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Helping Students Ask for Help in the Most Helpful Way

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Researchers Find Clues in Ways Students Get Help with Classwork” by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, 20 August 2014 (34 1, p. 1, 16);
In this Education Week article, Sarah Sparks reports on recent research on student “help-seeking” in classrooms. There are wide variations—some students raise their hands before making any effort, while others struggle unsuccessfully on their own even though they really need help.
The ways in which students do—or do not—ask for help provide insights on:
- A student’s level of proficiency in the subject;
- A student’s level of engagement and curiosity;
- A student’s beliefs about being independent;
- Worries about what other students will think;
- Social-class differences between students taught not to “bother” the teacher (more typical of lower-SES families) and students taught to be a “squeaky wheel” to get one’s due (more common in higher-SES families);
- How much confidence a student has in the support of teachers and peers; and
- What a student thinks about learning (“growth” versus “fixed” mindset).
“Teachers may not know why students do not ask for help,” says Stuart Karabenick of the University of Michigan. “It may be that I don’t know what I don’t know; I don’t know how to ask; I am afraid to ask; or I just do not need help. One of the major skills a teacher needs is to be able to distinguish among these.”
“Help-seeking is actually part of the process of self-regulation,” says Sarah Kiefer of the University of South Florida/Tampa. “It is something that’s very visible in the classroom, which makes it great for teachers… Help-seeking is both academic and social in nature, and adolescents are looking at their classroom as an academic and social minefield.”
“As students move from elementary to middle and high school,” says Ms. Sparks, “the cost of looking foolish in front of their teacher and classmates starts to weigh heavily in their decisions about how and when to get help.”
Ms. Kiefer has found that students are especially unlikely to ask popular or high-achieving peers for help—that is too socially risky. They are more inclined to get “expedient” help—like copying another student’s homework. They say they just want to get the homework done, which is less threatening to their image than admitting they do not understand the work.
Ms. Kiefer and Allison Ryan of the University of Michigan have been studying how getting students working in peer study groups and tutoring diads can help boost students’ confidence about asking peers for help.
“We have to figure out, what are students really striving for in the classroom, not just academically but also socially,” says Kiefer. “If you can take away the mindset that ‘I don’t want to look like a loser,’ and promote a growth mindset, that is huge.”
But too much help can undermine students’ problem-solving ability and deeper learning. “Too often, we do not give students the opportunity to make sense by themselves,” says Ido Roll of the University of British Columbia. This can be especially true in online courses, where some students constantly push the Help button.
Mr. Roll’s research has shown that a certain amount of independent struggle leads to better learning. Too much help can also produce cognitive overload in struggling students. “I am all for giving help,” says Mr. Roll, “but giving help is not telling you what to do; it is giving resources to help you make sense of it yourself.”
Early in the school year, teachers’ actions set the tone and influence students’ asking behaviors. For example, when teachers give short answers to complex questions, students are less likely to ask questions in the future. And when elementary teachers make a big deal of the rules about raising hands and waiting to be called on, it can discourage question-asking.
Instead, says Mr. Karabenick, teachers should talk with students about when and whom they can ask for help and role-play different scenarios. “Make it explicit, let them practice it,” he urges. “It can be very, very effective to make it transparent that this is a normal part of learning.”

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