How do you support students who don’t ask for help?


Dylan Barth, Associate Vice President of Online Learning Consortium

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I once asked a student (I’ll call her Emily) to stay after class because she had missed a few assignments. The semester was at its halfway point (as it may be for you right now), and Emily had been (up until then) a solid student, so I wanted to check in to see if everything was okay. Plus, the final group project was really ramping up, and I didn’t want her to let her team down.

I did my best to evoke empathy and understanding. “I notice that you didn’t submit the last couple of reading responses,” I said. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Is there anything I can help with?”

Emily seemed embarrassed at first. Then apologetic. Then came tears. She told me she missed her friends back home. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get along with her roommate in the dorms, so she had been living for weeks on the floor of a friend’s apartment. She had taken too many credits and questioned her science-heavy choice of a major. She felt like she didn’t belong.

Emily’s first-year concerns probably sound familiar. Students new to the university often feel homesick, fight with their roommates, and stress out about classes. That initial year in college is a major adjustment, and it’s common to feel isolated.

What stood out to me, though, was what she said next: “I’m sorry. I feel like a failure. I don’t like to ask for help.”

To Emily, asking for help meant that she had failed. To Emily, asking for an extension meant that she was an irresponsible student. To Emily, getting extra time for an assignment was unfair to her classmates. Emily grew up believing she should be held accountable for her actions, no matter the circumstances.

In that moment, I realized just how complicated it can be to help our students. Although I try to convey a warm and welcoming persona online and in class and on my syllabus, students are still sometimes reluctant to approach me. It’s easy to think that a disengaged student is lazy or resistant or bored or whatever, but it’s possible that they are just too proud or ashamed or afraid to ask for help when they need it. This feels perfectly normal and perfectly human to me.

I learned from Emily that it’s not enough to be available. Sometimes helping students requires respectful, proactive prodding. It’s like trying to find furnace filters in a mega home improvement store. I’ll wander around the entire warehouse before asking someone for assistance, but if I’m approached by an employee, I’ll gladly accept a point in the right direction.

If I had not reached out to Emily, I would not have known how much she was struggling. I wasn’t able to help her with her roommate problems or her chemistry midterm, but we made a plan for our course, and in the end, Emily finished the semester strong. I wonder how she would have fared if we hadn’t had that conversation.

I encourage you to find one or two or more students that you suspect need a bit of support right now, and check in with them. I know you’re busy. You might be tired and stressed yourself. But keep in mind the enormous power you have to affect students’ lives. Sometimes it doesn’t take much beyond an extra email or a quick chat.

For further ways to support your students, check out our Caring for Students Playbook, a joint publication by OLC, ATD, and ELE. It’s a quick but informative and useful read!

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