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Do your students need help asking for help?

Your syllabus is full of resources your students can use when they need help: Center for Learning, the Writing Center, STEM tutoring, the Library, GCC’s Food Pantry, Technology HelpDesk, Office Hours, and the list goes on. Do you know which of the available resources your students are using regularly? At all?

Mariëlle Hoefnagels shared a compelling blog post recently: My Students Need Help Asking for Help; Do Yours? A teacher for over 20 years, she has been wondering about why students used to ask for help in the past, but now, they no longer do. So she asked them what keeps them from seeking the professor’s help. And the answers surprised her. She thought lack of time, feeling intimidated, or thinking it wouldn’t do any good would be the top answers. But instead, her students admitted being afraid to confront failure, or to “look stupid.” They were also overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start.

Hoefnagels followed up by emailing students who chose “other” in her survey. Each person’s reasons were different, and her blog details the replies she received. One student mentioned not knowing what kinds of questions they are supposed to ask during office hours. It can be so easy for us to forget that office hours are far more comfortable and familiar to faculty than they are to students. Faculty have done this over and over. Students haven’t.

This reminded me of a recent experience with surgery. I felt like my nurses were treating me like just another object in the room, as inconsequential as a thermometer or tongue depressor. In reality, I felt pretty scared. The nurses seemed to think I knew the medical terms they were using, but I didn’t understand. I could feel the assumptions but I couldn’t name them. It wasn’t until I asked everyone to remember I was the only one there who had never done this before that they began to slow down and take a little more time for my concerns. I was able to find a way to ask for what I needed to feel comfortable. But this is a skill with which many of our students haven’t had much practice.

After thinking about her initial survey, Hoefnagels checked in with students about what format they preferred for getting help. She was expecting them to prefer options that didn’t require in-person interaction. But the students surprised her again with a strong preference for office hours, which she already offers, and students rarely attend. What’s going on here? Hoefnagels thinks she needs to help her students be brave about asking for help, or as she says, overcome the psychological barriers that keep them away. Her students had some other interesting responses as well, such as having a study group at a neutral location like a coffee shop. Maybe we can be more helpful to students outside our offices and other spaces that faculty “own.” We hear a lot about “meeting students where they are” – and maybe we should take that literally, and go to the places they’re most comfortable.

Many GCC faculty already make a big effort to help our students in any way they can. If you are one of them, please share one of those ways in a comment on this post, or stop by the CTLE to tell us about your experiences. One of the best things we can do is just ask our students instead of assuming we know their motives. I believe if we trust them, they will tell us.

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