Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to motivate students to seek help

I'm continually baffled as to why students who are clearly in need of help in my courses rarely seek it — or if they do seek it, they seek it so late that I really can't help them. It's easy to see these students as indulging in a kind of magical thinking, hoping that somehow the very patterns of academic behavior that got them into trouble will somehow lift them out of trouble. It's Einstein-insane.

But maybe not. For as the work of Stuart Karabenick and his colleagues suggest, an aversion to seeking help is, unfortunately, normal.

After all, seeking help means you're not adequate. It's a blow to your pride. And in the classroom, it means you don't get it. And what could be worse than acknowledging that you don't get it?

As some of you know, Carol Dweck is one of my favorite educational psychologists. Dweck's core insight is that learners tend to have either a mastery-oriented mindset or a fixed mindset. Those with the mastery mindset believe that learning is both possible and desirable, and hence respond positively to academic adversity. They see such adversity as an opportunity to increase or reconfigure their efforts and put success within their grasp.

Those with the fixed mindset respond to adversity by concluding that the adversity reveals their (in)ability. Since ability is fixed, the only role for adversity is to point out where you're deficient (and perhaps to guide you away from those subjects you struggle with and toward those you learn more readily).

Naturally, the former group is much more likely to seek help than the latter, so perhaps the infrequency with which students seek help is evidence of how regrettably frequent the fixed mindset is.

But Karabenick et al's research indicates that there are pedagogical approaches that can help students who need help help themselves.

Yes, Karabenick confirms that students who need help the most are least likely to seek it. But

the nature of the classroom itself affects the decision to ask for help as well as the kind of help sought. If it’s a classroom that emphasizes mastery goals, as in learning the material so it is really understood, students are more likely to seek help and they want help that goes beyond finding out the “right” answer. On the other hand, if it’s a classroom where students are regularly compared to and with other students, then students are less likely to seek help and what they want is not focused on understanding the material but finding the answers they need to out perform other students.
I don't think many college-level teachers compare students in these ways, but I'm not sure. Other advice, perhaps obvious:
Of course, how the teacher raises the issue of getting extra help also makes a difference. Struggling students don’t need to be confronted in public. Embarrassment doesn’t make it easier to seek help. Better to convey the message privately with a note on the back page of the paper or exam, in an email or when you can talk to the student without others present. It also makes a difference when the teacher presents extra help as something beneficial for every one. There is always more to be learned and more ways to learn it. If you’re doing something well or have the potential to do it well, get some help and you may well excel.
I'd be curious to know if anyone has strategies that seem to work in getting students to seek the help they need. And are there particular challenges that our discipline introduces into the equation — reasons why students might be less likely to seek help in philosophy courses than elsewhere?


  1. I've required students to introduce themselves to me during office hours and have a meeting partway through the semester. This is a huge ice breaker, and they come much more often.

  2. I actually do have one strategy that works at least as a partial fix: every two weeks, I hold a "review session" for (fill the the blank test, paper, quiz, whatever) something _DURING_ my office hours.

    What I've found is that a number of students who truly do need the help show up and basically wind up working through their difficulties.

    What's the difference? Why do they come? A few things:

    1. It's not a one-to-one experience.
    2. It's not a "come to this meeting if you need help" but "come and let's review". Using Micheal's language above, "review" is not capacity threatening, even to students who are doing badly. The reason is probably simple - the meaning of "review" session is likely linked to "get hints about the content of the assessment device" (which is acceptable) as opposed to "figure out what you don't know" (which is not acceptable).

    Basically, the trick is to hold it during office hours, shape it so that it really does function as a group session in which people get to talk more about what they really don't know, but call it something that makes students think they aren't showing up to get "extra help".

  3. I've wondered about this as well. In particular, I've been baffled by some students who approach me after they have done badly in an assignment and ask to write an additional paper to improve their grade or do extra credit. I decline those requests but tell them that I am willing to read multiple drafts of their final paper and work with them one-on-one to improve it, but those students rarely take me up on the offer.

    @ Chris Panza. That sounds like a great idea! I'll have to try it.

  4. G.E. Moore first spotted Wittgenstein's philosophical potential because he was the only student in the class who looked puzzled. Great philosophers are often aware that things which seem obvious and straightforward are really puzzling. These examples can be put forward to students: if you think this is easy, maybe you don't understand it. If you find it hard, so much so that you need to come and talk about it, then you are showing a real aptitude for philosophy...

  5. I think there are some great ideas here. Meeting outside of class early in the semester, and how we frame the situation for our students are definitely both important factors.

    Sometimes I make a meeting mandatory. When I have a student who has made an honest effort on an assignment, but just doesn't seem to get it, I write "see me” on the paper rather than give them a grade. We meet during office hours to talk about the paper, and then they have a chance to re-write it.


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