by Troy Z. Horvat, Pharm.D. PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center
From a young age, I was often told, “There are no stupid questions.” My parents employed this strategy to encourage me to ask questions and to not be embarrassed about seeking help. However, as I progressed through my undergraduate and doctoral curriculums I saw students asking fewer questions. As information became increasingly more complex, why weren’t students asking MORE questions? Now that I am a pharmacy resident with a career goal of becoming a faculty member at an academic institution, the question has become not only why are questions not being asked, but more importantly, what can I do as an educator to encourage this behavior.
Asking questions during or after class is an academic help-seeking behavior. Academic help-seeking has been formally defined as “an achievement behavior involving the search for and employment of a strategy to obtain success.”1 Historically, students displaying academic help-seeking behavior had been viewed as immature, dependent, and unintelligent.2 Research now shows that there is a correlation between help-seeking behavior and academic success.3 Unfortunately, students who are struggling academically often don’t seek academic help and may display help-avoidance behavior. Whether a student displays academic help-seeking or help-avoidance behavior appears to be related to internal and external factors.
Internally, self-motivation, ego-achievement goals, and the perceived view of the instructor all play an important role in dictating which behavior will be expressed.2 Students that lack motivation or display ambivalence towards learning are more likely to display help-avoidance behavior. However, not all behavior can be explained by ambivalence and lack of motivation. Some students do not seek academic assistance because it contradicts their desire for autonomy.4 The student’s perception of the instructor may also have a major impact on help-seeking behavior. If the student perceives the instructor as cold and unavailable, the student will be more likely to display help-avoidance behavior.5 Conversely, as a recently published study by Payakachat et al. illustrates, faculty who are perceived by the student to be respectful, accessible, approachable, and friendly increase help-seeking behavior.7
External factors such as social norms, the goal structure of the classroom, and the instructor’s approach (e.g. openness and flexibility) can positively or negatively impact academic help-seeking behavior.2 From a social point of view, students who ask questions in class are often criticized by their peers for their lack of understanding or unnecessarily extending the length of the class. If students feel socially threatened by their peers, they will be more likely to display help-avoidance behavior.5 Additionally, asking for help is contrary to the importance that Western cultures place on self-reliance and independence.4 The goal structure of the classroom also plays a role in developing academic help-seeking behavior. Learning environments that place a strong emphasis on grades and competition among students may discourage help-seeking behavior. Conversely, learning environments that place a strong emphasis on effort and understanding, foster it.6 The instructor’s approach, openness, and flexibility may play the biggest role in developing a help-seeking culture. Research has shown instructors that use positive encouragement and set aside “student hours” (a more positive term for formal office hours) have better relationships with their students.8 Forming a better relationship with students will increase the students’ positive perception of their instructors and, as Payakachat showed, facilitates help-seeking behavior.7
Based on what we know about help-seeking and help-avoidance behaviors, what we can do as educators to facilitate a culture of help-seeking among students? Perhaps the easiest strategies for an instructor to implement relate to their personal approach. Instructors should display behaviors such as: respect, accessibility, approachability, and a friendly demeanor as these have been linked to the enrichment of academic help-seeking behavior. Additionally, educators can restructure their learning environment to one that does not emphasize competition and grades, but focuses more on understanding. Finally, trying to be more interactive and engaging may help to increase student’s motivation and decrease ambivalence toward a topic or content area.
Looking back at my educational journey, I can point to a select few instructors who really fostered my help-seeking behavior. While these instructors taught me at different times in my life, they had common qualities. They praised me for asking questions, discouraged others from teasing me when I asked questions, allotted enough time at the end of class for questions, were available outside of class (both in person and via email), and displayed a dedication to helping me achieve success. As I progress through my career, I hope to incorporate these strategies into my own practice and facilitate a new generation of help-seekers.
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