Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness, although for many (children and adults) it can be challenging or uncomfortable to recognise when help is needed. It can also be difficult to know where to find help.
In a school context it is vital everyone can access help when they need it. This includes students, staff, and members of the wider school community. Providing help can be done through various methods such as offering explanations, feedback, guidance, advice, or assistance. Support is provided on a daily basis in a school environment and can range from pastoral to academic issues.
The Model for Great Teaching, from the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review, states, “Great teachers create a supportive environment for learning” (Coe et al., 2020). A supportive learning environment is where students can feel comfortable and confident asking for help. The evidence review further adds, “A supportive environment is characterised by relationships of trust and respect between students and teachers, and among students. It is one in which students are motivated, supported and challenged and have a positive attitude towards their learning.” It is important to ensure any request for help is taken seriously and students may grasp new concepts and content at a different pace to their peers. The evidence review advises, “Teachers should convey care, empathy and warmth towards their students and avoid negative emotional behaviours, such as using sarcasm, shouting or humiliation.”
Building a supportive environment where students feel they can ask questions is a crucial first step. But that’s only a first step—just because students feel they can ask questions does not necessarily mean that they do…
Researchers Amanda Sebesta and Elena Bray Speth, in examining undergraduates in the United States, found that students who use strategies like asking for help are more likely to achieve the highest grades (2017). This is a powerful finding! High achieving students take ownership and responsibility for their learning and are able to ask for help, contributing to their successful grades. Students can be reluctant to ask for help or refuse to do so; this was also illustrated in the study. The study found that around 16% of undergraduate students ask their teachers or instructors for help—although of students whose grade improved over the semester, over 97% did seek assistance.
There are often signs when someone is struggling; this can be evident through certain behaviours, class work, and academic attainment or grades. However, teachers, leaders, parents, carers, or tutors may not realise that students need help.
Furthermore, it is an aim for students to take control and ownership of their learning. This includes asking for help when needed. In turn, students need to know when they need help. As teachers, we can provide opportunities and support to aid students in understanding this. Through setting tasks that are “desirably difficult,” providing actionable feedback, and prompting critical reflections, we can help learners recognise when to ask for assistance.
As teachers and leaders, it is an essential part of our job to help and support students. We know that simply explaining curricular content does not necessarily equate with student learning. We must see our role of helping and supporting students as something that begins with creating a supportive environment and continues to helping students understand they need help. It is in these situations—when students feel that they can and subsequently do ask for help—that learning can take place.
The ‘Creating a supportive environment’ course is available online for teachers to complete as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit. This course provides an evidence-based overview for teachers to explore how and why a supportive environment helps both teachers and students, and what great teachers do to create it. It explores how these principles can be applied in the classroom and prepares teachers to implement the strategies in their teaching.
Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great teaching toolkit: Evidence Review. Evidence Based Education. https://evidencebased.education/great teaching-toolkit/
Sebesta, A. J., & Speth, E. B. (2017). How should i study for the exam? Self-regulated learning strategies and achievement in introductory biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(2). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-09-0269
Shellenbarger, S. (2017, August 17). Before you study, ask for help. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-smarter-ways-to-study-1502810531