My Students Need Help Asking for Help; Do Yours?

We finished exam 2 in my nonmajors biology class last week, and after the exam was over, I had an epiphany: Very few students asked me for help.

For context, I’ve been doing this job for more than 20 years. Years ago, on the night before an exam, I would have to warn students to email me questions before 10 pm because after that I’d be in bed. I’d host popular online chat sessions near exam times, and my Action Centers would see a lot of (ahem) action. Students would ask me to recommend tutors. On exam days, my office would be crammed with students asking for last-minute help. Now: crickets. No student ever emails me a question about course content or asks about tutors. A handful of students come to Action Center, and my office hours remain empty, even on the morning before an exam.

The Internet is full of articles about why students don’t use office hours. The reasons are interesting, but they’re missing information about trends. Why did students ask for help in the past, and now they don’t? Let’s rule out a couple of possibilities right off the bat. First, have I become such a fantastic teacher that none of my students need help? Nope, it’s not that, as the range on exam 2 was 39.5 to 97.5, with an average of 71. That adds up to a lot of students with sub-par performances. Second, am I meaner and more intimidating now than I was when I was much younger? Sure, that’s possible, but I certainly bend over backwards to be approachable and to remind students of how to get help.

It’s hard to test hypotheses about how students have changed over the years without hard data, so I decided to ask my students why they don’t seek help. I used a not-for-points clicker question:

If you were struggling in a class (any class, not this one in particular), what would be most likely to keep you from seeking the professor’s help? Mark all that apply.
Feel free to switch clickers if you don’t want me to connect you with your answer.

A. I don’t have time to get help.

B. I get help from my friends; I don’t need the professor’s help.

C. I’m afraid I’ll look stupid if I ask for help.

D. I’m too intimidated by my professors to ask for help.

E. I’m so overwhelmed that I’m not even sure where to begin asking for help.

F. If I’m not naturally good at the subject, then seeking help wouldn’t do any good anyway.

G. It’s stressful to confront failure, so I procrastinate.

H. Other

Students could choose as many options as they wanted. Have you already predicted which choices received the most votes? Go on, do it now. I know what I thought they’d say: They don’t have time (choice A), they’re too intimidated (choice D), and it wouldn’t do any good anyway (choice F). Well, I’m glad I asked instead of making assumptions. The graph below shows the number of votes that each choice got:

Graph showing votes for each choice

What really hit me hard about the results is that students admitted to the pain of confronting failure (choice G), to being overwhelmed by the challenge of seeking help (choice E), and to being afraid of looking stupid (choice C). I am no psychologist, but I feel sure there must be tools that can help students overcome these challenges, and I plan to look for ways to identify and recommend such tools in the future.

Choice H, “Other,” bears special mention as well because it was tied for third in the voting. I emailed the students who had selected it to find out what I had missed in crafting my question. Each of those who replied had a different reason for choosing H. One prefers to go to a tutor before bothering a professor. Another battles anxiety and depression and would find it difficult to approach a professor for help. Another isn’t sure what kinds of questions (content or policies?) one is supposed to ask in office hours. Another has had professors in the past who seemed annoyed when students came to office hours. Yet another likes to do things alone and therefore prefers not to ask for help.

My big takeaway from this question is that I need to help struggling students to be brave about asking for help. But am I offering the right formats? My followup question, in the next day’s class, aimed at that issue:

If you were to seek a professor’s help, how would you prefer to get that help? Mark all that apply.

A.One-on-one in professor’s office (in-person office hours or by special appointment)

B.Come-and-go “study time” with professor at a location outside professor’s office (without prepared activities)

C.Come-and-go Action Center (with prepared activities)

D.Email questions to professor

E.Online chat (virtual office hours or appointment)

F.Post questions to professor on Canvas discussion board

G.Informal group discussion with professor present at a neutral location, like a coffee shop

H.Other

Take a moment to predict what you think students said. I predicted a strong preference for virtual office hours (choice E) and perhaps the Canvas discussion board (choice F). This graph shows what they actually said they preferred:Graph of student choices for question 2

When I saw the results, I thought to myself: “Wait, what!?” In-person office hours (choice A) and Action Center (choice C) are the two main types of help I’m already offering, and few students take advantage of them. Having group discussions and study groups at a neutral location also got a lot of votes, and those are two things I might consider in the future. Bringing up the rear were the options I thought students might like because they don’t require face-to-face conversations, such as emailing questions (choice D), the Canvas discussion board (choice F), and online chats (choice E).

According to these graphs, if I want my students to get the help they need, then I need to find ways to help them overcome the psychological barriers that keep them away from office hours and Action Center—both of which many say they want yet few are using. This predicament raises interesting side questions: How much of this is on me to solve, versus the students learning for themselves to be brave and conquer their fears? Stated another way, do changing student habits reflect a cultural shift that I need to adapt to, or should I tell my students to pull on their big kid pants and get over it?

I haven’t had time to think these issues through, but I will be ruminating on them in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I welcome your comments, especially if you have noticed this phenomenon too and have found new ways to help your students get the help they need.

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12 Responses to My Students Need Help Asking for Help; Do Yours?

  1. Mary E Gard says:

    I am right there with you- pondering what my role is in the shifting landscape. At my community college, I play a big role in helping students learn to balance life and career (school)- time management is huge! An this cohort seems afraid to fail on top of it all. Most of my students talk to me about life issues, not biology content.

    • Yes, the fear of failure is palpable. I wish I had paid more attention to this trend earlier so I could tell if it’s correlated with other social changes (e.g., social media and exposure to public ridicule; general pessimism about the world, etc.) Surely someone out there is studying this issue.

  2. Berta Harnish says:

    Kinda opting for the “pull up your big kid pants and get on with it!”, myself. I see the same trend with my students. But at some point, they need to internalize their desire to succeed (or not) in ANY class. I, too, have done all the things you mentioned. Its time for students to step up!

    • Thanks for sharing your observations. I’m glad it’s not just me. I’m going to talk to my students more about this one-on-one to find out if they know of any professors who have cracked this nut.

    • I don’t know, I think we can’t assume we had it the same as these students. Perhaps they are under more stress from other areas, and cumulatively it’s too much. Perhaps they have less support at home. I always thought the work would be worth it in the end, but they are exposed to statistics that say otherwise.

      One way around this is to get one-on-one with the students during class time. Laboratories are great for this, when you can walk around and ask questions of the students. It’s a small drop in the pond, though, and that’s the biggest weakness.

      • That’s a great suggestion because it doesn’t rely on students taking the initiative; they’re sort of “captive” in their lab seats and you can then offer a taste of your one-on-one personality. That should help reduce the fear of seeking help, at least to some degree. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi Marielle! I just wanted to thank you for this great blog post; I shared it around at Twitter where it has got lots of people thinking too. One of my mantras is “just ask the students!” and what you did here is such a wonderful example of that.
    I’ve been using that un-grading approach where I give students lots of feedback but I don’t put grades on anything (I’ve actually been doing that ever since I started teaching online which, as you recall, is a long time ago ha ha). My impression is that students are really stressed about grades, and once you get grades out of the picture, you can focus on mistakes as part of the learning process. It’s not that they fear making mistakes; just fear being punished for them. Insofar as grades are punitive (and, sad to say, reward-and-punish / carrot-and-stick is part of the grading system), students are understandably fearful.
    I wrote a chapter for a book that will be coming out about ungrading in college; Susan Debra Blum is the editor, and there was a really nice write-up in the Chronicle about her work if you are interested (that link has the OU Library proxy thing so it should be clickable for you):
    Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead?
    https://www-chronicle-com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/interactives/20190719_ungrading
    My chapter is here: Grading.MythFolklore.net
    Anyway, I am so glad I noticed this blog post. Best wishes to you and Doug!

    • Laura!! As usual, you are way ahead of the rest of us. Your commitment to your students remains as impressive as ever. Thanks for sharing the post and for the link to the article. Are you sold on “ungrading” for large introductory courses where grading lots of writing is impractical (at least for us mere mortals)?

      • I would honestly love the chance to try some kind of experiment like that, ha ha. Not as a writing course, but a READING course maybe, or a WEB TECH course, where students would not require detailed, sustained feedback for revision, but could instead guide themselves through a series of challenges where they would be able to self-assess more accurately than with writing. Because the key really is getting consistent, accurate feedback… somehow from someone, and that can include peer feedback (I work on that a lot too now!) and self-feedback. I’ve written something up on microassignments too because that is part of the process in my class; a lot of success is “showing up” (literally and metaphorically), and microassignments help with that and also with combating procrastination which is a huge problem (for faculty too… for everybody!). More on microassignments:
        https://oudigitools.blogspot.com/2019/03/the-value-of-small-data-and.html
        Anyway, it was great to connect like this… and a bunch of people reshared your blog post at Twitter. Yay for connecting and sharing! 🙂

  4. David Butler says:

    Absolutely fascinating. The top answer being procrastinating because they don’t want to face the issue is particularly fascinating! Thanks for doing this, and thanks for sharing.

  5. Pingback: Do your students need help asking for help? | Center for Teaching, Learning & Engagement

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