Kids More Likely To Seek Help If Teachers Remove Fear Of Feeling Dumb

February 04, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Logic would suggest that students who struggle most in the classroom would ask most for help. Instead, they are often the most reluctant, says Allison Ryan, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois.

At least in middle schools, "the very students who need help the most seek it the least," she notes, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Although Ryan is not the first to make that connection, her research suggests some reasons why it's true -- and some things teachers can do to change it, and to raise the level of help-seeking overall.

"It has a lot to do with what does help-seeking represent [to a student]. And it seems to represent something different to low- and high-achievers," Ryan said. Lower-achievers "are more likely to perceive help-seeking as indicating they lack ability. So when a student who has lower ability needs help, they're more threatened. They think, 'If I ask a question, I'm going to look dumb.'"

Higher-achievers, however, with more confidence in their abilities, are less likely to worry about what others think, and to focus on the benefits of seeking help, she said.

Through a survey of more than 500 students and 25 teachers in 63 sixth-grade math classrooms, spread through 10 Michigan middle schools, Ryan tried to find connections between students' achievement levels, perceptions of their abilities, the role teachers saw themselves as playing, and the learning environment established in the classroom.

What she found was that teachers who were concerned with students' social and emotional needs were more successful in closing the gap in help-seeking between higher- and lower-achievers. "It suggests that in maybe warmer environments, in environments where there is this interpersonal connection between teachers and students, they don't feel the same threat in asking for help."

Ryan also found that the classroom environment established by the teacher played a significant part in encouraging help-seeking overall, by students of all abilities. When students perceived their classroom as competitive, or felt that the teacher focused too much on comparing students' abilities, they were less likely to seek assistance, she said. "When the focus is on 'who's the smartest, who's the best,' " she suggested, "it's going to make all students less willing to ask a question, or put themselves on the line publicly and ask for help."

On the contrary, Ryan said, "in classrooms where students perceived that the focus was on understanding, mastery, and self-improvement, rather than on competition and proving one's ability, students were less likely to avoid seeking help with their work when they needed it."

Co-authors on Ryan's paper were graduate student Margaret Gheen and research scientist Carol Midgley, both at the University of Michigan.
-end-


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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