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Nobody gets through college without help. Whether struggling with linear algebra, FAFSA completion, or choosing a major, asking for help is usually the best way for a student to persist toward a degree.
But as the old dictum goes, it’s those who most need help who are the least likely to ask. That’s because help-seeking is a far more nuanced process than we readily acknowledge, shaped by our personality and experiences. Fortunately, psychological research has provided us with some useful ways to understand student approaches to help-seeking and how to tailor the ways in which we nudge them to seek help.
Before I dive in, two important caveats. First, I’m going to focus on academic help-seeking, putting aside the rich literature on when, why, and how people seek professional psychological help. Second, what we know about academic help-seeking is limited by a dearth of research on community college students, as well as a lack of consideration of gender, race, ethnicity, and first-generation status. However, I do believe this research provides valuable insights that are often forgotten or ignored in higher education, and can inspire important conversations about how to better serve all of our students.
The first category of students is known as strategic help-seekers. These students have many of the qualities we associate with success in college. Asking for help is generally unthreatening. They have a growth mindset, which means they expect that seeking help will lead to academic improvement. They have mastery goals for learning—they truly want to understand the material—meaning they engage in what is known as instrumental help-seeking (i.e., asking how to fish instead of asking for a fish.) In short, these are not the students who keep us up at night.
There are, however, two camps of strategic help-seekers. Formal help-seekers go to professors, advisors, tutors, and campus offices for help. These students fit nicely into the model used by most colleges—when in doubt, ask the expert. Informal help-seekers, however, can feel some threat and intimidation when asking for help from formal sources. Instead, they prefer to ask their classmates, friends, and family for help.
Informal help-seekers beg two questions: Is there informal help available to them, and is it reliable? For some reason, higher education acknowledges informal help in some areas, like peer mentors, student tutors, and TAs.
But other areas, like financial aid or academic planning, are considered the exclusive territory of formal sources. Knowing that many students rely on informal sources, whether they should or not, colleges must consider how to make sure informal sources are knowledgeable and accurate. For example, colleges could expand peer support models to other areas of student life, like having trained student liaisons in the financial aid office. Colleges should also keep parents abreast of resources, processes, and important deadlines related to their student’s experience.
The other category of students is known, very uncreatively, as non-strategic help-seekers. These are the students who often need help the most but struggle to ask for it. We look for ways to convert these students into strategic formal help-seekers, usually with little success. Instead, we must understand what asking for help feels like for these students and try to meet them where they are.
Non-strategic help-seekers come in two camps. The first are those students we all know who remain passive and silent while their grades plummet, their money runs out, and their world crashes down around them. They are highly threatened by help-seeking, fearing shame, embarrassment, or impugning the reputation of their social group (i.e., stereotype threat). These students also tend to have a fixed mindset, having come to believe that any amount of help won’t fix their situation.
The other non-strategic help-seekers are a little trickier to understand. They, too, are threatened by seeking help and hold a fixed mindset, but they tend to highly value performance goals. In other words, they want good grades for the sake of appearance or external rewards, not from any intrinsic desire to learn. They engage, therefore, in executive help-seeking, meaning they only ever ask for the fish. This is an adaptive strategy for these students, helping them to navigate the demands of school while obscuring their deep-seated fear of genuinely expressing a need for help.
Encouraging Students to Seek Help
The first major step to getting non-strategic students to ask for help is convincing them that they are capable of improvement. Here is where you can leverage growth mindset interventions to demonstrate to students that they can learn with the necessary help. Constructing new social norms around who seeks help and its positive outcomes can also be a powerful tool for influencing these students’ views on help-seeking.
Another important part of this process is reducing the threat that students feel when asking for help. Again, social norms can alleviate students’ fears that they’re the only person who needs help or that asking for help tarnishes how others view them. Values affirmation interventions have been shown to protect students’ self-identity when under threat, allowing them to engage in help-seeking. Also, difference education interventions, in which students’ backgrounds are reframed as strengths and benefits to their college experience, can reshape students’ entire perspective on accessing college resources.
We all want to see students ask for help when they’re struggling, and get connected with the people who can help them most. But we have to remember that help-seeking is a complex psychological process and certainly not one-size-fits-all. Making sure students have access to multiple reliable help sources, both formal and informal, will increase the likelihood of them asking for help. And the more we expose students to ways in which their peers ask for and receive beneficial help, the more we will change students’ negative impressions of help-seeking.