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AERA: Socially Savvy Students Get By With Help From Their Friends

San Francisco

Part of learning is knowing how and when to ask for help, and studies have long found gaps in students' ability to reach out for support can increase achievement gaps. New research presented Sunday at the American Educational Research Association meeting here suggests students' confidence in their own social skills and the emotional and instructional support in their classroom can change the way they ask for help.

According to researchers, not all ways to look for help are equally productive when it comes to long-term academic success. Some students are just looking for something expedient—these are the kids asking "What did you get for number 4?" By contrast, students who want "instrumental help" are trying to understand a concept or otherwise master the material.

The tenor of a classroom can make a big difference in whether students are willing to ask for help, and from whom, according to a study from the University of California-Irvine.

Based on data from the larger, ongoing California Motivation Project in Math, U.C.-Irvine education researchers Anne Marie M. Conley and Arena Chang tracked nearly 6,000 6th-11th grade students in three highly diverse school districts.

They surveyed the students once in the fall and again in spring on how they viewed the math classroom climate, and compared the responses to how students sought help over the course of the year. Conley and Chang found students were more likely to seek "instrumental help" to master what they were learning in classrooms they considered emotionally supportive and those in which the teacher pressed students to understand the material. Students in these classes were also more likely to ask both their teacher and their peers for help.

By contrast, students were less likely to seek help from the teacher in classes in which they felt less emotionally supported, and those in classes focused on test performance and academic achievement rather than understanding. Moreover, when they sought help from friends, students in these classes were more likely to seek superficial, expedient help to solve an immediate problem.

Getting Help Without Losing Face

Students' own self-confidence in academic and social skills also weighed on their willingness to ask for help. As part of a larger longitudinal study, Sarah M. Kiefer, an education psychologist at the University of South Florida, looked at how 365 6th graders from three urban Florida schools sought help during their first year of middle school.

Kiefer analyzed how capable the students felt about their own academic and social prowess, and then asked them to nominate classmates as "peer helpers," those they would turn to for help on an academic problem.

Overall, Kiefer found that students knew the top students academically in the class, but they were much more likely to pick a close friend or someone lower on the social ladder for help for help than to choose based on academics. About a third of students said they would be most likely to turn to their their closest friends for help.

"Students often turn to peers when they have an academic problem, either for a solution or for emotional support," Kiefer said. "If students don't feel competent socially and academically, they may not ask for help when they need it."

When it came to other peers, the students on average chose to ask for help from students who were lower in social and academic skills than they were, and those who were considered "less cool." The students who were higher in social skills but felt less secure in their academic ability were more likely to look for superficial help to find "the answer" from other students who were cool but rated low in academic skills.

By contrast, Kiefer said, from a student's perspective, "If I was academically confident, I was more likely to have adaptive help-seeking (such as looking for instrumental help) less likely to have expedient help-seeking" or to avoid asking for help at all.

I find it fascinating that a student's decision to ask for help is so fraught with social implications, particularly in middle school. At least in these studies, students seem to view asking for help as a weakness, and look for ways to save face when they do it. It would be interesting to see more research into ways to create a classroom climate in which students are less afraid to ask questions and more focused on learning than on finding the right answer.

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