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.
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:
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
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:
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.