Online Help-seekingCategorization of Help-SeekingLearner SupportBarrier to Seeking Help
Help-seeking occurs when learners realize a gap in their learning, and they seek assistance to bridge the existing gap. Traditionally, they engage in conversations with instructors or peers for constructive advice in both face-to-face settings and online learning environments. The advent of technologies has greatly diversified learners’ help-seeking options. Studies on help-seeking focus predominantly on the correlational relationship between learners’ demographics like gender, major, characteristics, motivational beliefs, mastery or performance goals, and their help-seeking behavior without enough attention to learners’ online help-seeking pattern (Cheng et al., 2013, Tanaka, 2002). Research on help-seeking strategies can support students in a variety of formal and informal learning environments and their psychological decision-making.

Help-seeking is a concept that has undergone four distinct phases of research focus (Chowdhury & Halder, 2019). Initially, during the 1950s and 1960s, help-seeking was perceived by researchers as a behavior indicative of weakness and dependence. Influenced by prevailing values of competitiveness and self-reliance, Nelson-Le Gall (1985) concluded that, during that era, help-seeking was associated with immaturity, passivity, and even incompetence (Beller, 1955; Murphy, 1962). However, the groundbreaking work of Nelson-Le Gall in the 1980s served to strengthen the understanding of help-seeking as an adaptive approach to addressing learning challenges (Puustinen, 1998). Nelson-Le Gall (1981) advocated a reevaluation of help-seeking and introduced a dichotomy between executive (nonadaptive) help-seeking and instrumental (adaptive) help-seeking. Executive help-seeking occurs when learners’ intention is to get the desired help to solve the problems without further interest in understanding the problems. Instrumental help-seeking, however, means the requested help is limited to the amount and type of assistance that enables learners to solve the problems independently. That means executive help-seekers focus on direct answers, while instrumental help-seekers focus on ways to solve problems. The third phase of research incorporated help-seeking into models of self-regulated learning, while the most recent phase focuses on advancements in technology-based tools. Kitsantas and Chow (2007) studied the influence of learning environments on learners’ help-seeking behavior, demonstrating statistically that learners felt less threatened and exhibited higher instances of help-seeking behavior in online learning settings.

Models of Help-seeking 

Help-seeking has been regarded as an activity related to learners’ cognitive and social development. Nelson-Le Gall (1981) proposed five steps in the help-seeking model. Learners first become aware of the need for help and then they decide to seek help. After identifying the potential help(s), they employ specific strategies to elicit the help they need. Finally, learners evaluate the help-seeking episode which may affect their future help-seeking experiences. Karebenick & Dembo (2011) proposed an expansion to Nelson-Le Gall’s (1981) model, arguing that help-seeking starts from learners’ awareness of help after the psychological decision-making process. For example, they identify that a problem exists, and they decide that help is needed (Karabenick & Dembo, 2011). After reflecting on past help-seeking experiences and realizing the necessity of seeking help, they may finally decide to seek help. Then comes more decision-making, i.e., the purpose and goal of seeking help, the person to ask for help. After that, the learner comes to the official step of soliciting help and obtaining the requested help. Finally, learners will process the requested help, preparing for subsequent help-seeking experiences. What these two models have in common is that they both start with learners’ awareness of help-seeking and end with learners’ evaluation of the help-seeking experience. For example, learners may evaluate whether the help they get is useful or not in addition to the degree of difficulty of seeking the help they need, thus modifying the ways they seek help in the future. Just as the authors (2021) indicated, learners are always experiencing trade-offs between accessibility, convenience, reliability, and a variety of other factors. What differs from each other is that the model by Karabenick and Dembo (2011) is more detailed, and it emphasizes learners’ decision-making processes in the iterative process of help-seeking. Former steps affect subsequent actions and if problems arise, the help-seeking process may come to an end.

Categorizations of Help-seeking 

The categorizations of help-seeking have been broader than ever. According to Nelson-Le Gall (1981, 1985), learners displayed two forms of help-seeking. Executive (also called expedient) help-seeking occurs when a learner’s intention is only to have the problem solved, while instrumental (or adaptive) help-seekers seek a limited amount and type of help to solve the problem or attain a goal independently. Karabenick & Knapp (1991) did a survey to test learners’ help-seeking tendencies, and they further categorized those behaviors into five categories, including formal and informal help-seeking, instrumental activities, lowering performance aspirations, and altering goals. Formal help-seeking means learners seek help from formal sources including instructors, and professional personnel, while informal help-seeking means the help comes from sources learners are typically closer to. Instrumental activities mean things learners do to help them perform better, i.e., try harder, study more, etc. Lowering performance aspirations means learners choose to lower their aspirations and do easier things next time, like taking a lighter load or selecting easier courses. Altering goals means a complete deviation from their original goals, like transferring to another school or changing their major or minor. 

With the spread of new technologies, other categorizations related to information searching have been added apart from the traditional formal and informal help-seeking as a brand-new form (Cheng et al., 2013). Makara and Karabenick (2013) proposed a well-received framework to categorize learners’ help-seeking sources. The first dimension regarded help-seeking as either formal or informal, just like what researchers did in the past. The second dimension of personal and impersonal help-seeking was decided by the relationship of help givers and receivers. The third dimension focused on the involvement of technologies. Mediated help-seeking means help comes from some form of technology, while face-to-face help-seeking means physical meetings between help-seekers and helpgivers. Their last dimension was unique to technological advances too. Dynamic help-seeking means the help source adapts or changes over time in accordance with learners’ needs, while static help-seeking means not. 

Barriers to Help-seeking 

Studies on barriers to learners’ help-seeking behavior focus mainly on three factors, including the learners themselves, the course instructor, and the environment. Firstly, studies have revealed that learners with a greater desire for autonomy or independence over their studies are less likely to seek help (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Butler, 1998). They view themselves as autonomous learners and they prefer to rely more on themselves instead of from external sources. What’s more, other students avoid seeking help because they want to maintain a positive social image and their self-worth (Ryan et al., 1997). Seeking help from other sources is regarded as a humiliating or even shameful act for these learners. Another line of research suggested a negative link between shyness, academic help-seeking, and learners’ learning adjustments (Chen et al., 2018; Giblin & Stefaniak, 2021), which explained why shy learners are more likely to employ passive learning behavior (executive help-seeking or avoidance of help-seeking).

From a course instructor’s perspective, the ability to establish positive relationships with learners and to create a welcoming environment where communication is prevailing is really important. Learners are more likely to seek help in a friendly environment where they are not being judged and criticized as being incompetent, whereas in an unsocial learning environment that emphasizes performance-avoidance goals, learners’ help-seeking behavior is greatly affected (Karabenick, 2004). Students in classrooms where mastery goals are emphasized typically exhibit more positive help-seeking behavior. 

Supporting Students’ Help-Seeking

Instructors play a pivotal role in supporting students’ help-seeking behavior. Encouraging students to seek help when needed can enhance their understanding, boost confidence, and promote a positive learning atmosphere. Instructors should not assume that students inherently know how to seek help and should actively share resources and cultivate an environment that encourages communication to address challenges related to new content and assignments. To achieve this goal, they may familiarize learners with diverse help-seeking sources, increase learners’ self-efficacy in both face-to-face and online settings, and promote learners’ awareness of relatedness, autonomy, and competence in learning (Yang & Stefaniak, 2023; Newman, 2002). 


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Fan Yang

University of Georgia

Fan Yang is a doctoral student in Learning, Design, and Technology at the University of Georgia. His research interests include online learner engagement, and instructional practices to facilitate learners' help-seeking experiences.
Jill E. Stefaniak

University of Georgia

Jill Stefaniak is an Associate Professor in the Learning, Design, and Technology program in the Department of Workforce Education and Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. Her research interests focus on the professional development of instructional designers and design conjecture, designer decision-making processes, and contextual factors influencing design in situated environments.

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