Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Academic help-seeking

Academic help-seeking:
What are the barriers and enablers of AHS and how can AHS be fostered?


Academic help-seeking behaviours enhance students' learning and engagement, yet,[grammar?] many students do not engage in these behaviours. Most students can remember a time where they required assistance and did not seek it. There are a variety of reasons for this, most of which are rooted in motivation theory. Specifically, the theory of planned behaviour, goal-orientation and ego-orientation theories have been of particular importance. Firstly, the barriers to academic help-seeking must be identified. These barriers can be divided into two categories; external barriers and internal barriers. It is equally as important to identify the internal and external enablers of academic help-seeking in order to foster help-seeking behaviours in students.

What is academic help-seeking?Edit

Seeking help when needed is a self-regulated learning strategy. Hence, from an educational perspective, academic help-seeking is thought of as a learning strategy as well as a social strategy (Arbos et al., 2021). Aside from broad conceptualisations such as this, there is a lack of consensus with regard to the structure of academic help-seeking as a construct (Arbos et al., 2021). Studies focused on academic help-seeking vary considerably in their definition and measurement of the construct. In fact, studies will often explore just one component of academic help-seeking (Arbos et al., 2021). The general consensus is that help-seeking is a process used by self-regulated learners (Karabenick, 2011). It is a unique process in that it is not primarily cognitive in nature like other processes, for example, rehearsal (Karabenick and Berger, 2013). Instead, help-seeking combines social and cognitive competencies (Finney et al., 2018). The process of academic help-seeking involves a series of decisions (Karabenick and Berger, 2013). First, a student must have forethought, the state of being aware of their need for help. Then, the student must perform the seeking of help from a source (Karabenick and Berger, 2013). The process of academic help-seeking, therefore, occurs in stages; deciding to seek help, deciding from whom to seek help and finally, deciding what form of help to seek (Finney et al., 2018).

Barriers to academic help-seekingEdit

Figure 1. Students who are struggling academically often do not seek the help they need.

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External BarriersEdit

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Teacher BehaviourEdit

A variety of studies have demonstrated the influence of teacher behaviour on the academic help-seeking behaviours of students. In one study, students reported higher avoidance where teachers' motivational support was low and where teachers were perceived are being disengaged (Turner et al., 2002). In support of these early findings, Ryan and Shim (2012) found that high in teacher support increases academic help-seeking behaviours in students. Some research has also focused on the flow-on effects of teacher behaviour. Students are less likely to be interested in academic content when the teacher is low in motivational support and engagement. In other words, students' interest in the subject can be considered an outcome of the teaching process (Arbos et al., 2021). This is relevant to academic help-seeking as students are more likely to seek help when they are academically interested (Butler and Shibaz, 2014). Classroom social climate and goal structure of the classroom have also been implicated in academic help-seeking behaviours among students. These conditions are arguably a result of teacher behaviour and the way in which teachers create classroom environments (Smalley and Hopkins, 2020). Smalley and Hopkins (2020) evaluated the effects of classroom social climate on help-seeking among students. They assessed four factors: task orientation, investigation, cooperation and teacher support. All of the four factors were negatively correlated with avoidance of help-seeking, indicating that the classroom environment can influence students' help-seeking behaviour. Smalley and Hopkins also found a positive correlation between teacher support and instrumental help-seeking, help-seeking from peers and help-seeking from teachers. Kiefer and Shim also found a negative association between teacher support and avoidance help-seeking (2016). Parker et al. replicated these findings and found further support in the fact that low teacher support increased the perceived costs of help-seeking in students (2019).

Case study:

Lisa feels judged and unsupported by her teacher, so she avoids asking questions in class. She would ask more questions if she felt comfortable around her teacher like she does in other classes.

Task Difficulty and CompetencyEdit

Research has identified two main psychosocial concerns that underlie avoidance of academic help-seeking: desire for autonomy and threat to competence (Butler, 1998; Newman, 1990; Van der Meij, 1988). There is a large body of empirical support for the fact that individuals can appraise their need for help as evidence of incompetence (Ryan et al., 2001). Ryan and Pintrich (1997) found that students who tended to avoid help-seeking were also likely to construe their need for help as lack of academic competence. Task difficulty and personal competence are as external as they are internal, as a students' appraisal of task difficulty and competency derives from their own perceptions, and hence may not be accurate. Indeed, research has found that seeking help is perceived as most threatening to low-achieving students (Ryan and Pintrich, 1997). These students tend to worry how others will perceive them if they were to seek help, whereas high-achieving students tend to harbour less insecurity and social concern (Ryan and Pintrich, 1997).

Case study:

Jacob finds maths difficult in school. Jacob also feels like an outcast in his maths class and doesn't have any friends to sit with. He avoids asking questions in front of the other kids because he feels they will think he is dumb.

Internal BarriersEdit

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Ego OrientationEdit

Academic help-seeking avoidance is often influenced by ego orientation. Ego orientation refers to one's personal performance goals and perceived ability relative to that of others. Ego orientation can be categorised as either self-defeating or self-enhancing. A self-defeating ego orientation acts as an internal barrier to academic help-seeking, whereas a self-enhancing ego orientation has the opposite effect (Payakachat et al., 2013). Students with a self-defeating ego orientation tend to possess performance avoidance goals that result in a lack of motivation to seek help. These students often harbour social concerns and fear appearances of incompetence (Payakachat et al., 2013). Various studies have generated statistical findings in support of these conclusions. Perceptions of academic competence are negatively related to self-defeating ego orientations and positively related to self-enhancing ego orientations (Skaalvik, 1997). Self-defeating and self-enhancing ego orientations are also directly related to negative appraisals of help-seeking behaviour (Skaalvik and Skaalvik, 2005). In light of these seminal findings, a recent study conducted by Payakachat et al. found that students who perceived help-seeking as threatening, possessed ambivalent feelings towards help-seeking and had a self-defeating ego orientation were less likely to engage in help-seeking behaviour in an academic context (2013). These findings are consistent with a large body of other research (Payakachat et al., 2013), all of which had collectively diverse student population samples (for example; Skaalvik and Skaalvik (2005) as compared to Payakachat et al. (2013)), enhancing the validity of the findings.

Case study:

Jacob would also have a self-defeating ego orientation (see above case study). He cares more about how others will view him than he does about his learning.

Goal OrientationEdit

Students in learning environments adopt different goals. A goal in the academic context refers to what a student plans to achieve in a particular situation (Fryer and Elliott, 2008). Goal orientations influence the way students approach, engage in and respond to learning activities (Ames, 1992), thus influencing a student's motivation to seek help in an academic context (Sakiz, 2011). Specifically, goal orientations influence a student's strategy utilisation, learning, academic behaviours and achievement (Sakiz, 2011; Phan, 2010). It is therefore unsurprising that maladaptive goals act as internal barriers to academic help-seeking. Research has focused on two major goal orientations in the academic context: mastery goals and performance goals. Mastery oriented students focus on learning, personal development, improvement and understanding. Students with mastery goal orientations hence use more effective learning strategies and tend to demonstrate a willingness to engage with more challenging material. In contrast, performance oriented students have a more competitive outlook and tend to view their academic performance as relative to that of others. Performance oriented students engage in behaviours that lead to public recognition, praise and higher confidence, hence using less effective learning strategies and showing a preference for easy tasks (Sakiz, 2011; Ryan et al., 2001). It follows that mastery oriented students, with goals of personal development and learning, view help-seeking as a necessary and positive step towards their goals. However, performance oriented students are more likely to view help-seeking as a behaviour with negative social consequences due to their preoccupation with public recognition and image (Sakiz, 2011).

Case study:

Lucy prefers easy tasks because she gets better grades in them, which means her teachers praise her more. Lucy is a performance oriented student.

Enablers of academic help-seekingEdit

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External EnablersEdit

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Personal Connections with Teachers and PeersEdit

Figure 2. Strong friendships in the classroom encourage academic help-seeking behaviours among students

Personal connections in the classroom encourage help-seeking behaviours in students. Connections between teachers and students can enable academic help-seeking in a similar way that teacher behaviour can act as a barrier to academic help-seeking (see above). However, recent studies have indicated that students often turn to their peers for help before they seek teacher assistance, and that peers play a more salient role in shaping expedient help-seeking behaviours (Kilday and Ryan, 2022).The importance of peer relationships for social learning generated a substantial amount of research in the past (consider the seminal work of Vygotsky (1978)). Recent literature has demonstrated an interest in peer relationships in the educational context (Kilday and Ryan, 2022). Practically speaking, peers are abundant and likely immediate when a student is in need of academic assistance. Peers are hence an accessible, direct instrumental support for learning in educational settings (Kilday and Ryan, 2022). It is also unsurprising that students seek help from peers whom they have friendships with, as there is an expectation that friends will provide help, mutual support and intimacy (Newman, 2000). Thus, peers may be perceived as more approachable than teachers (Peeters et al., 2020).

Case study:

Juan asks questions in English because he feels more confident surrounded by his best friends and favourite teachers. He finds he asks less questions in science where he isn't surrounded by his best friends and has teachers he does not know as well.

Internal EnablersEdit


Sense of BelongingEdit

A student's sense of belonging predicts academic help-seeking behaviour. A student has a sense of belonging when they perceive themselves as a valuable part of their academic social environment and feel accepted and supported by their peers (Osterman, 2000). A sense of belonging makes an individual feel secure and accepted in their environment which is thought to facilitate academic help-seeking. From a social perspective, it is suggested that students who feel accepted and supported by their teachers and peers are less concerned about appearing incompetent and thus are more comfortable seeking help (Won et al., 2021). An array of recent studies have provided support for this conclusion. Won et al. found that college students' sense of belonging was positively correlated with their use of metacognitive, time-management and peer-learning strategies (2018). Another study found a negative correlation between a sense of belonging and poor self-regulation behaviours, such as procrastination (Kennedy and Tuckman, 2013). These findings suggest that a student's sense of importance in their social context predicts adaptive help-seeking behaviours in an academic context.

Case study:

Imogen has just changed schools. She isn't seeking help as much in class anymore because she feels isolated.

Motivation and Self-EfficacyEdit

Motivation has long been considered an important component of self-regulated learning strategies like help-seeking (Won et al., 2021). In particular, self-efficacy plays an important role, as it influences how a student plans, controls and evaluates their learning efforts. It has previously been suggested that, through these affirmative actions, self-efficacy as a construct can predict academic help-seeking behaviours in students (Pajares, 1996). A later study conducted by Klassen et al. directly implicated self-efficacy as a predictor of self-regulated learning, and even concluded that it was a stronger predictor of self-regulated learning than academic self-efficacy was (2008). A recent study by Won et al. supported these early findings. In that study, college students who were more confident in their ability to perform self-regulatory tasks also reported greater engagement in adaptive help-seeking (2021).

Case study:

Charlie is confident in his writing abilities, but he is less confident in his maths abilities. He finds that his high self-efficacy in writing subjects means he asks more questions and is more engaged in class.

How academic help-seeking can be fosteredEdit

The barriers and enablers of academic help-seeking (discussed above) provide insight into how it can be fostered. Normative conclusions can be drawn from the barriers and enablers alike[explain?]. Unfortunately, however, fostering academic help-seeking as an individual concept is seldom explored in the literature. Researchers have emphasised the need to explore this topic in specific contexts, for instance, among men and women and across age groups (Bornschlegl et al., 2020). Indeed, results and findings differ depending on the context (see for example the differences between adolescents and university students more broadly)[explain?].


The barriers and enablers of academic help-seeking are increasingly varied and complex as the literature base continues to grow. This chapter discussed some of the more common concepts throughout the literature. Common external barriers to academic help-seeking include negative teacher behaviour, task difficulty and perceived competency. Frequently cited internal barriers include ego orientation and goal orientation. The literature tends to focus less on enablers of academic help-seeking, though certain concepts do appear often, such as personal connections with teachers and peers, having a sense of belonging, motivation and self-efficacy. Evidently, academic self-efficacy is multifaceted and contextual. It can be difficult to conceptualise, however what is abundantly clear is how important help-seeking is for students' academic success.

See alsoEdit


Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of educational psychology, 84(3), 261.

Bornschlegl, M., Meldrum, K., & Caltabiano, N. J. (2020). Variables related to academic help‐seeking behaviour in higher education–Findings from a multidisciplinary perspective. Review of Education, 8(2), 486-522.

Butler, R. (1998). Determinants of help seeking: Relations between perceived reasons for classroom help-avoidance and help-seeking behaviors in an experimental context. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(4), 630.

Butler, R., & Shibaz, L. (2014). Striving to connect and striving to learn: Influences of relational and mastery goals for teaching on teacher behaviors and student interest and help seeking. International journal of educational research, 65, 41-53.

Chowdhury, S., & Halder, S. (2019). Motivational facilitators and barriers of adaptive academic help-seeking: A systematic review. Indian Journal of Health and Well-being, 10(10-12), 324-333.

Finney, S. J., Barry, C. L., Horst, S. J., & Johnston, M. M. (2018). Exploring profiles of academic help seeking: A mixture modeling approach. Learning and Individual Differences, 61, 158-171.

Fryer, J. W., & Elliot, A. J. (2012). Self-regulation of achievement goal pursuit. In Motivation and self-regulated learning (pp. 53-75). Routledge.

Karabenick, S. A. (2011). Classroom and technology-supported help seeking: The need for converging research paradigms. Learning and Instruction, 21(2), 290-296.

Karabenick, S. A., & Berger, J. L. (2013). Help seeking as a self-regulated learning strategy.

Kiefer, S. M., & Shim, S. S. (2016). Academic help seeking from peers during adolescence: The role of social goals. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 42, 80-88.

Kilday, J. E., & Ryan, A. M. (2022). Who Do Students Ask for Help With Classwork? Sources of Help and Changes in Help-Seeking From Peers During Early Adolescence. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 02724316221124784.

Klassen, R. M., Krawchuk, L. L., & Rajani, S. (2008). Academic procrastination of undergraduates: Low self-efficacy to self-regulate predicts higher levels of procrastination. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(4), 915-931.

Martín-Arbós, S., Castarlenas, E., & Dueñas, J. M. (2021). Help-seeking in an academic context: A systematic review. Sustainability, 13(8), 4460.

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Parker, J. S., Shum, K. Z., Suldo, S. M., Shaunessy‐Dedrick, E., M Ferron, J., & Dedrick, R. F. (2019). Predictors of adaptive help seeking across ninth‐grade students enrolled in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Psychology in the Schools, 56(5), 652-669.

Payakachat, N., Gubbins, P. O., Ragland, D., Norman, S. E., Flowers, S. K., Stowe, C. D., ... & Hastings, J. K. (2013). Academic help-seeking behavior among student pharmacists. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 77(1).

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Phan, H. P. (2010). Empirical model and analysis of mastery and performance‐approach goals: a developmental approach. Educational Psychology, 30(5), 547-564.

Ryan, A. M., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). " Should I ask for help?" The role of motivation and attitudes in adolescents' help seeking in math class. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(2), 329.

Ryan, A. M., Pintrich, P. R., & Midgley, C. (2001). Avoiding seeking help in the classroom: Who and why?. Educational Psychology Review, 13(2), 93-114.

Ryan, A. M., & Shim, S. S. (2012). Changes in help seeking from peers during early adolescence: Associations with changes in achievement and perceptions of teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1122.

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External linksEdit