Learning theories in practice/Help-seeking

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Learners always seek help from people around them when what they encounter in learning are beyond the explanation of their current knowledge. Seeking help from others allows them to get targeted information exactly when they need it. Compared with other ways of learning, getting help from others is more convenient and less time-consuming. Learners hold different attitudes on help-seeking and show various behaviors in different learning environment or setting. Help-seeking behavior of learners is greatly influenced by learners’ characteristics and learning contexts. Also, help-seeking behavior in turn helps parents and teachers understand more about learners. The importance of help-seeking behavior cannot be ignored in learning process.

This chapter is created to provide a comprehensive understanding of help-seeking behavior in learning. The primary goal of it is to inspire parents, teachers and researchers to focus more attention on learners’ help-seeking or question-asking behavior in family and school learning environments. The second goal is to teach learners strategies of seeking help when they meet problems or difficulties in learning or studying. The third goal is to analyze the interactions involved in help-seeking behavior so that the relationship between help-seekers and help-providers is enhanced.

The chapter will include the following contents:

  1. Review the literature about the research on help-seeking in learning
  2. Understand the importance of the research on help-seeking behavior in learning
  3. Describe patterns of help-seeking in learning
  4. Explore reasons why learners need or attempt to seek help in learning
  5. Explain factors which influence learner’s seeking-help behavior
  6. Examine the future direction of the research on help-seeking behavior

Introduction: Stories[edit | edit source]

Let’s consider following stories before more is known about help-seeking in learning.

Story 1: Weiwei, my son, was 3 months when he turned to me for help. He could not grasp a toy that was far away from him then. Crying was his indication that he was in need of help because he subconsciously knew that reaching that toy was beyond his ability, but mom could give him a hand. Later, coupled with his physical growth was the increase of his questions. He was curious about everything around him, and the best way for him to acquire knowledge seems to ask questions and seek answers from me and other family members.

Story 2: In an English class of Bloomington elementary school, Jenny, a 9-year-old 3rd grader, was feeling frustrated when reading the grammar exercises on her English textbook. She did not know how to sort all these difficult parts out on her own. She was feeling helpless until the teacher came to her rescue. The teacher figured out from Jenny’s facial expression that she must encounter some troubles in her study. After half an hour, Jenny was smiling because she solved all her problems with the help of teacher.

Story 3: George is a 14-year-old student in Indianapolis high school. Like some at his age, he is becoming rebellious and seldom communicates with his parents, teachers, or peers. Every time when he is in trouble, whether in life or study, he hesitates to seek help from others because he thinks of help requesting is disgraceful. Even though he has this “self-respect”, he achieves low in the study.

Story 4: It is my first year in Indiana University. I had a good time in the first several months except for the unsatisfying score in the first statistics test. Thinking over the methods I used in learning statistics, I found out that I left some important but difficult problems unsolved. With limited abilities to solve them all, I knew that I needed help from the teacher and the assistant instructor in studying the next unit. Finally, I got a higher grade in the second statistics test. The success should be attributed to the help of the teacher and the AI.

Story 5: My friend Lei was sitting in her office at an accountant firm, being confused at what to do first because this was her first day in work after graduating from Peking University. Luckily, an experienced colleague was assigned to help her. Helping the newcomer was a tradition of the firm. It not only assists new colleagues to familiarize with their job but also guarantees the smooth management of the firm.

All above-mentioned stories are about asking help or help-seeking. Help-seeking, also question asking or requesting information, is a strategy utilized in a lifelong learning process. Nobody would live well without the help from others. When children begin to be curious about the world around them in infancy, they ask questions to those in their world, mostly, to their parents (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9rixsJ-VO0). When they are at school age and expand their “small kingdom” to schools, they need the help of others to progress in their learning, whether they are in kindergartens or in colleges. After graduation from universities, they have their first job and come to the new working site on the first day. They finally find out that the primary thing they should learn is to seek help from colleagues and supervisors.

This seemingly simple and natural help-seeking behavior, however, is complex and intricate. It arouses the interest of researchers in sociology, psychology, education and other disciplines (B. Depaulo, A. Nadler, & J. Fisher, 1983). Researchers labeled help-seeking behavior as “an index of dependence and a degrading activity to be avoided” (Nelson-Le Gall, 1985) in their early studies, especially in those of socialization and personality development. Some theorists pointed out that help-seeking can be predicted by embarrassment and loss of self-esteem. Other researchers attributed help-seeking to the demonstration of one’s low-ability. But Nelson-Le Gall (1981) suggested a reconceptualized model of help-seeking. It changed the emphasis of study in help-seeking from “stigmatizing, self-threatening behavior” to “an effective alternative for coping with current difficulties.” He pointed out that help-seeking behavior can be predicted and explained by the use of “personal characteristics of the individual and situational characteristics of the achievement setting” in learning and achievement context. Later on, considerable research focused on the study of help-seeking behavior in learning.

This chapter will examine the importance of help-seeking behavior in learning, main patterns of help-seeking behavior, factors that influence help-seeking behavior in learning, and future direction of the research on help-seeking behavior.

The Importance of Help-seeking Behavior[edit | edit source]

A Social Constructivism Behavior[edit | edit source]

In social constructivism, humans construct meaning from current knowledge structures. Learning is an active process where learners should learn to discover principles, concepts, facts and answers for themselves. Each learner is viewed as a unique individual with unique needs and backgrounds. It is important that the learner is actively involved in the learning process to construct or co-construct knowledge so that they can retain their knowledge longer. When learners are not able to solve the problems they meet, they do not sit still and wait for the miraculous or natural appearance of the answers. Instead, they actively ask help from others who they think have more knowledge or higher levels than themselves. According to Eggen & Kauchak’s definition of constructivism, “Learners use their experiences to actively construct understandings that make sense to them, rather than have understandings delivered to them in already organized form” (1997, p. 59), seeking help, is a typical social constructivism behavior. As Piaget (1954) theorized, children encounter new information that does not fit into their existing schemata when they explore the world. Anomalies of this experience results in a state of “disequilibrium”: an unbalance in their mind that poses a problem. This state motivates children to seek help from those around them and then get information that can resolve their problems at hand. During the process, they assimilate incoming information from others into their existing way of thinking or accommodate their ways of thinking to new experiences. Once they find an adequate solution and the required information, they restore the state of equilibrium in their mind. Vygotsky (1978) further pointed out that children obtain help from the other people within their “zone of proximal development (ZPD)”. The ZPD is the difference between what children are already able to do on their own and “… (their) potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p.68). Through social interactions with others, especially with adults and more capable peers, children construct the knowledge of the world and seek out the information they are in need. This provides a particular advantage for them and allows them to learn more efficiently.

A Significant Cognitive Skill[edit | edit source]

Help-seeking behavior is particularly useful to children during cognitive development. Children are influenced directly and indirectly by their social environment in learning process. The ability of turning to adults or peers as sources to cope with the difficulties in life and study is considered one of the most important cognitive skills children can cultivate. Also, the studies of cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that help-seeking is basic to knowledge acquisition and learning. Unlike the information that children might obtain coincidentally from other sources, or information that other people offer or force to input when children are not prepared for it, children actively seek help and get answers or solutions exactly when they need it most. Fortunately, this is when they are open to the information when they are attempting to restore a state of equilibrium. And, the answers or information that children are seeking are what they are truly interested in. They may impress children most and help children memorize to the greatest extent.

An Important Self-regulated Strategy[edit | edit source]

Self-regulation refers to the use of processes that activate and sustain thoughts, behaviors, and affects in order to attain goals (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1997). In other words, it refers to taking charge of one’s own learning by coordinating thinking skills. Self-regulation consists of the development of a set of constructive behaviors that affect one's learning. These processes are planned and adapted to support the pursuit of personal goals in changing learning environments. When faced with a learning task, self-regulated learners typically do the following: (1) They begin by analyzing the task and interpreting task requirements in terms of their current knowledge and beliefs; (2) They set task-specific goals, which they use as a basis for selecting, adapting, and possibly inventing strategies that will help them accomplish their objectives; (3) After implementing strategies, they monitor their progress toward goals, thereby generating internal feedback about the success of their efforts; (4) They adjust their strategies and efforts based on their perception of ongoing progress; (5) They use motivational strategies to keep themselves on task when they become discouraged or encounter difficulties (Zimmerman, 1989) . One specific characteristic of a self-regulated learner is that they know how to use others as a resource to cope with ambiguities and troubles in learning (Newman, 1991, 1994; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1988), that is, the ability to seek help. Learners unavoidably experience difficult situations in their life and study. When this occurs, they are able to initiate, direct, monitor, and adjust their own performance. Those possessing good self-regulatory skills not only know the importance of help from others (metacognition), but also approach others for clarification and direction so that learning can continue, that is, decide to seek help from others’ instructions (motivation), and implement strategies for engaging another person's help (Nelson Le-Gall, 1981; Newman, 1994). Such steps and processes are evidence that they are actively engaged in classroom activities and demonstrate an awareness of their own thinking. By seeking assistance at such times, learners solve not only their immediate difficulties but can also acquire skills and strategies that allow them to become independent.

Patterns of Help-seeking Behavior in Learning[edit | edit source]

Two forms of seeking help are distinguished: avoidant help-seeking and adaptive/strategic help-seeking. Avoidant help seeking refers to instances that a learner avoids asking for help even when he is aware of the need. The learner might choose to give up finding out the answer of a problem or guess an inappropriate answer rather than turn to others’ help. Then, they may put themselves in embarrassment and achieve little in learning. Compared with adaptive/strategic help seekers, avoidant help-seekers obviously have lower academic efficacy, less adaptability, more anxiety, and poorer performance in learning (Karabenick & Knapp, 1991; Nelson Le-Gall, 1981; Newman, 1994). In contrast, adaptive help seekers actively look for hints about the solution to their problem, or clarification of the ambiguity. They not only find the answers they requested but also develop the ability to overcome obstacles independently and eventually become autonomous learners. Strategic/adaptive learners are more motivated and more confident in learning. They have higher mastery approach achievement goal levels and academic performance (Ryan & Pintrich, 1997). According to Nelson-Le Gall (1985), adaptive help seeking has two forms: “instrumental” help and “executive” help. The former is relevant to clarifying methods and supporting future independent mastery (e.g., useful hints), while the latter is relevant to expediting immediate task completion (e.g., solutions).

Factors that Influence Help-seeking Behavior[edit | edit source]

Two main factors influence help-seeking behavior in learning: characteristics of learner and situational characteristics of learning setting.

Characteristics of the Learner[edit | edit source]

Achievement Goal Orientations[edit | edit source]

Achievement goal orientations are important to understanding learners' help-seeking behaviors. They include mastery goal orientation (also called learning goals or task-involved goals) and performance goal orientation (also called relative ability and ego-involved goals). (Ames, 1992; Covington, 1992; Dweck, 1986; Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). A mastery goal orientation refers to a desire to master knowledge in learning, including understanding the content on textbook, gaining an insightful perspective of a problem, or acquiring a new skill. Learning, in this sense, is an end in itself. Performance goal orientation concerns a desire to be evaluated positively or praised by others, especially by parents, teachers and peers. Others’ evaluation to learners is more important than learning itself.

Performance goal orientation is further classified into two: performance-approach goal orientation and performance-avoid goal orientation (Middleton, & Midgley, 1997). Whereas learners of the performance-approach goal orientation like to demonstrate their good ability, look smart, or outperform others, those with performance-avoid goal orientation focus on avoiding negative judgments of their competence and trying to avoid looking dumb or be outwitted by others.

A mastery goal orientation has been found to be related positively to adaptive help seeking (Butler & Neuman, 1995). Performance goal orientations have been associated with the avoidance of help seeking (Ryan & Pintrich 1997). Achievement goal orientation is highly correlated with learners’ academic self-efficacy. Learners with mastery goal orientation tend to be deeply engaged in learning activities and sustain intrinsic interest in mastering tasks and developing competence. They are motivated by challenges in learning. When faced with adversities, they often can persevere and strategically overcome difficulties. Learners with performance goal orientation, on the other hand, are more likely to be interested in getting good grades, displaying competence. They avoid challenges and obstacles in order to maintain their self-perception of ability relative to others (Middleton, & Midgley, 1997).

Academic Self-efficacy[edit | edit source]

Another characteristic of learners that has been shown to be related to help-seeking behavior is their academic self-efficacy, which refers to learners' evaluation of their capabilities to complete their academic task successfully (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). Consistent with Bandura’s self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1997), academically self-efficacious learners are more confident in their abilities. They do not worry the negative feedback from help givers and are more likely to secure necessary help. In contrast, learners with low academic self-efficacy tend to believe that the potential help givers will look down upon them if they ask help, and, therefore, they are reluctant to ask for help. In effect, the very learners who need help the most seek it the least.

Attitudes about Help-seeking[edit | edit source]

Attitudes refer to perceived threat and benefits associated with help seeking in learning. They influence behavioral intentions and, in turn, actual behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). Butler (1998) identified three general concerns learners have about help-seeking: (1) autonomy; (2) ability; and (3) expedient concerns. Autonomy concerns refer to the concerns of learners about their self-esteem and self-reliance in seeking assistance. Learners of autonomy concerns have the expectation to complete work on their own rather than the desire to rely on help from someone else. Ability concerns refer to the concerns of learners about their own abilities or capabilities to solve the problems. They place a high value on their own abilities and think that they will look dumb if they ask for help. Expedient concerns refer to the concerns of learners about efficiency of the solution. They believe that turning to others for solving difficulties will not be as effective as relying on their own if the help givers are not competent, the helper is too difficult or famous to contact, or help-seeking will waste a lot of time. Because of these three concerns, learners may hesitate to seek help from others. On the contrary, without these preoccupations before asking for assistance, learners would feel comfortable in obtaining help.

Affective Experiences[edit | edit source]

Affective experiences have been found to be important to understanding students' motivation and engagement (Roeser, Eccles, & Strobel, 1998), and they also play a role in learners' help-seeking behavior. Learners' affective experiences may predispose them to feeling positively or negatively about help seeking and thus influence their behavior. Those who have experienced good communication with helpers or achieved their goals by asking for help will seek help actively next time when they are in trouble. The positive affective experience will, in turn, greatly enhance their learning. On the other hand, learners who get ineffective results from help-seeking behavior are unlikely to ask for assistance when they know the problems are beyond their capabilities. The negative affective experience, in the end, inhibits learners from seeking help, the more convenient way to solve problems.

Social-interactional Situation in Learning Environment[edit | edit source]

Characteristics of Helpers[edit | edit source]

Help-seeking is not a sole behavior of help-seekers. It needs the cooperation of helpers or help givers. At home, helpers are always parents; and helpers are teachers and peers mainly in classroom settings. Characteristics of help givers play a key role in the process of seeking help.

Helpers’ Relationship with Help- seekers[edit | edit source]

Positive social relations between help seekers and help givers increase the likelihood that persons who are in need of help ask for assistance. There are different aspects of helpers’ support, including a concern with the help-seekers both as a learner (academic support) and as a person (socioemotional support) (Turner et al., 2002).

Helpers’ Competence[edit | edit source]

When help-seekers turn to others for help, they presuppose that helpers have more knowledge and higher capabilities than themselves. And seeking help aims to solve the problems that help-seekers encounter. Competent helpers find answers quickly and convince those who turn to them. However, the incompetence of help givers will not only make help-seekers disappointed, but also influence learners’ future help-seeking behavior (van der Meij, 1988).

Helpers’ Attitudes about Help-seeking[edit | edit source]

Obviously, helpers’ attitudes about help-seeking determine whether they prefer to offer their help to help-seekers or not (Butler, 1998). Help-seekers often feel frustrated when helpers are indifferent to the questions they have. Children may not ask questions any more at home after their mothers laugh at their questions or neglect their requesting information. However, students are encouraged to ask more questions when their teachers are patient to explain answers.

Social Climate of Learning Setting[edit | edit source]

Help seeking behavior combines aspects of cognitive and social engagement. It is both a learning strategy and a social interaction with others. Learners' help-seeking behavior is closely related to social climate of the learning setting. Settings characterized as caring, supportive, and friendly are likely to make learners feel more comfortable while they are interacting with the helpers. In an environment in which learners feel inferior or incompetent, they may be less likely to feel the need to ask for help (Ryan & Pintrich, 1998). In effect, a positive social environment wherein learners feel a sense of belongingness is critical to the use and ultimate impact of help seeking.

Future Directions of Research[edit | edit source]

Research on Characteristics of Learners[edit | edit source]

Though there are a large amount of studies on characteristics of learners in help-seeking behavior as mentioned above, other aspects of learners need to be explored more in the future, such as age and gender of learners. The research of Newman and Goldin (1990) examined characteristics related to help-seeking for 177 children in grades 3, 5, and 7 and found age and gender differences. Their results are helpful for understanding help-seeking behavior from development perspective.

Research on Help-seeking in Other Learning Setting[edit | edit source]

Most previous research on help-seeking was targeted to learners in primary schools. Researchers need to explore more in other classrooms such as in preschools, high schools and colleges. And numerous previous studies focused on math classes (Ryan & Pintrich, 1997; Tuner et al., 2002). Researchers can analyze help-seeking behavior classroom in other subjects, such as, language, biology or geography. Family, as another important place for learners to seek help, was seldom examined in previous studies. Examination of help-seeking behavior in these learning settings will provide us a complete description of help-seeking behavior.

Research on Help-giving[edit | edit source]

Related to help-seeking, help-giving is another important field to explore. The types of help-giving or the persons who are engaged in helping are crucial to understand help-seeking. Examining teachers or peer’s help giving will provide a new perspective to study instruction in education. Webb (2003) investigated the help-giving in collaborative peer learning environment.

Research on Help-seeking in Different Cultures[edit | edit source]

Compared with abundant research on help-seeking behavior in American schools, the research on help-seeking behavior in other cultures was few (Nelson, & Jones, 1990). Culture, as an important influence on learning, would impact greatly help-seeking behavior. Learners may display various help-seeking behaviors in different cultural contexts.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Though a seemingly simple behavior in leaning, help-seeking reflects Piagetian and Vygotskian perspectives on learning, it embodies Bandura’s social cognitive theory as well. The past decade witnessed the increased studies on help-seeking behavior. It is not only because help-seeking was viewed as active engagement in learning, but also because its significance in understanding social constructivism, cognitive development and self-regulatory strategies. Many factors are related to help seeking behavior in learning, mainly, characteristics of learner and social interaction in learning environment. The elaboration of these factors is the combination of concepts in educational psychology and various learning theories. It is believed that help-seeking can be studied from different perspectives, such as from other cultures and other learning environments. Future research on help-seeking will contribute more to understanding problems in development, learning and cognition.

References[edit | edit source]

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