeking is related to positive outcomes for students beyond the completion of specific academic challenges. Students who engage in adaptive academic help-seeking tend to have higher academic performance (Horowitz et al., 2013; Karabenick, 2003; Kitsantas & Chow, 2007; Ryan et al., 1997; Ryan et al., 2005). This finding may be counter-intuitive to many college students who believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. However, research finds that students who are more proactive, efficient, and resourceful tend to seek help when needed (Karabenick & Knapp, 1991). Help-seeking can also increase students’ sense of belonging in college and improve their relationships with faculty and staff (Schwartz et al., 2018). Additionally, seeking help when needed an adaptive skill that students will use throughout their lives. In this view, help-seeking skills themselves are a valued outcome of a college education.
Obstacles to Academic Help-Seeking
Adaptive help-seeking is beneficial for student development and success, but students are often reluctant to ask for help (Karabenick & Knapp, 1991; Robbins et al., 2009). The realization that help is needed can be emotionally and cognitively difficult (Ryan et al., 2001). Seeking help requires students to admit their struggles not only to themselves, but to the person from whom they are requesting assistance (Karabenick & Dembo, 2011). Additionally, students must be sufficiently motivated to ask for help.
Beyond the admission of the need for help and the motivation to seek help, students must know how to formulate the help request and know how to find a willing helper. Clearly, help-seeking is a complex process that requires students to be cognitively, socially, and emotionally competent (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). In this section, I will review the eight stages of the help-seeking process and identify potential barriers to help-seeking.
Stage 1: Determine whether there is a problem
For students to engage in help-seeking behaviors, they must first determine whether there is a problem (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Some researchers have described this as perplexity, “a state of puzzlement or uncertainty that arises when there is a discrepancy between personal knowledge and new information or expectations” (Ryan et al., 2001, p. 95). To reach the perplexity state, the student must monitor their own thoughts, often referred to as metacognition (Pintrich & Zusho, 2007). If a student is overconfident when judging their capabilities to complete a task, they are not likely to engage in help-seeking, simply because they do not perceive a problem (Dent & Koenka, 2016). Although the student does not realize that they need help during the learning task, the outcome may make the need for assistance more salient, although it would be too late to seek help at that point.
How can we help?
One method of improving students’ help-seeking skills is through SRL interventions. Support programs and study skills courses centered on SRL skill development produced increased metacognitive awareness and improved help-seeking skills (Wilbrowski et al., 2017). Student affairs professionals could help students be better help-seekers by promoting individual or group programs designed to increase metacognitive awareness and SRL skills.
Stage 2: Determine whether help is needed/wanted
Once a problem is detected, students must decide if they can solve the problem themselves or if they need assistance (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Some students have a strong desire to achieve their goals on their own, as a sense of autonomy (Ryan et al., 2001). Students may want to complete tasks on their own because they believe that completing the task independently means they are stronger or more capable. They may also feel they will learn more without relying on help. Alternatively, students may determine that they do not want help because they see it as a threat to their competence. In other words, students do not ask for help because they do not want to appear to others that they are unintelligent or incompetent (Ryan et al., 2001; Shim et al., 2016). Students who are confident in their capabilities are less likely to view help-seeking as a threat to their self-esteem and are more likely to ask for help when they need it.
However, students who are less confident or more concerned about being viewed negatively are less likely to seek help (Karabenick, 2004). The negative emotions that often accompany help-seeking due to beliefs about inadequacy or failure may also impact whether the student wants help (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Similarly, stereotype threat can impact whether student decides to seek academic help (Wakefield et al., 2012). In stereotype threat, students who are part of a group that is associated with a negative stereotype experience anxiety that they will perform in a way to confirm the stereotype, thereby resulting in lower performance (Steele & Aronson, 1995). College students who are first-generation, lower income, or from an underrepresented minority group are less likely to seek help than their peers (Schwartz et al., 2016; Stephens et al., 2014).
How can we help?
Student affairs professionals can encourage adaptive help-seeking by changing the narrative about students who seek academic help. The normalization of help-seeking can boost students’ self-confidence and reduce the anticipation of negative reactions to help-seeking (Cotten & Wilson, 2006; Covarrubias et al., 2019; Griffin et al., 2014; Schwartz et al., 2018). If students see help-seeking as a sign of strength (as self-advocacy) instead of dependency or weakness, they may be more inclined to use this learning strategy effectively (Nelson-Le Gall, 1985).
Stage 3: Decide whether to seek help
Even if a student decides that they need or want help with their academic challenges, they may still decide against seeking help (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). In some situations, seeking help is not practical, feasible, or permitted, such as asking for answers during an exam or calling a professor while studying late at night. Further, students weigh the costs and benefits of requesting help, and they may decide that seeking help would not be an effective strategy in the situation (Ryan et al., 2001). For example, seeking help may take too long to be useful, such as when students have a question about an assignment an hour before it is due. Additionally, students may have had negative help-seeking experiences that can discourage them from reaching out again, even to different individuals in similar roles.
How can we help?
To ease the help-seeking process, student affairs professionals can create general guidelines and timelines, such as a decision tree with available resources, for students regarding help-seeking expectations. New college students can be socialized about appropriate methods of help-seeking through training on policies and norms at their institution from faculty, staff, and peer mentors (Griffin et al., 2014; Karabenick & Berger, 2013).
Stage 4: Decide on the type of help needed/wanted
When a student decides to seek help for an academic challenge, they must determine what type assistance they are hoping to receive. Many research studies on help-seeking support that students’ goals determine the kind of help they want to receive (Karabenick & Berger, 2013; Ryan et al., 2005). Although help-seeking is generally effective as a learning strategy, the students’ motivational goal orientation greatly impacts the long-term benefits of asking for help (Ryan et al., 2005). When students are intrinsically motivated to learn the material (i.e., mastery goal orientation), they are more likely to use adaptive help-seeking behaviors, such as asking for explanations, hints, or examples to help students overcome challenges on their own. Alternatively, when students are more focused on the end product or outcomes of an academic task (i.e., performance goal orientation), they are more likely to use expedient help-seeking behaviors, such as asking someone for the answer directly. Individual students commonly use both types of help-seeking, depending on the situation and on their motivation.
Unsurprisingly, adaptive help-seeking predicts higher academic performance and increased learning compared to expedient help-seeking (Karabenick, 2003). Furthermore, expedient help-seeking can actually increase students’ dependency on others, as the student does not learn the skills or build the confidence to solve problems on their own (Collins & Sims, 2006).
How can we help?
Student affairs professionals should be trained to identify the motivational goals (mastery or performance) that lie behind students’ help-seeking behaviors. Further, faculty and staff can be upfront about the type of help that they are willing to provide to the student. Although expedient help is acceptable in some situations, student affairs professionals should be trained to provide students with adaptive help (even when expedient help is requested) to improve students’ help-seeking skills and self-confidence (Collins & Sims, 2006).
Stage 5: Decide whom to ask
Once a student has decided to seek help, they must decide whom to ask (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). If a student can identify a willing, competent, empathetic helper, they are more likely to ask for help (Ryan et al., 2001). Although colleges and universities are replete with support services, students are often unaware of all of the services their institution offers (Collins & Sims, 2006). Further, even if students are aware of a support service, they may not fully understand what kind of help the services provides (e.g., reference librarians; Thomas et al., 2017). This lack of institutional knowledge can prevent students from seeking help when needed.
Students, especially those new to an institution, are vulnerable to feeling that they are the only student who needs help or that there is no one available, able, or willing to help them (Collins & Sims, 2006). Students often opt for seeking help from peers or family members instead of faculty or staff. Although they may not be as informed or effective at supplying academic help as faculty or staff members, they present less risk of judgement so present a safer option for students (Knapp & Karabenick, 1988). Students may also avoid help-seeking from faculty or staff because they worry about being a burden or because they are concerned about lack of empathy or misunderstanding the request for help (Vinyard et al., 2017). If the helper has experienced similar struggles or demonstrated empathy previously, the student is more likely to seek help from them (Grayson et al., 1998).
How can we help?
Student affairs professionals can use these findings to adjust their approach to students who may need assistance. The first step to increasing students’ engagement in help-seeking is to create awareness of available services and giving explicit instructions on how to use them. Faculty and staff may encourage more students to feel comfortable seeking help from them if they demonstrate empathy for the student experience and self-disclose their own struggles. College support services can also make use of peer support staff, which may be seen by students as an easier entry point into help-seeking than asking faculty or staff.
Stage 6: Solicit help
At this stage of the help-seeking process, students have completed the individual decision-making, and are now ready to reach out to someone else (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). The difficulty of articulating a help request can be a barrier to students (Black & Allen, 2019). Although students have established goals for the type of help they would like to receive, they may have made that decision below their conscious awareness, and thus may struggle to formulate their request (Karabenick & Berger, 2013).
Students must have some social skills, such as starting a conversation and asking appropriate questions, to effectively seeking help from others (Karabenick & Berger, 2013; Ryan & Pintrich, 1997). Social skills are seldom explicitly trained, and some college students may feel unequipped to successfully request help from faculty or staff.
How can we help?
Student affairs professionals can help students overcome this barrier by acknowledging the difficulty of knowing how to ask for help and being more accepting of poorly formulated questions from students. Students can learn social skills through observation and emulation of models, along with practice scripts and role-playing (Schwartz et al., 2018; Zimmerman, 2000). Faculty and staff can give students sample scripts or templates demonstrating their preferred format for receiving requests for help. More experienced peer mentors can effectively model adaptive help-seeking skills for newer students (Wilbrowski et al., 2017).
Stage 7: Obtain help
After soliciting help, students must be open to receiving help to get the most benefit from this learning strategy (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). Research has found that students who are more open to receiving help tend to be more academically successful (Collins & Sims, 2006). Asking for help can be emotionally stressful, however, students need to regulate their emotions (e.g., anxiety) while requesting help so that they may remain open and listen fully to the response. This may be a challenge for students, especially if the helper supplies a different type of help than the student requested (e.g., giving adaptive help when expedient help was requested).
How can we help?
Faculty and staff should be aware of the students’ goals for the academic task and be clear about their reasoning for the type of help they give. Maintaining trust and rapport with the student will encourage future help-seeking (Sidelinger et al., 2016). Student affairs professionals may want to consider balancing their goals for the student with the student’s immediate needs. Although adaptive help is more effective in improving learning in the long-term, it may be prudent to provide expedient help on occasion when it helps to build a supportive relationship with the student. Meeting the student’s request for expedient help may lead to a trusting relationship. After the rapport is established, the student may be more willing to accept adaptive help, even when expedient help is requested.
Stage 8: Process the help received
Finally, the student must process the help they received as a concluding stage in the help-seeking process (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). As emphasized in the cyclical models of SRL, the student’s reflection will impact their next attempt at help-seeking. The student reacts to their experience and can make adjustments to their strategies to be more effective (Pintrich & Zusho, 2007). After the student receives the help, they must think through how they will use the help to overcome their academic challenges. Further, they judge whether the help supplied meets their help-seeking goals. In other words, the student evaluates whether the help filled the gap needed to complete their academic task.
In this phase, the student will also react cognitively and emotionally to the help and use this reaction to adjust their help-seeking strategy (Karabenick & Berger, 2013). If the help was not useful or the experience with the helper resulted in negative emotions, the student may be more reluctant to seek help in the future. If the help was beneficial, the student may be encouraged to use this strategy again.
How can we help?
To guide students’ help-seeking skill development, student affairs professionals can prompt students to reflect on their help-seeking experience. Reviewing the experience can help students become aware of the more and less effective components in the process. Further, student affairs professionals can provide support for the emotional reactions to the help-seeking experience. Open discussions of the experience can build rapport with the student and create an avenue to provide constructive feedback on their help-seeking skills.
Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals
As student affairs professionals, we can support and challenge students to develop adaptive help-seeking skills, so they can use this learning strategy effectively throughout college and beyond.
- Acknowledge and validate the difficulty of help-seeking.
- Be explicit about the type of help that you are willing to provide.
- Give example questions that students could ask.
- Provide guidelines for when and how to ask for help.
- Expect mistakes and be patient and gracious when students reach out for help.
- Create a culture of help-seeking.
- Normalize adaptive help-seeking as a strategy used by good students.
- Promote adaptive help (i.e., giving hints) over expedient help (i.e., giving answers).
- Highlight the confidence and strength that come from adaptive help-seeking, along with the long-term benefits.
- Be a willing and empathetic helper.
- Recognize that asking for help is emotionally stressful for students.
- Share struggles with students to create mutual vulnerability and trust.
- Be fully attentive and demonstrate active listening to relieve students’ concerns about being a burden.
- Model adaptive help-seeking for students.
- Acknowledge and validate the difficulty of help-seeking.
As student affairs professionals, we strive to help students develop skills that will serve them long after graduation. Academic help-seeking is a SRL learning strategy that can improve students’ performance during college, although many college students are reluctant to ask for help. In particular, the students who need help the most are often the least likely to seek it out (Karabenick & Knapp, 1991). This reluctance stems from a variety of reasons, so it is important to examine each decision point in the help-seeking process to uncover potential obstacles for students. Student affairs professionals can help students overcome these obstacles by changing the culture surrounding help-seeking, creating more transparency about the help-seeking process, and normalizing and supporting students’ emotional responses to seeking help.
While college faculty and staff interact with many students every day, it is important to remember that one interaction with a student reaching out for help can have lasting effects on their use of help-seeking as a life-long skill. With clear guidance and empathetic support, students may become more confident in themselves and their ability to reach out to others. The development of adaptive help-seeking skills in college students not only will improve students’ engagement and success but will strengthen relationships with student affairs professionals.
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About the Author
Jacqueline von Spiegel is the Program Manager for the Dennis Learning Center at The Ohio State University. She has an M.A. in Developmental Psychology and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. Her scholarly interests include self-regulated learning in college students, including motivational regulation and academic help-seeking. Prior to her current position, she worked in higher education and student affairs as an academic planning specialist, academic advisor, and lecturer.