Students commonly seek help in classrooms and elsewhere when they have difficulty learning new material or completing assignments. They ask questions of teachers during whole group activity, of peers when working in small groups, and of family members when completing homework assignments. The help-seeking process in instructional contexts involves cognitive and emotional challenges that are most often public and that arise from the need for students to constantly learn more difficult curricular material. Thus it is important to understand the process and the factors that influence whether students ask for help, as well as responses to such requests, which can determine whether students continue to struggle or ultimately succeed. The explication of help-seeking begins with drawing critical distinctions between seeking help in ways considered more versus less adaptive. The term adaptive help-seeking refers to an action, namely, requesting assistance that both increases the likelihood of immediate success, such as solving a math problem, and that decreases the need for help subsequently (e.g., by learning now to solve such problems). Adaptive help-seeking also can provide short-term stress reduction and the long-term development of healthy self-system resources, such as self-efficacy, self-reliance, and perceived control, which are important for coping with future academic difficulties (Skinner & Zimmer-Gembeck, 2007).
Resources required for adaptive help-seeking (also described as instrumental, strategic, or autonomous; Butler, 1998; Karabenick, 1998; Newman, 2000) include:
- cognitive competencies—knowing when help is necessary and knowing how to formulate linguistically a specific question that yields exactly what is needed;
- social competencies—knowing which instructors and classmates are more knowledgeable and can potentially help them and knowing how and when to approach helpers and how and when to thank them;
- affective-motivational resources—academic and social goals, self-beliefs, and emotions that allow the student to tolerate difficulty and uncertainty and the ego strength required to withstand possibly negative perceptions in the eyes of classmates; and
- contextual and interpersonal resources—classroom and home affordances such as teachers' goals, grading system, collaborative activities, rules of student-teacher engagement, and teachers' and parents' expectations for the student that support the student's cognitive and social competencies and affective-motivational resources.
Help-seeking can also be viewed as a social strategy of self-regulation that is part of the resources of cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally engaged learners (e.g., Butler, 1998; Karabenick, 2003, 2004; Karabenick & Knapp, 1991; Karabenick & Newman, 2006; Nelson-Le Gall & Resnick, 1998; Newman, 2000). Any learning strategy or tool can be used more or less effectively. Less adaptive help-seeking (also described as expedient, excessive, or executive) is characterized as effort-avoidant and unnecessary (Nelson-Le Gall & Resnick, 1998); students requesting this sort of assistance typically put forth little effort, ask for help immediately or, for example, want others to supply the answers just before their homework is due. Because learning is not the objective, this form of help-seeking can encourage dependency. Just as seeking help that is excessive may not be in students' long-term best interests, avoiding seeking help when that help is truly necessary also can be non-adaptive (Marchand & Skinner, 2007). The distinction between more and less strategic, or adaptive, forms of help-seeking must be kept in mind when a teacher examines the personal characteristics and features of the learning context that influence its use
Help-seeking has been extensively examined through the lens of achievement goal theory, which distinguishes between mastery-focused and performance-focused approaches to learning (Butler, 1998; Butler & Neuman, 1995; Karabe-nick, 2003, 2004; Pintrich, 2000; Ryan, Hicks, & Midgley, 1997). Consistently, mastery-oriented students, whose goal is to develop competence, are more likely to seek adaptive help or to work independently when that would be more effective (Butler, 1998). Performance-oriented students, who are concerned about appearing incompetent, are less likely to seek adaptive help. If such students do seek help, it is often for expedient or executive reasons—to avoid work rather than to learn and improve (e.g., Karabenick, 2004).
Students' achievement goals at any point in time are a function both of past experiences and features of the contemporaneous learning context. Achievement goal structure refers to how students construe their classrooms and courses of study in terms of the contextual emphasis on mastery and/or performance goals (Midgley, 2002). Studies using hierarchical modeling have consistently found that students' perceptions of their classes' achievement goal structure influence their tendencies to seek or to avoid seeking help (Midgley, 2002). In elementary school classes, which students collectively judge as more focused on mastery, students are less likely to avoid seeking needed help (Turner, Midgley, Meyer, Gheen, Anderman, Kang, et al., 2002). Although young children are concerned about not appearing incompetent by asking for help, not until middle school do such concerns influence whether they will make a request (Newman, 2000). Presumably as a consequence of increased evaluation pressures that begin with the transition to middle school, performance goal-related classroom characteristics, in addition to perceived classroom mastery goals, affect middle school students' tendencies to seek or to avoid seeking help (Ryan, Gheen, & Midgley, 1998). By the time students are in college, evidence suggests that classroom performance goals are more relevant than are mastery goals. Students in classes with a focus on performance-avoid goals, in which students are more concerned about not looking incompetent, are likely not to seek needed help; or, if they do seek help, they are likely to be motivated by expedient reasons (Karabenick, 2004).
Cultural factors, in particular, the degree of stress on individualism versus collectivism (Triandis, 1994) can also influence whether and in what situations students seek help. Learners in the United States especially are socialized to idealize individualism and deplore dependency (Fischer & Torney, 1976), values that typically add to the threat posed by help-seeking. In early theories of achievement motivation, seeking help was considered incompatible with individualistic values and, more specifically, an achievement motive (Nelson-Le Gall & Resnick, 1998). Learners in collectivist societies presumably are not as subject to the same prohibitions and should accordingly be less reluctant to seek help. This prediction was verified in that students raised in collectivistic-oriented Israeli kibbutz cultures were more likely to seek help than those socialized in individualistic-oriented cities (Nadler, 1998). Such cultural influences extend to learning and performance in the workplace as well. Evidence indicates that collectivistic (as opposed to individualistic) norms facilitate help-seeking due to the perceived safety that results from collectivist organizational norms (Sandoval & Lee, 2006).
When teachers examine the effects of culture on help-seeking, however, it is important for them to avoid essentialist generalizations. Doing so entails taking into consideration specific characteristics of tasks and learning contexts, such as whether the help is sought in public (as in classrooms), in relative privacy (after class or in faculty offices), or in complete privacy (e.g., delivered by a computer) (Karabenick & Knapp, 1988a). Thus, the cultural differences found by Nadler (1998) depended on whether students worked on tasks individually or in groups. In another example, Japanese collectivistic acculturation stresses cooperation, dependency, and empathy, which facilitate college students' seeking assistance from peers outside the classroom. Due to culturally induced deference to authority in the form of relationships with instructors, however, college students are hesitant to ask their instructors questions in class (Shwalb & Sukemune, 1998). Situational influences have also been demonstrated with U.S. and Australian college students. According to Volet and Karabenick (2006), the more that students are culturally different from their peers, the less likely they are to approach them for needed academic assistance. Importantly, this cultural effect was moderated by classroom factors: The negative relation between cultural difference and help-seeking was less strong when instructors supported intercultural interaction among the students in their classes. This is but one way in which teachers can promote help-seeking in culturally diverse settings.
Help-seeking in the classroom is a social transaction (Newman, 1998a). Teachers establish—and students internalize—patterns of classroom discourse. It has been argued that teachers who respond to requests for help with hints and contingent instruction rather than direct and controlling answers help students both to accomplish difficult tasks and to learn that questioning is an invaluable academic strategy. In contrast, teachers who take on the role of expert (e.g., who present to the class an explanation without discussion and then expect students simply to practice) are likely to support overly dependent executive/expedient help-seeking. Moreover, when teachers personally demonstrate that uncertainty can be tolerated—and perhaps even transformed into intellectual challenge—students are likely to realize it is normal not to be able to solve all problems independently. It is expected that when teachers scaffold learning experiences and socialize the normalcy of academic difficulty, need for collaboration, and expectation of answers to their questions, students internalize a personal sense of empowerment and voice (Nelson-Le Gall & Resnick, 1998).
Ideally, students learn in their classrooms the value, usefulness, and skills of questioning that are important for monitoring, diagnosing, and fixing misconceptions. The frequency with which teachers call on students, the amount of time they wait for a response, and the amount and type of praise they give vary from student to student (Eccles & Wigfield, 1985). Teacher feedback helps students know when they need help. Giving no more assistance than is necessary may help students learn the difference between adaptive and non-adaptive (i.e., expedient) help-seeking. Encouraging students to go back to an incorrect problem and try to re-solve it may convince them of the importance of determining if they need further assistance. Additionally, it may be instrumental in students' coming to appreciate the function of questioning and help-seeking in the ongoing process of self-monitoring and learning (Newman, 1998a).
Teachers are responsible for establishing classroom goals. When both classroom and personal goals emphasize learning and developing competence, students are especially likely to seek help adaptively, whereas when both types of goals emphasize performance, students are reluctant to do so. When students who are concerned about grades and looking smart are placed in a learning-goal classroom, they may tend to overcome—and compensate for—their personal tendencies to avoid help. Thus, by being attuned to individual students' personal goals, teachers can assist those who otherwise might give up in the face of adversity (Newman, 1998b). Teachers can also try to accommodate students' social goals (e.g., social affiliation, social status) that influence help-seeking (Ryan et al., 1997). The task of goal-coordinator is not easy, as multiple personal and classroom goals can complement or conflict with one another. Circumstances become even more complex when one considers that teachers' approaches to teaching, in terms of their own achievement goals, can influence how supportive they are perceived to be by students (Butler, 2007). Responsive teachers try to support student autonomy while at the same time satisfying their own personal achievement-related and social goals and need for autonomy within the constraints of public school settings (Butler, 2006).
In classrooms in which teachers share with children their time, energy, and nurturance, students tend to be attentive, effortful, self-expressive, and interested in learning. Teachers who are interpersonally involved with students and attuned to their goals typically establish classrooms that facilitate adaptive help-seeking. When teachers and students are aligned, teachers are especially able to take the student's perspective and understand his or her thinking regarding academic tasks and, based on this understanding, appropriately guide the student's learning. Teachers who are perceived as friendly and caring tend to demonstrate democratic interaction styles, with lines of communication open to students; they listen, ask questions, inquire if students need help, make sure students understand difficult material, and provide help in a non-threatening way (Wentzel, 1997). When they experience this type of communication, students learn that teachers are trustworthy helpers. Low achievers, who often have poor self-perceptions of ability and low self-esteem, typically are reluctant to seek academic help in class (Karabenick & Knapp, 1988b, 1991). For these students, especially, teachers who believe their responsibility is to attend to students' social and emotional as well as academic needs can counter student disengagement (Ryan et al., 1998).
Teacher involvement forms the basis of students' beliefs and feelings about the benefits and costs of help-seeking. Early elementary-age students generally feel comfortable approaching their teacher for assistance because of global, affective traits of the teacher such as niceness and kindness. By the middle of elementary school, students tend to view teachers as helpful when they show an awareness of their problems and give them advice, time, energy, and encouragement to ask questions in class (Newman & Schwager, 1993). In classes in which teachers are perceived as supporting collaboration, student questioning, teacher fairness, respect and caring, middle and high school students are especially likely to seek adaptive help. The same is true at the college level (Karabenick & Sharma, 1994). Just as positive teacher involvement can foster help-seeking, negative involvement can do just the opposite. As early as grade 2, students often are fearful of teachers' negative reactions (e.g., “I think she might think I'm dumb”) if they ask for help (Newman & Goldin, 1990). Perceived costs are heightened when teachers are unwilling to help (e.g., “if you had paid attention, you wouldn't need to ask that question”). Children weigh relative benefits and costs of help-seeking, with the integration process becoming increasingly complex over the school years, whereas older students increasingly struggle in deciding what to do when they need academic assistance (Newman, 1990).
In sum, a critically important task for teachers is to help students become self-regulated learners. Clearly, students must learn how to cope with academic difficulty. Teachers can enhance students' personal beliefs about the usefulness of help-seeking as a strategy of self-regulated learning. As noted earlier, when teachers stress the intrinsic value of learning in their classrooms and emphasize understanding and improvement rather than just getting good grades or avoiding bad grades, students are most likely to seek help in an adaptive way. Sensitive and responsive teachers buffer students from factors, such as potential embarrassment, that typically inhibit them from seeking the help they need. How teachers coordinate multiple forms of achievement and social goals, how they accommodate students' personal and interpersonal needs, how they structure task activity, and how they actually engage students through instruction can affect help-seeking and maximize the likelihood of student success.
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