Asking for help

During class, students seem to understand the concepts. However, they don’t do well on the tests. I offer extra help before and after school and at lunch, but few students take advantage of it. I’m a first-year biology teacher, so I’d appreciate some suggestions on how to encourage students to ask questions or seek help when they need it.
— Alisa, Boston, MA
It sounds like your question has several components. First of all, how do you know your students understand the lesson concepts? Teachers often say “Any questions? Good.” When there are no questions, the teacher assumes that everyone understands. Try to provide a context or focus, such as “Any questions about the difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells?” And then wait a few seconds for students to think about their learning and formulate their questions. Frequent formative assessments—bellringers, “ticket out the door,” brief quizzes, responses via clickers or white boards, thumbs up—may also help students to reflect on what they know or don’t know and give you some concrete feedback on their understanding during each lesson.
When can your students get extra help? It’s hard for students who ride busses to come in early or stay late. Many students are involved in extracurricular activities or have afterschool responsibilities. And it’s hard to blame students for not wanting to give up lunch, often the only chance they have to socialize or relax. Some teachers have virtual “office hours” in the evenings or on weekends to provide assistance via e-mail or a discussion forum. But as today’s students seem to prefer social media to e-mail, you could take advantage of this interest. For example, even though Edmodo looks like Facebook, it’s a microblogging site that a teacher can set up for students to collaborate, ask questions, and share resources. Teachers can also post their own resources such as quizzes or study guides. It’s accessible 24-7 via computers or smartphone apps. The teacher can moderate the site and delete inappropriate posts.

The class period may be the only time you can interact with students. Is your classroom a “safe” place for them to ask questions? Do students know how to ask for assistance? Is asking considered a sign of weakness? Are students embarrassed to ask questions? No matter how trivial the question or comment, never belittle it, reply with sarcasm, or allow other students to laugh at it.
After you’ve gone over directions for an activity, it’s frustrating when students raise their hands and ask, “What are we supposed to do?” If you say “I already told you. Figure it out,” students may assume that other kinds of questions will get the same response. Model how to refer to the printed directions or how to ask a partner.
It may also be helpful to model the type of questions students could ask related to understanding: “Could you please explain that again?” “I don’t understand… Does this mean that” “But what about…” “What would happen if… ”
If you notice more than one or two students have the same question during an activity, offer some “group therapy:” meet with a small group of students to go over the concept or procedures. If you find all of the groups are struggling with a concept or procedure, have a brief mini-meeting to review.
Teachers need to walk a fine line between being helpful and taking over a student’s thinking. Some students become dependent on teachers, constantly asking questions for verification (“Is this correct?” “Am I doing this right?”) Show them how to refer to the rubric or to the directions to help them develop initiative and independence.
As a student, I enjoyed figuring out something for myself. I became annoyed with teachers who hovered over my shoulder, asking if I needed help. You’ll have to determine when students really need help and when they need time to think through a problem themselves. I had a student who constantly asked questions in a soft voice. I thought at first he needed my help, but it turned out that he was thinking out loud. We made a deal—if he did indeed require some help, he would raise his hand. Otherwise, I left him alone with his thoughts.
In the classroom, teachers are usually the ones asking the questions. I’m glad you’re trying to foster students as questioners.

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10 Responses to Asking for help

  1. Monica Curry says:

    Maybe, you can create an anonymous drop box, for students to write questions on an index card and drop it in the box. And get an idea of how they ask questions and what didn’t they understand from the lesson. Sometimes, during the lesson, I may feel like I understand and when I get home, I realize I don’t have a clue. And I am too embarrassed and trapped by “looking good” or “looking smart”, I wouldn’t dare ask a question to get further explanation or clarity. But if I could anonymous drop my question in a drop box and know that it would be answered without other students making negative comments, my confidence would build and eventually I would feel comfortable enough to ask for help in understanding the lesson.

    • Mary Bigelow says:

      Monica — Thank you for responding from a student’s perspective! Your suggestion about a Drop Box is terrific! It sounds similar to the “ticket out the door” or exit slip that many teachers use to get students’ questions or comments at the end of the class. If the technology is available, students could ask questions at any time (even outside of class) via a class moodle, wiki, or blog. This would not have to be a public forum, just a way to ask questions. But an index card would work, too!
      You also make a point about students being embarrassed or afraid to ask questions. What can a teacher do to make the classroom a safer place for students to participate?

  2. Kathryn says:

    From another perspective, since most students are embarassed to ask questions in front of everyone, as a teacher you could come up with different activities to help the students feel more comfortable around each other. For instance, in freedom writers, the teacher did different types of activities to get the students involved and they all became “A Family” in a sense. Helping the students to become more comfortable in their environment can help them become more comfortable asking questions and get more involved. If a student gets that sense of belonging they can become more comfortable too.

  3. Shantavious Watson says:

    Maybe you can ask the students individually do they understand because they may be ashamed to ask in front of their peers. Peers can be really mean and may talk about them and you should let them know that no ones question is a dumb question. When in doubt ask, cause its best to know than to guess. You can also ask them to get a study buddy.

  4. Mary Bigelow says:

    Kathryn — You make an excellent point about helping students “feel more comfortable” around each other. Seeing the classroom as a community of learners is part of making the classroom a safe (or comfortable) place for students to learn.

  5. Mary Bigelow says:

    Shantavious — How would a teacher go about setting up “study buddies”? Do students pick a friend or does the teacher suggest or assign buddies? What do you do as a study buddy? This sounds like a great idea!

  6. MaryB says:

    An interesting study reported in the Chicago Tribune on the relationship between family background and class participation.

  7. Mary Blanchard says:

    The Tribune story was interesting. The school district I work for has 64% free and reduced lunch students so I found it very relevant. It would be good to teach students a proceedure for asking for help especially during work time. One example is to have a paper circle with red on one side and green on the other. Students flip the circle to request assistance.

  8. Duane Edwin Little says:

    Dr. Eberle:
    I am a member of the DCPS Cohort at NSTA. I viewed the virtual conference, “The Future of Science Education: STEM and Workforce Readiness”, and was quite inspired by the comments of the speakers. If you are familiar with my work in the PD offered by NSTA you know that I am an inspired science teacher who is chomping at the bit to learn more about STEM. What I am truly looking forward to is finding a resource for Project-Based Learning PD; I would hope that NSTA would be the vanguard for this PD as I have found your association resources to be the best of the best! Please guide me to where I can find this PD resource; I am ready to go!

  9. abigail says:

    Though this is a bit late, one suggestion I’ve heard about is to have twitter running on your powerpoint and students can text questions to twitter. Sometimes this even has other students answering questions as well as not interrupting you until you’re ready. And students can ask the question immediately. Might be worth doing some searches on.

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