Help-Seeking Avoidance in Language Arts High School Students and Teacher-Developed Counter-Methods

Master's Thesis, 2007

133 Pages, Grade: A

Dr. Christina Voss (Author)


Table of Contents

A. Background
B. Statement of the Problem
C. Significance of the Study

A. Conceptual Framework
B. Limitations and Weaknesses of the Past Research
C. Review of Related Literature
1. Student Goals as Basis for Motivation
2. Defining Areas where Help is Needed
3. Reasons for Help-Seeking Behavior
a. Students’ Theories about Social Cognition and Academic Task
b. Classroom Climate
c. Teacher-Student Inter-Subjectivity
i. Teachers’ Willingness to Help
ii. Teachers’ Competence
iii. Teachers’ Negative Reaction
iv. Teachers’ Expectance
v. Teachers’ General Personality
vi. Student-Teacher Relationship
vii. Teachers’ Predictability
viii. Student-Teacher Familiarity
ix. Teachers’ Gender and Race
x. Teachers’ Mood
4. Students’ Gender and Age
5. Achievement Level: Tracking, Ethnicity, and Language
6. Foreign Language Classroom
7. Teachers’ Counter-Methods
a. Writing Conferences
b. Written Comments on Papers
c. “Slang Dictionary” Extra Credit Project
d. Graphic Novels, Poetry Comics, Hip Hop Poems, WebQuests, Blogs, Community Member Visits
e. “Sorrow Box”
D. Summary of Research Hypotheses and Research Questions

A. Overview
B. Participants
1. Classes and Teachers
2. Case Studies
a. Jim-Bob
b. Fabumi
c. Tad
d. Lys
C. Methods
1. Quantitative Methods
a. Pre-Survey
b. Post-Survey
c. STI-Scores for “Slang Dictionary Project”
2. Qualitative Methods
a. “Sorrow Box”
b. Writing Conferences
e. Field Study: Student Observation in Third Track Class

A. Has the Students’ Help-Seeking Behavior Changed Over the Year?
B. Correlation Analyses
1. Foreign Language Anxiety and Help-Seeking in German
2. Help-Seeking and Race/Low-Income/GPA
3. Help-Seeking and Student/Teacher Perception
4. Help-Seeking and Classroom Climate
C. Students’ Preferred Ways of Help-Eliciting
D. Students’ Acceptance / Refusal of Offered Help Tools
E. Summary of Help-Seeking Results

A. Overview
B. Study Findings
C. Implications for Classroom Practices
D. Validity and Reliability
E. Conclusion

VI. References

VII. Appendix (surveys)

“Self Alone” – Help-Seeking Avoidance in Language Arts High School Students, and Teacher-Developed Counter-Methods

Christina L. Voss


Help-Seeking is a learning strategy which the self-regulated student can use to improve academic achievement. The purpose of this study is to find ways to enhance high school students’ understanding and learning, raise their grades, and lower the prevalence of task avoidance, faking, and cheating, by encouraging the students to seek more help than they usually would in Language Arts classrooms. Subjects to my study were 44 top track junior English students, 10 third track freshman English students, 14 junior honor German students, six Language Arts teachers, as well as four case studies. After investigating the reasons for help-seeking avoidance as well as help-seeking over-eliciting, I offered help in different areas – teacher-directed intervention, peer-review and collaborative learning, and technological/media support. Results indicated that in most students, the help-seeking behavior had not changed after my student teaching, but the majority acknowledged help tools such as writing conferences as important to attain higher grades. While some students used help tools, others rejected them openly. They know what is out there – remains to use it! The practical implications for the Language Arts classroom are discussed.

Key words: help-seeking avoidance, help-seeking willingness scale, student goals, anxiety, self-perception, cognition, motivation, classroom climate, gender differences, tracking system, self-regulated learning, cooperative learning, teacher intervention, teacher-student inter-subjectivity, foreign language classroom anxiety scale


The title for this action research project was inspired by a toddler learning to use his potty, and who at a certain stage of his training process defiantly waved off his mother’s offer to help with a repugnant: “Self alone!” My high school students in the Language Arts (English and German) remind me in many ways of this infant.

But in contrast to the progress of the little child towards his independence, is their defiance good for them? Don’t they spill the academic potty by being lone fighters? Does not common sense tell us that students who frequently ask questions are also higher achieving than their help-avoiding classmates? How can I get my students to ask for help more often, be it me or other peers? As Ryan and Pintrich put it, the concept of self-regulated learning and its impact on student progress has gained importance in the 1980s and 1990: “Self-regulated learners are students who are metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally involved in their learning” (Ryan & Pintrich 1997, 329+) One component of self-regulated learning is the capability to use peers and teachers as valid resources to cope with problem solving – thus, the inquirer performs the steps of noticing s/he needs help with a certain task, of deciding to ask for help, and of selecting a person to ask this help from. If the teacher provides a way for students to learn systematically, which is called strategy teaching, the students will become more self-efficient and look for help if they need it:

Strategy teaching is considered a key means of promoting self-regulated learning. Students who learn a systematic approach for working on academic material are able to apply it independently. Strategy learning also raises motivation, because students who believe they can apply an effective strategy are apt to feel more efficacious about succeeding, which raises self-efficacy (…). (Schunk & Zimmerman 1998, 227)

So during my student teaching, I will try to employ this strategy teaching – still a vague term to me – in order to transform my students into self-regulated learners. I will encourage peer work and peer review, and provide helpful material and media for inquiry-based problem solving (for example, hands-on material and WebQuests for our Helen Keller unit, or blogs as online discussion forums when we deal with literature such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), so that my students will employ a process of self-directed learning conform with Dewey’s theory of knowledge. That means, I do not want my students (especially the third tracks) cling to the teacher for the right answer, but educate them to explore other ways as social beings to find solutions to their problems, such as asking peers.

A. Background

After five months of classroom observation, and five months of student teaching during my apprenticeship for the Master of Arts in Teaching, I gained the impression that sometimes, my students could have achieved better understanding, and in consequence, better grades, if they had just asked the questions that were on their minds, instead of trying to figure it out alone, coming to no ends, asking peers who were not sure themselves, or simply abandoning the task completely due to frustration or indifference. When my cooperating teacher and I gave the final exams in English at the end of the second semester of 2006, in which the students had to write an essay-type evaluation about two of their previous writings, describing the positive and negative aspects of their writing capacity, I found the following shocking statement:

With the “Scarlet Letter” I didn’t really understand the book, the topic, or anything about the assignment. This was one of my papers that I tried to fake my way through. I also tried to be fancy with my words & ideas. (Original quote by a male top track junior English student, final exams in English, December 21st, 2006)

I was appalled – why does the student tell me this at the end of the semester? Why did he not ask questions when the assignment was given a couple of months earlier? I do not know if I could have made him understand the book, but at least I could have explained the instructions of the assignment to him. This quote confirmed me in my decision of doing my action research on help-seeking avoidance. How far have teachers come when their students have to “fake their way through” by using “fancy words,” because they do not understand what we want them to do, and do not inquire? And how often do those “fancy words” appease the teacher and make him or her think the student uses really sophisticated language, having understood the original text as well as the secondary sources? Are we not ready prey to well-sounding essays?

B. Statement of the Problem

Faking and cheating are two negative student strategies the prevalence of which, in my opinion, could be lowered by enhancing the help-seeking behavior of our students: “Cheating is related to avoidance behaviors such as self-handicapping, avoiding academic novelty and challenge, and avoiding help seeking in several ways (…).” (Midgley 2002, 64) According to Carol Midgley, help-seeking avoidance undermines academic achievement, whereas cheating is employed to raise grades. Help-seeking avoidance can be a student’s protection from appearing unable, while cheating actually covers up his or her academic inability (Midgley 2002, 64).

My cooperating teacher offers writing conferences as a help tool. Why do students not take this opportunity to talk about their difficulties before they hand in a major assignment? We have made writing conferences mandatory for all students who desire to do a rewrite, so at least those come to converse with us. In a case study, I want to examine the behavior of a student who shuns writing conferences.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Am I really that threatening?” I am a student teacher, not a “real” teacher, we are both still learning and far from perfect, so why don’t the students approach at least me with questions – what could happen to them? Doesn’t the fact that I am younger than their regular classroom teacher encourage them to converse with me about their problems? No way. Does my PhD frighten them off? Or is it because I am a German native speaker? (This might discourage my German students from seeking help.) I wondered what makes students reluctant to help-seeking, and what makes teachers appear a threat in their eyes.

Simultaneously, I needed to know whether I was the only instructor seeing help-seeking as a problem. If yes, I probably could drop the issue. If not, this was a proof that there was definitely something wrong out there – either with the students, or with the teaching strategies. So I questioned nine teachers, with the outcome that 50% (3) of them said that they think their students’ help-seeking behavior is a problem in their classes, while 33.3% (2) maintain that it is no problem, and 16.7% (1) said “I don’t know.” The next question I asked was what kind of help-seeking behavior they encountered most.

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Among five English teachers and one German/ESL teacher, 66.7% (4) said they encounter help-seeking avoidance most often in their classrooms, 16.7% (1) encounter an overabundant help-eliciting, 16.7% (1) said that they encounter both symptoms equally often, and zero percent stated that neither of those is a problem. Moreover, 100% of the teachers indicated that they believe that their students’ grades would improve if they asked for help more often. These data are in line with research stating that teachers “were puzzled by the tendency of some students to avoid seeking help when it was needed. This problem seems to be especially notable when children are approaching adolescence. It is a serious problem. If children need help but do not seek it, then their performance surely will suffer.” (Ryan et al. 1997, 164) This was enough justification for me to pursue this topic.

C. Significance of the Study

The purpose of this study was conceptualized from the perspective that help-seeking behavior influences the academic achievement of high school students. In this view, it is important to gain an understanding of students’ help-seeking avoidance, as well as over-eliciting, in order to positively influence their grades. Reviewing past research about help-seeking behavior, I was struck by the paucity of studies in Language Arts classes opposite an overrepresentation of research on help-seeking in mathematics. Finding my field of study – English and German in high school – thus underrepresented in current research, I tried to apply the general observations of the prevalent research to my area of interest, to gain new insight. For example, in mathematics it has been shown in studies about help-seeking that one should link “cognitive, motivational, and social characteristics of students to provide a fuller understanding of adolescent help seeking” (Ryan and Pintrich 1997, 329+). I will show that the same or similar factors, such as perceived threats and benefits, task-focused and extrinsic goals, and perceptions of competence have an impact on the help-seeking behavior of Language Arts learners, as well.


A. Conceptual Framework

I posed myself two research questions that should lead me to improve my teaching performance in my Language Arts high school classrooms – 1. What are the reasons for my students’ help-seeking behavior? and 2. Which effective counter-methods can I use?

My classroom observations as well as the perusal of research literature showed me that several outside factors influence my students’ help-seeking behavior, which I want to outline in the following sketch:

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Let’s first examine the psychological and behavioral factors. A student who has no learning or performance goals will hardly seek help, because s/he would not think it necessary and worth while to ask for assistance in a step leading to an undefined outcome. Equally, a student with a low motivation to learn will not approach a peer or teacher for help, because s/he is not striving to achieve a high aim, anyway, and just does it as good as s/he can (or not at all).

Anxiety and the student’s self-perception also play an important role regarding help-seeking. An anxious or shy student will find it hard to approach a figure of authority for support, and a student who thinks very low of his/her own abilities might be too scared of negative feedback (laughter, derision, exposure) to seek for help in the classroom. On the contrary, the anxiety of failing can provoke a student to seek help in the very last minute. To quote my classroom teacher, commenting on a student who came to his desk to seek help a couple of hours before an in-class essay was due: “Fear is a great motivator!”

Then, let’s take “Cognition.” In “The Efficient Assessment of Need for Cognition” (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao 1984), the authors employed a “Need for Cognition Scale” that measured students’ approaches to learning tasks. Just to mention a few of them (cf. Haskin, Smith, & Racine 2003): “Thinking is not my idea of fun,” “I only think as hard as I have to,” and “It’s enough for me that something gets the job done; I don’t care how or why it works.” A student with an approach marked by disinterest, boredom, indifference, half-heartedness, and languidness will certainly not show much effort in attaining an academic goal, will have low motivation, and therefore display help-seeking avoidance, because s/he sees no purpose for inquiry when the problem is of no interest to him/her. A student who only thinks as hard as s/he has to will probably not seek help to improve, assuming whatever is known already is sufficient for the low goals set. It was further observed that students who think low of their own ability to perform shy away from seeking help (a fact I can contradict regarding my third track class). In addition,

As far as student demographics are concerned, my third track freshman English class is a proof of evidence that ethnicity (in this case, African American) and low-income (most of my students come from rural regions and low-income families, and in addition from single-parent or guardianship households) influence help-seeking behavior: those students seek help in abundance. Many of these students would be first-generation students after high school, their parents not having achieved any higher academic degrees. This implies that such students cannot receive help with their homework at home, so that they have to ask peers and teachers in the classroom, because they cannot rely on help from home. On the contrary, several of my top track students who come from academic families, some having professors as parents, can and do ask their siblings for help at home. You can imagine my surprise that my survey of six teachers resulted in 83.3% (5) stating that middle class students ask more for help, whereas 16.7% (1) couldn’t say, but none of the teachers – in contrast to my own observations – saw the low-income students as the frequent help-elicitors.

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Research has further suggested that gender plays a role in help-seeking, which I will only mention shortly since it is not applicable to my third track class, there only being one girl in the class. Of the six teachers I questioned, 66.7% (4) stated they could not say who asked for help more often, while 33.3% (2) were sure it was the girls. Nobody opted for the boys.

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As to the social conditions influencing help-seeking behavior, teacher characteristics and classroom climate have a positive or negative impact on students’ help-seeking attitudes. If a student feels rejected, ridiculed, or even hated by an instructor, s/he will be reluctant to approach this person for help. If a student is constantly nagged and made fun of by peers, s/he will likewise refrain from exposing his/her ignorance in front of the class by asking for help. As to students’ theories about social cognition and academic tasks, a student will hesitate to ask for help when the task seems too easy or has previously been dealt with in class, so that asking would make him/her appear “dumb” in front of the others.

In the following, I will analyze these outside factors more in depths, beginning with student goals.

B. Limitations and Weaknesses of the Past Research

In order to gain a background understanding of this problematic issue in my Language Arts classrooms, I perused the vast research literature that was published about children’s help-seeking roughly between 1990 and 2006. As Le Mare & Sohbat put it, “[i]nterest in help seeking stems from the recognition that it is an important self-regulatory behavior that contributes to student learning.” (Le Mare & Sohbat 2002, 139) However, I soon became disappointed, as I was not able to locate any direct information about help-seeking in English or German high school classes. What I found was an abundance of research about help-seeking behavior in mathematics (e.g. “Students’ Perceptions of the Teacher and Classmates in Relation to Reported Help Seeking in Math Class,” Newman & Schwager, 1993, and “Promoting Helping Behavior in Cooperative Small Groups in Middle School Mathematics,” Webb & Farivar, 1994, and “Should I Ask for Help? The Role of Motivation and Attitudes in Adolescents’ Help Seeking in Math Class,” Pintrich & Ryan, 1997).

All the promising titles either dealt with the wrong subject, or with students outside of the United States, for example “Canadian Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Characteristics That Support or Inhibit Help Seeking,” by Lucy Le Mare and Elahe Sohbat, 2002, a study performed with a majority of white elementary school students. However, my third track class is almost entirely African American.

Further, the age group was mostly not the one I am teaching – there are numerous sources about pre-school, middle and elementary school, college, university, and black adults. My special interest was in African American children, since I had observed that in my third track junior English class, in which the majority of students are African American, the help-seeking problem is inversed with regard to the top track and honor classes – the African American students, as well as the low academic achievers (both white and black) ask for help constantly. However, the research literature I found covering African American help-seeking either deals with consulting professionals for mental health problems, or with older students at college, for example “Help-Seeking Attitudes among African-American College Students,” by Gilbert, Romero, & Dominicus, 2005.

C. Review of Related Literature

1. Student Goals as Basis for Motivation, and therefore, Help-Seeking

As a Graduate Assistant to the Associate Vice Chancellor of Diversity at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I have previously written research and review papers about the topics “test anxiety,” “first generation students,” “procrastination,” “student goals,” “stereotypes of Black males,” and “teachers’ perceptions of black boys.” I found these studies very helpful as a background to my action research, especially the study about goals, for these are the prerequisite for student motivation (if a student has no goal in view, s/he is hardly motivated to achieve an academic grade), and with motivation goes help-seeking eliciting. A student who is motivated to learn and gets stuck will approach a help-giver (a peer, a parent, a teacher, a counselor, etc., or use technological support tools) to achieve his/her goal. Help-seeking enhances student learning. And this is the ultimate purpose of my paper: to find ways to improve students’ learning by encouraging their help-seeking. Thus, we can observe a chain of causalities: goals – motivation – help-seeking – learning. When a student has a target in mind, s/he feels triggered to achieve it, asks for help on the way, and learns something. With this chain reaction in mind, I want to analyze the goals of my students prior to describing their help-seeking patterns. In order to do this, it is necessary to gain insight in the history of the “achievement goal theory.”

“[A]chievement goal theory is the one that focuses most directly on students’ perceptions about the reason for engaging in academic work.” (Urdan & Maehr 1995, 214) Thus, we might picture two students working on a class project, one out of genuine interest in the topic, the other out of an urge to impress the teacher. Both students could be equally motivated, but their reasons are different – they result from their goal orientation (cf. Finney et al. 2004, 365).

In Goals, Goal Structures and Patterns of Adaptive Learning (Midgley 2002, 22), the development of the achievement goal theory is described as having its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when several researchers investigating motivation in competence-relevant settings came to nearly mutual insights about the differences in students’ learning patterns (Ames, 1984; Dweck, 1986; Maehr, 1984; Nicholls, 1984). The researchers concentrated not only on differences in direction and strength of students’ learning engagement, but also on its quality. They noticed that students who seemingly work diligently on a task could display a different quality of their investment. Thus, one can contrast learners who use learning strategies and interpret difficulties as challenge, seeing their task in a positive way, with learners who merely try to memorize material, experiencing frustration during difficulties. According to the researchers, these differences result from different motivational orientations.

Ames (1984) researched the impact of different reward systems on students’ academic engagement; Dweck & Leggett (1988) investigated the different responses of children with similar abilities to difficulty and failure; Maehr & Nicholls (1984) analyzed the effect of different cultural backgrounds on the meaning of achievement; and Nicholls (1984) conducted research aiming at understanding the development of children’s conception of ability. They all came to the same conclusion: it is the meaning or purpose for studying that affects the students’ motivation (Midgley 2002, 22).

This purpose – the “achievement goal” – is concerned with why a student engages in achievement-related behavior (E. M. Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Dweck, 1992). Thus, the achievement goal is defined in broader terms than the specific aims that students may have, and is thought of as a comprehensive psychological “program” with “cognitive, affective, and behavioral consequences” (Elliott & Dweck, 1988, p. 11) that involves “ways of thinking about oneself, one's task, and task outcomes” (Ames, 1992b, p. 262; cited in Midgley 2002, 22).

In 1994, Roedel, Schraw, and Plake created a measuring device called Goals Inventory (GI), which evaluates students’ achievement goal orientation by using two distinct goals styles – learning goals and performance goals. Learning goals are those that show a strong desire for mastery and problem solving, while performance goals are characterized by the students’ focus on outcome over process. These two contrastive goal orientations have also been defined by Tung-hsien He in his 2001 study about goals of students as learners of English as a foreign language:

1. a mastery orientation is distinguished as perceiving learning as an end in itself, and the ultimate purpose of engaging in a learning task is mastering skills and accumulating knowledge;
2. conversely, a performance orientation is characterized as perceiving learning as a means to external purposes such as outperforming peers or pleasing the authority like parents and teachers. (He 2001, 3)

Researchers attributed a different rate of success to those two streams of student goals: Learning goals, in which individuals seek to increase competence, were expected to promote challenge-seeking and a mastery-oriented response to failure, regardless of ability. Therefore, learning goals (also referred to as mastery approach) were linked to positive consequences, e.g. persistence while studying, deep processing of information, and intrinsic motivation (cf. Finney et al. 2004, 367). Nelson Le-Gall and Jones stated that “children characterized by high intrinsic orientation toward mastery and learning in academic achievement settings showed a clear preference for help that allowed them to figure out solutions for themselves as opposed to help that directly supplied a ready-made solution.” (Le-Gall & Jones 1990, 587) Alas, Le-Gall and Jones emphasized that black children are generally portrayed as those who are “not intrinsically motivated to learn and who lack the independence, confidence, curiosity, and persistence necessary for problem solving and mastery” (Le-Gall & Jones 1990, 581). Another important observation is that “students with learning goals find it particularly important to obtain performance feedback, perhaps for the purpose of debugging errors and improving performance.” (Newman 1998, 654)

Contrarily, performance goals to avoid negative judgment were predicted to produce challenge-avoidance and learned helplessness in students with perceived low ability, and risk-avoidance in students with perceived high ability. Thus, performance-approach goals were linked to both positive and negative consequences, the positive ones being persistence while studying and higher grades, and the negative ones being shallow processing of information (cf. Finney et al. 2004, 367).

Especially in my third track freshman English class, I have a majority of low-ability students who openly display “learned helplessness,” and they also demonstrate challenge-avoidance by simply not doing their assignments, or handing them in incomplete or belated. Does this have to do with their goals? Do they all have performance goals, instead of learning goals? In order to get to know my students’ goals, I used the opportunity of having employed this very question in our final exam executed on December 21st, 2006. The question was:

What are your goals in high school, and how can English help you toward those goals?

My goals in High School are to pass all my classes and to atleast get my driver liscences in school. (white male)

My Goals is to Graduate and before that take all the small engine classes and play Basketball for the team to get A Scolarship and go to college to be an aircraft mechnic. I need to pass my English classes to graduate so I need it to graduate. (black male)

My goals are get my grades and play basketball and go to colleg. English can help me get to colleg because it help me with my writing papars in colleg and read in the books they give me in colleg. These are my goals that I wat to acheve after high school. (black male)

My high school goals are to become a thru sport atholet get good at them maby become profetional. English could help me become a better public speaker so when I go profetional. (white male)

To get and education and go on to college. English helps you read your contract, application, and other thing. (black male)

My one major goal is high school is to get good grades and get on the honor roll or high honor roll. I could help myself by doing more of my home work and listening better, and that should get me a good grade. (white male)

I think that I can work a lot harder and meet my goals which is being on honar roll turning in my homework on time and join somekind of club at the school next year. english can help me alot because english can get you into a good collage from that one grade in english can put you on the honar roll or it can raise your GPA Average. but that is what I need it I want to be seccusful in life. (black male)

My goals are to pass most of my classes and graduates. Not goof off like I did in middle school. To learn how to get along withother who I don’t like. It can teach me good communication skills. How to set a plan for me to use when I am doing my work so I can do it the correct way. Help me read so I can know what I am supposed to do before I do it. (black female)

These samples of original quotes from our final exam show that the students have their personal goals, for their own good, and not in the first place to satisfy their parents’ demands. It has to be said that these students mostly come from low-income, rural, and African American families, and I have not asserted whether their parents have any high demands for their children. I presume that several of these children will be first-generation students, in case they go to college some day.

Only one student from this sample utters an explicit professional goal (aircraft mechanic). Three students describe their wish to go to college. Three students want to become athletes (two specify basketball); one of them to become “professional,” another in order to obtain a scholarship to go to college and become an aircraft mechanic. This shows that academically lower-achieving students as well as students from low-income families sometimes have to resolve to become athletes in order to advance their academic education. One student has a very general goal (to become successful in life), which I take as making a lot of money and living a care-free life. One student sets himself a very low standard, which sounds rather pessimistic (to at least get his driver’s license in school) – however, this is a very pragmatic goal. It is reachable, and it makes sense for him in his situation.

Two students uttered obvious performance goals: they want to get on the honor or high honor roll (to outsmart peers, probably to impress parents and others; and to improve their self-esteem). The only female student in this sample uttered a real learning goal – she wants to improve her communication skills, and do better than she has before in middle school. She wants to improve her reading, in order to develop strategies to understand instructions better (to know what she is supposed to do before she does it). She also mentions the only social learning goal in this sample: to get along better with people she has difficulties with (whom she doesn’t like). One male student expressing a learning goal talks about getting a good education and going to college, so that he will be able to write job applications and understand contracts – a very important skill for entering the job market.

As to what their English class can do for them in reaching their goal, one student said that he needs English to graduate and go to college, in order to become an aircraft mechanic – that’s why he has to do well in this class. This might constitute a motivation for him, but it is forced. As another student said, he needs a good grade in this English class to improve his GPA or get on the honor roll. Here, too, the English class is just seen as a means to achieve a higher goal. These are merely performance goals, since the students don’t seem to care whether they learn a lot or not – they just want to get through, in order to continue on their path to a higher goal. Three students list learning goals – in their eyes, this English class will help them to do better in literary tasks in their future life (to understand instructions (reading strategies), and set up an organizational plan; to write papers and read books in college; to become a better public speaker).

Since my third track students expressed a mix of performance and learning goals, I cannot come to any conclusion, such as “there is something wrong with their goals; therefore, they don’t have the right motivation, and thus display a bad help-seeking pattern.” It is not possible to generalize any outcome, since every student lists individual goals – however, it is obvious that some students see this English class as a help to acquire important life skills (write plans, applications, contracts, become a speaker), while others just need the passing grade to improve their GPA, get on the honor roll, or go on to college. I should presume that the first group who expresses learning goals would be more academically motivated and successful than the latter group, expressing performance goals. Also, I could assume that students expressing a specific professional wish or the strife to go to college would work harder towards their goal than students who do not know what they want to do after high school, and hence, have no clear idea why they want good grades and get on the honor roll.

However, my action research cannot prove this hypothesis, as I will not observe this class long enough to see their final graduation and maybe transition to college. A longitudinal study would be necessary to find out whether they attain their goals, and whether their motivation influences their help-seeking behavior in a positive way.

2. Defining Areas where Help is Needed

As a teacher – especially when one is not approached by help-seeking students – one has to be aware of one’s students’ weaknesses and the areas in which help could be needed. One quickly finds out that students prefer different kinds of help-giving, ranging from a scaffold-oriented type of helping strategy (explaining ways to solve the problem) to a direct type of helping strategy (telling them the solution). Greenberg refers to the latter as “inadequate” help (Greenberg 2001, 17), because it was proven to be negatively correlated to student achievement. According to Greenberg, students’ perceptions of their self and their personal competence was positively related to the frequency of asking for help – furthermore, confident students preferred scaffold-oriented types of helping strategies, to prove themselves as self-regulated learners (cf. Greenberg 2001, 66).

Before finding out the help-demanding areas by means of a classroom survey, I am stating my own observations of my classes’ needs. What comes to mind in the first place are the reading and writing skills especially of my third track class. Again, I was able to use our final exam given on December 21st, 2006, to quote the students’ perceptions of where they need help. They had to answer two questions, what their major problems (troubles) in class were, and what reading and writing can tell us about them as students. I have selected samples of typical quotes from my third track freshman English class:


The troubles I have for being a reader would have to be I can’t pronounce some of the words that are in a book so I just skip them and go on. (white male)

Well as we all know my handwriting skill ain’t the best best so it mite mislead you but my reading can help you relize I like to get stuff done quick I take no time to get Homework done. if I work hard it would be alrite But I don’t see the need to. (black male)

Writing essay were hard but I think I did the reserch better the anything else. But, I need to work on getting more reserch on the people I’m writing about. And I also need to work on tpying and correczion spelling errors. That I mast up on my paper. (black male)

I realy didn’t have any trouble with reading the books. It’s just that I didn’t want to read the books. We had to read the books for a grade. I don’t read any books outside the class room, but I probaly should. (black male)

What does writing and reading tell us about you as a student of English?

what does my writing and reading tell me about probally that I don’t like to wright or read that much but if you give me an assignment I can get it done if I try. (white male)

I useally only read the news paper if I read that. (white male)

I have troble reading to fast. When I do this I dont comprehend what I read. I am not a big reader. Outside of class I dont read much exsept when I have to. What we read in class is just right. not to easy not to hard. We read some ok stuff. Stuff about life. (black male)

Reading and writing tells you that I like to express myself in a loud way and that I like to be heared. (black female)

The reading part of this class it was easier than the the writing part of this class even though he had us write summeries after every book we read. We really didn’t really do anything in here. (black male)

Even though I don’t write that much I still would really like to write about monster trucks because my dad works on them. Then reading, if I read more often I would pick a magazine of four wheelers or dirt bikes. (white male)

According to those genuine student quotes, one can state that this group of third track English students is not composed of great readers or writers; they hardly ever read outside the classroom, and only do it for the grade. Sometimes, our reading material does not meet their choice; they would prefer topics such as “monster trucks,” “four-wheelers,” and “dirt bikes.” One student expresses his difficulty in understanding what he reads while reading aloud in front of the class in too fast a pace. I can support this with my own observations; I often noticed from their intonation that it is not clear to them what they are saying when reading a book aloud. My task will be to find out how such students can be helped – perhaps by asking questions about the content regularly, and having them write a short summary after each chapter they read? These have been our teaching strategies so far. Obviously, the students are still struggling.

Very interesting is the quote by the only female in this group; as I could observe in class, she likes to read in front of the class, and really reads with a very loud voice, constantly hushing inattentive and disruptive peers, because she wants to “make herself heard.” This student often is a valuable support for me in maintaining discipline and silence in this class. She speaks distinctly, even if she does not know how to pronounce difficult words. She cannot take peer criticism very well (most peers are worse readers), and when peers interrupt her by shouting the correct pronunciation, she yells back, “Quiet! Shut up!” etc.

One boy has a bad learning strategy – he believes that doing his work “quick” is a sign of quality. As the homeroom teacher noted down on his final exam, it is not the pace of doing his work, but the diligence and care he invests in it that makes it a good grade. To defend this student it has to be said that at least, he is not a procrastinator, like so many other students, who either do their assignments in the last minute, weeks later, or not at all. We will have to help the “quick” student, as well as the “slow” ones

In my German honor class, things look completely different. Although the ability level is higher than in my other classes, I assumed that in a foreign language classroom, the anxiety level would be more elevated than in an English classroom setting, basing my paper on educational research on student anxiety. Since I was unable to detect sources dealing with a German foreign language classroom, I adapted previous research executed in Spanish classrooms for my purpose. A report by Haskin, Smith, and Racine from the year 2003 describes instructional strategies to decrease anxiety and frustration in a Spanish classroom setting in middle schools. The researchers measured anxiety and frustration with the help of an adaptation of the Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS; developed by Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope in 1986), student questionnaires and interviews, and direct observation. The methods of this action research consisted in student interventions (study skills guide, partner and group presentations, skits, activities, group oral reading) and teacher interventions (physical response, authentic correction, creation of a non-threatening classroom climate). Results showed which activities caused the foreign language anxiety (oral communication, writing, reading in the target language), and posttests revealed a decrease in anxiety, in frustration during oral communication, as well as an apprehension of communication. The interventions thus fostered student learning through a decrease of factors previously hindering language acquisition.

I wanted to find out the true relations between foreign language anxiety, and help-seeking in my German honor class.

3. Reasons for Help-Seeking Behavior

According to Sharon A. Nelson-Le Gall, help seeking is a social activity: In a social context, the learners find the motivation to ask for help, in order to contribute with their knowledge to assist others. The help-seeking students execute the following steps of a thinking process according to a Vygotskyan framework proposed by Nelson-Le Gall (quoted in Rebolledo Mendez 1981, and Webb & Mastergeorge 2003, 364):

1. Become aware of the need of help
2. Decide to seek help
3. Identify potential helper(s)
4. Use strategies to elucidate help (e.g., ask explicit, precise, and direct questions)
5. Evaluate help-seeking episodes (reassess strategies for obtaining help)

Why is it then that some high school students get stuck after the first step of the thinking process, knowing they need help? Which kind of outside factors make them reluctant to ask for help? Here are a couple of possibilities that came immediately to my mind, supported by current research:

a) Students’ Theories about Social Cognition and Academic Task

Students do not want to be perceived as “dumb” – this has to do with their protection of their self-worth:

Students protect their self-worth through the use of failureavoiding [sic] strategies: low effort, self-handicapping behaviors (procrastination, goals that are too high, and academic wooden leg), and success guarantee strategies (cheating and goals that are too low). The tendency toward self-worth protection is influenced by classroom practices that promote competition among students. Practices include insufficient rewards that force students to compete or give up, rewarding student ability but not effort, and evaluation systems where grades are based on how students rank in comparison to other students. (Alderman 2004, 102)

Therefore, they do not dare to ask for help with tasks generally conceived as “easy,” or with repeated learning material they should already know. On the contrary, asking for help with difficult tasks is considered less of a disgrace – according to the motto “If the others don’t know it, why shouldn’t I ask?” But it is often the simple tasks, for example instructions, that are not understood, even after the first repetition.

For example, one of my junior top track English students wrote in his final exam that he thinks he is a good writer and can write good papers, but that this year, his papers were not so good not because he was a bad writer, but because he did not follow the instructions, and did not address the topic correctly. A more thorough explanation of the instructions by the teacher could have helped this gifted student on the right track. But for some reason, he had not asked. In the student’s words:

“My paper writing style has been very poor this year. It seems that I have a very difficult time following a prompt correctly. I often skew off of the beaten path so to speak, and find myself writing a very coherent and concise paper on the wrong topic. (…) There were very few times where I was corrected for glaring grammatical errors, nor have I written a paper that made little to no sense. Instead for all of this semester I have misunderstood the prompt given.” (white male)

Thus, we stand before a problem of a high-achieving student who is not lacking the ability to perform the task, but the understanding of the prompt to fulfill the task in the way the teacher has envisaged. The prompt might seem a very simple statement, and this could be the reason why the student did not verify whether he understood it correctly – he did not want his peers to notice that he had difficulties getting what the teacher wanted from him. The fact that it might have been understood by his peers could have even boosted his help-seeking avoidance.

Some children may feel more comfortable seeking help on difficult tasks rather than easy tasks because failure in the face of difficulty is not a reflection of low ability (Covington & Omelich, 1979). Children are most likely to seek help in subjects such as math that are commonly perceived as difficult and as requiring help (Stodolsky, 1985). Similarly, many students are more likely to seek help when learning new material rather than old material. Apparently reviewing old material is perceived by children as a task that should not require additional help. (Paris 1990, 94)

b) Classroom climate

An important influence on students’ help-seeking behavior is the actual classroom climate, as well as their beliefs about their social environment. As Paris states,

Classrooms differ widely in the degree to which encouragement, friendliness, and support for instrumental behavior such as question asking are present. For example, classrooms that foster cooperative learning implicitly reinforce the expectation that small-group activity, collaboration, and help giving and help seeking are important for learning. Webb (1982) observed that help seeking occurs frequently in small groups and the frequency of these interactions is positively related to student achievement. Meece, Blumenfeld, and Puro (1989) found that students address help-seeking questions to the teacher more often in small group and individual activities than in whole-class activities where the threat of seeking assistance may lower the students’ perceptions of their own ability. (Paris 1990, 94)

When the classroom climate is good, there will be fewer outsiders, and the students will be able to work together in groups and help each other. This procedure is beneficial for both help-giver and help-receiver. As Webb and Farivar noted, “[g]iving elaborated help encourages the explainer to reorganize or clarify the material in new ways (…). This cognitive restructuring may help the explainer to understand the material better, as well as to recognize and fill in gaps in understanding.” (Webb & Farivar 1994, 370) Further, the benefits of giving elaboration are that a student helps another one, justifies his or her own views, and resolves disagreements with peers. Webb and Farivar have especially focused on ethnic minority students, whom they observed to be particularly receptive to cooperative learning methods. Back to my black student who said the teacher didn’t understand his language: “[S]tudents share a similar language, so they can translate difficult vocabulary and expressions and use language that fellow students can understand” (Webb & Farivar 1994, 370)

c) Teacher-Student Inter-Subjectivity

One of the first stances of our Master of Arts in Teaching program was “know thy teaching self” – in other words: we have to leave our personal values out of the classroom; we are never the friend of our students; we have to address diversity, and with it the different cultures and needs of our students; we need to be “caring” teachers. Literature suggests that such teachers who are not perceived as a “threat” by their students foster help-seeking in their classrooms:

Teachers perceived as caring and involved typically establish classrooms that are characterized by “intersubjectivity” (i.e., attunement of teacher’s and student’s purpose, focus, and affect). When teachers and students are “on the same page,” teachers are especially able to take the student’s perspective and understand his or her thinking (e.g., regarding a particular academic task) and, based on this understanding, appropriately guide the student’s learning. Intersubjectivity may mitigate the power differential common to student-teacher relations. Teachers who are perceived as friendly and caring demonstrate “democratic interaction” styles (…). Caring teachers tend to listen, ask questions, inquire if students need help, make sure students understand difficult material, and provide help in a nonthreatening way. When they experience this type of communication, students learn that teachers are trustworthy helpers. (Newman 2002, 133)

Can it be possible that there is a lack of inter-subjectivity in my classes? How do my students see my “teaching self”? What other factors play a role in triggering my students’ help-seeking behavior? In their 2002 study “Canadian Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Characteristics That Support or Inhibit Help Seeking,” Le Mare & Sohbat analyzed open interviews and surveys with 115 elementary school students (grades 2-7), in order to find out what kind of teacher behavior fosters or prevents help-seeking. They did not predefine any categories, but used the authentic children’s voices to establish a list of qualifiers. Their research yielded a list of 10 broad categorical descriptors: 1. teacher willingness, 2. competence, 3. reactions to help seeking, 4. expectations, 5. personality traits, 6. relationships with students, 7. predictability, 8. familiarity, 9. gender, and 10. mood. (cf. Le Mare & Sohbat 2002, 239) In detail, the not very surprising results for each of the 10 categories were the following (cf. Le Mare & Sohbat 2002, 243-253):


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Help-Seeking Avoidance in Language Arts High School Students and Teacher-Developed Counter-Methods
Southern Illinois University Carbondale  (Curriculum & Instruction)
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help-seeking, avoidance, language, arts, high, school, students, teacher-developed, counter-methods
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Dr. Christina Voss (Author), 2007, Help-Seeking Avoidance in Language Arts High School Students and Teacher-Developed Counter-Methods, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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