Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Asking for Help is the New Smart

Here is an actual e-mail chain with a student:

Student:  Bremen.  Looked at my grade. Lower than I was expecting.

Me:  Well, I show that your journal is missing. That would have been worth 100 points. An outline checklist wasn't completed--another 25 points. I sent the class an e-mail asking everyone to check their grades and it's great that you've done that. Were these assignments completed and I didn't receive them in the drop box? Or were they missed?

Student:  I didn't understand what to do, so I didn't do them.

Me:  I would have loved to know you were having trouble. I could have helped.

Student:  (No reply).

I'm actually still waiting for a reply and suspect it's not coming...

This scenario is one that I experience frequently in the course of an academic year. Students would prefer to avoid an assignment (and lose the points) than to simply ask for help.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. There was quite a buzz on Twitter a few months ago about this Ed Week article, which discusses high school students' unwillingness to ask for help--even their idea that doing so is a sign of weakness (Look at the part: "Real men don't ask for help.").

If asking for help is considered weak in high school, what happens when the anti-help high schoolers transition into college?

College is the place for exploration, open inquiry, agreement/disagreement, and everything in between.

Isn't it?

How can a student maximize those opportunities if he/she is afraid to ask for help or believes that there is some failure in doing so?  

I would love to see a widespread re-think, based on this idea. A revolution, if you will! Try it on for size:

Asking for help is "the new smart"!

Let me back it on up here...

I teach my public speaking students that when they verbally cite credible sources in their speeches, they should picture themselves carrying the experts from those sources piggyback... sort of like a "credibility totem pole." Or, like acrobats who flip and land on the shoulders of a "catcher."

This is the mental image you should have when you use the "smarts" of others to support you. Asking others for help means that you carry their knowledge and wisdom on your shoulders. Then, you  become stronger in your own knowledge because: 

-You look pretty darned smart for being able to say, "Hey, I am not sure if I'm doing this right and I want to check and see if I am."
-You become someone that others seek out because you found the right answer and now you're "in the know."
-You are ultimately seen as a trusted someone who knows where to find the right resources if you can't figure out the answer yourself.

These are all qualities hugely sought-after in the workplace, and they are rare to find.

Given the fact that unemployment is at an all-time high AND communication skills are the #1 desirable employability skill, wouldn't the ability to not only have the right answers, but also to communicate the right questions to find them be one hell of an important skill to have?

Isn't school the place to practice the communication skill of asking the right questions?

So what's the communication lesson here?

Pretty simple:  Ask for help!

You can phrase it any way you like from:

-"Can you help?"
-"I don't know what in the heck is going on here and I need to figure it out"
-"I'm totally lost and would like not to be."

You can even approach the question somewhat covertly or abstractly:
-"I think I have an idea of what we're supposed to be doing, but just want to ensure that I'm correct"
-"I'm missing the mark on this particular concept and I think I know why."

Bottom line: 

Smart people don't have all the answers, but they know when they don't have them. Then, they strive to figure out where to get them.

A few examples:
-A dear, dear friend of mine just took a job that requires a ton of work in Excel. She was up front with her supervisor and said, "I don't want to say that I don't know, but I'd really like to learn." Now she is taking a class in Excel, paid for by her employer.

-When I decided that I wanted to get out of health care (long story, but it was my former profession for seven years before I went back to school) and start teaching college-level communication, I literally picked up the phone and cold-called a college professor who taught speech communication. I said, "I'd like to know how you got where you are because I want to do it, too. Can I take you for coffee?" I didn't even have a Bachelor's degree yet. See where asking for help got me with that one??? 

And, finally, something really personal...
-I have lost 90+ lbs over a period of 13 years. I have a morbidly obese family. I didn't have too many inherent "smarts" to control the problem, myself. When I decided that I was "done", I became an anthropologist of weight loss. I lost my weight without surgical means (Hello! It took 13 years!); I learned from those who knew more than I did about nutrition, exercise, and, later, ultimately jogging and marathoning. To this day, I rely on a trusted instructor at my local YMCA for wisdom and guidance. I even started seeing a specialist every two weeks who is the head of non-surgical weight management at a local hospital. The instructor taught me about running and knows far more than I do about exercise. The doctor knows about the science of long-term weight loss. I need their help! Why?

Because the minute I become too proud or ashamed to ask for help could be the minute that I begin to backslide.

Now, I consider myself a pretty smart woman, but I don't attribute my smartness to my degrees or my academic career.

I am smart because I am unafraid to find the people who know more and learn from them.

Whether you are in high school or college, be selfish. Build your own "smart totem pole" or "acrobatic routine of brilliance."

At the very least, open your mouth and ask for help from the people who have signed up to give it to you.

Need more ammunition? Read this USA Today College piece by an actual student who got over her fear of asking for help and went for it--with impressive results!

Students, I challenge you to ask for help... either by e-mailing a college-related issue or question to, by posting a comment, or by telling your strategies for getting help when you need it. Colleagues, what about students who don't ask for help because they think we're too busy? Or that we'll think less of them? Or??? Weigh in! 


  1. A couple of years ago I was working with a really talented musician, trying to groom him for an awesome opportunity. I gave him an assignment and when the deadline rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. Turns out, he didn't fully understand what was being asked of him and instead of asking for help, he was silently melting down behind the scenes. Had I known, I would have happily walked him through the process. It's hard to ask sometimes, but it can make a big difference when we do.

  2. Thank you, Sarah! I totally agree with you that I often don't know there is a problem until it is far too late for me to do anything about it. I wonder if the musician asked for help the next time around? I'm so glad you commented! Ellen

  3. Great post! I completely agree and have come across many students who, for a variety of reasons, don't feel comfortable asking for help. In the past, students identified that they did not want to let me down because they were having challenges in school. This is even after assurances that I was there to help with anything. It's a tough issue to tackle. My strategy-- never accept "it's fine" as an answer to how things are going.

  4. Jenny, you raise a good point about not taking the "It's fine" answer. What this makes me think is that when I hand back, say, a speech outline in class, or even if I do it online, I should circle back with the student and say, "Is there anything you'd like to discuss about the grade?" and then watch the nonverbals. Those will tell me a lot! Thank you so much for your comment! Ellen

  5. Wonderful!! Collaboration is the name in business everywhere you look. You need to be able to talk with, discover information from, learn from your peers. The place to start - if not in elementary, then middle school. The schools are trying to start giving the kids opportunities to work in groups in primary and the expectation builds through graduation. I know I respect a professional (for example, a personal family doctor) a great deal more if they are willing to say - gee, I think it is xxx, but I'm not sure - I'll find someone whose specialty is in tihs area that knows more than I do, rather than one that 'knows it all' and makes mistakes.

  6. Thank you, Anonymous! It's true that collaboration is an element of asking for help. I hadn't thought about it that way. And I agree with you: I respect someone so much if they say that they'll seek out the answer and then actually follow up. I am so glad that you shared! Ellen

  7. Outstanding post. I find that kids are afraid of asking for help in class (peer pressure) but I make myself accessible through social media and text messaging, and once they figure that out, they ask away. While I'd rather have a face-to-face with them, electronic communication is better than nothing. I also find it odd that they won't ask a question in class out of embarrassment, but will tweet the question, where everybody can see it and it gets archived in the Library of Congress. But still, I'll take it any way I can get it.

  8. Thank you so much! I've been so reticent to connect with students on FB and other social media (I blogged about this a while back), but you do have a point: It's their medium and comfort zone, and they may be willing to ask questions there. I do have a course management system site (Angel) since I teach hybrid a great deal now. I *hope* that serves the same function, but I know students won't e-mail questions as I wish they would. Maybe I need to look into how Angel connects to FB--or BlackBoard, since they bought Angel. So much to think about and I appreciate you adding your thoughts! Ellen

  9. I don't use Facebook for classes. It's my personal zone, although students who send me friend requests become part of my sphere there. Most of my students are close to graduation, and they want to stay in touch.

    I teach public relations in a journalism school and find Twitter a great tool for facilitating real-time class discussions when news breaks. It seems to reinforce the fact that the news business is 24/7, and PR people have to be clued in. We use Blackboard for course management, but I find the kids really enjoy engaging me, their classmates and PR/media pros in conversations about all kinds of topics, and Twitter is perfect because it's so mobile. We also tweet about sports, pop culture, the weather, and of course share links to articles of interest. I also complain about grammar mistakes I see all too often, and make shout-outs when I'm grading great stuff. I canceled class via Twitter one day. It makes the class a community, and they are comfortable there. Sometimes they'll ask for help and get it from another student before I have the chance to respond. Plus, they need the social media stuff for their professional careers, so this gives them a chance to practice.

  10. You've given me a lot of encouragement to try Twitter with my classes. I've heard this from another higher ed tweep and you've solidified it :-). For me, Twitter has opened me up to the greater academic community in ways that I never imagined. Also, I feel far more updated and relevant in career trends. I am on sabbatical until Winter, but you've got me convinced! I thank you! Ellen

  11. Ellen, this a fantastic post, and an excellent point about asking for help. In addition to failing to ask for help not being very smart, I think it is also indicative of a lack of ambition. People who seek help actually care about succeeding. People who don't have the ever-ready "I didn't know" excuse to pull out on any and every occasion. Sometimes, I think people don't want to know. They hide behind ignorance as a justification for poor performance. You can tell whether or not someone has ambition by whether they offer an excuse or an apology, whether they say "I didn't know" or "I should have asked." Life is too short to hide behind excuses and justifications. I would strongly advise that student of your to take a really good look at who he/she is and what he/she wants out of life. Excuses are for people who don't really care whether or not they are successful.

  12. Doug, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Your words made me think about people using "I don't know" because they don't really want to try. By the way, I think that your last line should be on every syllabus. I really appreciate you writing. Ellen

  13. Thank you so much for this. The school year's just started for me and I'm already terribly lost in one of my harder economics classes, and even going to the tutor provided by my school didn't help since she wasn't well-versed in this professor's class either. I've been left with the single option of asking him for help, and I have to admit I feel a little intimidated since I'm not used to not understanding things, but reading this has given me the confidence I need to ask for help when I need it. :)

  14. Thank you, Anonymous!!! I have totally been in your shoes where by the first day or so, I already felt overwhelmed and confused (hello, College Algebra!). You absolutely did the right thing by going to the tutor and I'd be anxious to hear how it goes for you with the prof. If you don't get the help you need, know that you can go to another Econ prof for help. I have known Math profs who help each others' students all the time. From there, try to make a buddy in your class who gets it so you can study together. Finally... last tip: I REALLY struggled with College Algebra and had to hire an outside teenage math superstar to help me with it. It didn't cost much, but the additional boost was well worth it. I bet you could find someone like that if you need it, but hopefully with your visit to your prof, you will be on your way. Bravo to you and immense thanks for sharing! Ellen

  15. This is a great post and really important advice for students. They need to know that it is important - and often expected - that they ask for help when they need it. Although this is a slightly older post, I've just quoted you and linked to this post in my recent post - "The Smartest Word Your College Student Can Use" on

    I love your blog. Keep it up!

  16. Hi, Vicki,

    I wanted to thank you so much for this wonderful note, and for the mention on your blog. I'm going to add your blog to my blogroll, too!

    I'm glad to collaborate with you at any time. If there are subjects particular to parents from a prof's perspective, I'd be glad to write about it!

    Thank you,

  17. This needs to be read by professors as well. What about the college student who does ask for help and gets the look from the professor like, "You don't know this material. Then go read the book." I have been appalled by the lack of concern for students that I know that have asked for help and have been looked down upon for asking or receive the above aforementioned treatment. Why is the student in school? To learn the material or to have an already working knowledge of the subject matter? You tell me what makes sense. So, I don't fully agree with what is written here. Help is a two way street. One way only leads to a place of no return because who wants to go back to someone who has given little help or interest the first time around. This has been the experience with my LU student.

  18. JZ,

    I agree with you. There are many professors who totally rely on the book and do not want to provide further instruction outside of that resource. That said, there are times that we empower students (and I include myself in this) and say, "I'd like you to take a look for that first and then come back and we will discuss it." Otherwise, there are many students who simply won't take the initiative and will just throw their hands up and say, "I'm so lost!" or "I'm so confused!" and not even try. It's a double-edged sword, but what you're saying is very true and does happen.

    This is such an important topic that you've raised I'd like to turn it into a full blog post over at my updated site: Will you join me over there to talk about it?