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Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice? Take a SIP of this: Normalizing asking for help

Grassroots thoughts on effective teaching for faculty, by faculty.

February 15, 2018

Professor in classroomSIP 6.5 Normalizing Asking for Help

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Have you ever sat alone in your office during office hours only to have your students tell you in class that they didn't understand the reading or an assignment? Or perhaps you've urged a student to go to the Writing Center for help organizing a draft, only to watch that student walk down the hall, right past the Writing Center, without stopping? Or maybe you know a student is struggling with addiction and you've mentioned the Counseling Center's services several times, but every time, the student tells you, "I can handle this on my own."

Try this: Normalizing asking for help

There are many reasons students might resist asking for help. They may be unaware of resources, they may feel they don't have time, their home culture may stigmatize asking for help or their self-identity may hinge on self-sufficiency. However, taking advantage of campus resources, including faculty office hours, can improve student engagement, retention and learning. Wouldn't it be great if students saw asking for help as a normal, expected behavior instead of a sign of weakness?

Here are some things you can do to normalize asking for help:

Model asking for help. Let students see you asking for help when you need it. When the AV equipment in your classroom doesn't work, ask a student for help or call IT for classroom support. When you don't know the answer to a student's question, demonstrate how you seek out answers. These may seem like small things, but these actions help disrupt the notion that smart, well-educated, successful people do everything on their own. The key is to demonstrate through your behavior that asking for help is completely normal.

Share stories about times that you asked for help. Modeling is about letting students see you ask for help; sharing stories is about giving them a glimpse of how you ask for help when they aren't around. For example, tell your students about how you joined a writing group to get feedback on your drafts, or how when you didn't understand an article you read, you asked a colleague for their take on it. Talk about how much better you felt about a teaching situation after a consultation with a colleague. Share how helpful the Center for Faculty Excellence was in helping you troubleshoot a Digital Measures issue. Depending on your level of comfort, you might even share stories about you asking for help in your personal job—getting a personal trainer, for example, or seeing a therapist after the death of a loved one.

Require students to visit you during your office hours during the first few weeks of the semester. A recent study connects students’ use of faculty office hours with academic success (Guerrero & Rod, 2013), but students are often unsure of when or why they should go to office hours. Give them some pointers on the types of questions or issues to bring to office hours and then make visiting you during office hours an official assignment during the first few weeks of the semester. Once they've "survived" office hours, they are more likely to return.

Give shout-outs in class to students who ask for help. If a student shares in class that they went to the Writing Center or attended a group discussion at the Counseling Center, congratulate them for being proactive.

When you talk about supports available to students, frame them as supports for smart students rather than supports for needy or struggling students. This can help to remove the stigma of asking for help. Emphasize that these supports exist because the University expects students to use them. You can also point out that many supports are funded by student fees, which means that students who don't take advantage of them are not getting something they paid for. Help them understand that asking for help is a form of self-advocacy, which is an important life skill.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Normalizing Asking for Help

Mary Ellen Weimer, "Why Students Don't Ask for Help, and What You Can Do about It

Michelle Garcia Winner, "Thoughts on Encouraging Students to Ask for Help

"How Asking for Help Actually Helps You" from Fortune Magazine

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!


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