Help Seeking as a Self-Regulated Learning Strategy

While seeking help can be an act of dependency, as once categorically considered, theory and evidence have resulted in the contemporary view that highlights its potential strategic value. There are generally four phases to this evolution. The first was Nelson-Le Gall’s and Nadler’s explication of help seeking that provides enough assistance for learners to progress on their own (e.g., in the form of hints of explanations — termed instrumental or adaptive) versus help seeking that is work avoidant and reinforces dependency on others (e.g., obtaining answers to math problems — executive or dependent help seeking). The second was the inclusion of help seeking in models of self-regulation, such as Zimmerman’s, along with empirical evidence demonstrating that learners who seek help for instrumental or autonomous reasons are those who are generally self-regulating. The third includes experimental and especially classroom-based research by Butler, Newman, A. Ryan, Turner, Zusho, myself and many others that study the person and contextual motivational influences on help seeking, framed in particular within achievement goal theory. Finally, to be discussed subsequently, are the effects of computer-mediated communications and intelligent learning systems, which significantly expand helping resources and prompt reconsideration of some fundamental assumptions about help seeking as social form of self-regulation.

Models of the help-seeking process include the following steps or stages: determine whether there is a problem; determine whether help is needed/wanted; decide whether to seek help (which includes weighing its benefits and costs); decide on the type of help (e.g., instrumental or work avoidant); decide on whom to ask (e.g., classmates or teachers); solicit help; obtain help; and process the help received. Consider what Newman refers to as an adaptive scenario: a student attempting to complete a math assignment cannot solve a problem even after hours of trying, determines she cannot do so without help, wants to understand the general approach to solving this type of problem, realizes that her classmate probably knows how, decides to ask him and the best way to ask, obtains the information, processes it, solves the problem, and as a consequence makes it less likely she will need help to solve similar problems in the future.

These stages and decisions may not occur in the order specified by such models, and learners may not be mindful of many of the steps. More likely, the process probably involves a combination of automatic and controlled cognitive and motivational processing that may begin at various points. For example, students’ awareness may begin with the decision to seek help, and the assessment of available resources, for example, teachers or other students, could occur before as well as after weighing the costs and benefits that determine that decision, especially when seeking help is practiced to the extent that the act takes place with minimal or no conscious deliberation.

Although much of the help-seeking process, such as comprehension monitoring, is similar to that of other forms on SRL, the potential negative implications of needing to rely on others renders it unique. Deciding to rehearse, organize or even engage in elaboration does not carry the stigma potentially attached to asking others for help. Other costs of help seeking include the incurred need for reciprocity, and even the self-recognition of one’s own inadequacy quite apart from its public recognition. Research in this area continues to address the classic issue of why students who are unable to understand the material don’t ask for help (e.g., fail to ask questions in class) for fear of displaying their ignorance, especially when other students remain silent. What has sometimes been referred to as the “help-seeking dilemma” is instilled in early socialization practices that reflect cultural norms of independence, especially in Western cultures. Developmental studies by Newman have documented that young children, as early as 2nd grade, are concerned about revealing incompetence, although not until middle school do such concerns influence their decision to seek help, presumably due to the increased evaluation pressure and social comparisons that emerge at that time and remain thereafter.

Much of what we know about the perceived costs and benefits of seeking help comes from research framed within achievement goal theory. Numerous studies by myself and others have consistently found that learners focused on developing competence (i.e., mastery goals) are more likely to seek instrumental help, and those trying to avoid demonstrating incompetence (i.e., performance avoidance goals) are more likely to avoid seeking help or to seek help that is work avoidant. The influences of both development and demonstration goals continues during high school, but studies indicate that performance-avoidance goals are more influential determinants of help seeking at the post-secondary level given increases in testing and normative comparisons. How teachers structure their classes and respond to students affects the extent that students seek or avoid seeking help. This includes development or demonstration goal structures and students’ perceptions of teachers’ interpersonal and academic support, as well as how they respond to student questions.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC), intelligent learning environments (ILE), Learning and Course Management Systems (LMS, CMS; e.g., Blackboard), and the pervasive and accelerating presence of iPads (e.g., e-books)—which Kitsantas and Dabbagh combined under the rubric of Integrative Learning Technologies (ILT)—may influence the incidence and type of seeking help more so than other leaning strategies. As Keefer and I suggested some time ago, help seeking may benefit (although see below) from the decreased effort, greater anonymity that reduces the potential stigma, and less time pressure provided by asynchronic computer-mediated communication (CMC; e.g., email, online discussions, texting, social networking sites). In the first demonstration of how increased privacy can reduce threat, Knapp and I found that help seeking approximately doubled when help was provided by an intelligent system compared to when the same information was ostensibly delivered via the same computer interface by a person available online.

More recently, Kitsantas and Chow found that students in courses with an online component reported feeling less threatened and more likely to seek help. In their application of intelligent systems, Aleven and colleagues have developed the Help Tutor to accompany their Cognitive Tutor. Based on models of the adaptive help-seeking process and on Bayesian decision rules, the Help Tutor delivers a range of context-sensitive help (e.g., answers or hints consisting of explanations) from which learners can choose. Rather than more desirable indirect instrumental help in the form of hints or access to a glossary of definitions, learners made excessive use of expedient help—asking for answers, which has bwlleen labeled “bottoming out.”