316. Help-Seeking Behavior

Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, Elizabeth Canning and Makita White join us to discuss their research on differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.

Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU.

Show Notes


John: Continuing-generation college students are often better prepared by their family and peer networks for academic success than first-gen students with more limited support networks. In this episode, we discuss differences in academic and non-academic help-seeking behaviors between first-gen and continuing generation students.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Elizabeth Canning and Makita White. Makita is a graduate student in Washington State University’s Experimental Psychology Program. Elizabeth Canning is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at WSU. Welcome, Makita and welcome back, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thanks for having us.

Makita: Hello.

John: Our teas today are:… Elizabeth, are you drinking tea?

Elizabeth: I am drinking coffee this morning. It’s morning over here in the Pacific coast.

Rebecca: How about you Makita?

Makita: I have a hibiscus berry tea. I don’t usually drink tea, but I got some just for you guys.

Rebecca: Awesome. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice treat. I have some chai today. John?

John: And I have an English breakfast tea today, because I got a long band practice tonight. [LAUGHTER] So, a little more caffeine will help.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] So we invited you here today to discuss your recent study entitled “Examining Active Help-Seeking Behavior in First-Generation College Students,” which was published in Social Psychology of Education. Can you tell us a little bit about how this study came about?

Makita: Well, for me, this was actually my master’s thesis. When I became a researcher, part of my dream is to change the world, make a difference, and I’m really passionate about people getting access to the things that they need. So when I was in undergrad, and I was exposed to a lot of first-generation college students, and when I was hearing my parents talk about their experiences as first-generation college students, I started to notice that things were a little different when you didn’t have people around you who could tell you about what college was supposed to be like. And then when I started reading the literature on first-generation college students, and I saw how, in my opinion, excessively large, the gap was between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. That really captured my attention. So then, when I went to a school, where they have a really high population of first-generation college students, it felt really appropriate to look at first-generation college students. And also I’m honestly really interested in help-seeking behaviors. You probably have experienced yourselves where you see one person who is very persistent and active in getting someone’s attention, basically, very annoying, consistently waving their hand… [LAUGHTER] …trying to come up and get someone to basically give them whatever they need or they want, versus another person who maybe is a lot more quiet and sitting there hoping that someone will help them. And I wanted to know why. What makes one person act so differently from another? So I was really interested in first gens and help seeking. And then, at the same time, Elizabeth had recently been to a conference where they talked about first-gen forward initiatives, which is where colleges encourage faculty and instructors to self identify if they themselves were first-generation college students, to encourage other first-generation college students at the university to feel more comfortable, maybe talking to them or going to office hours, things like that. And we combined those two things together into this study, where we could look at help seeking in first-generation college students and a shared identity to try to see if that would change how help seeking looked.

John: And you mentioned some of the gaps that are observed. Could you talk a little bit about some of the equity gaps between first-generation students and continuing-generation students in terms of their academic performance and success?

Makita: Yeah, so for first-generation college students, we tend to see that on average, they earn lower grades, and they’re more likely to drop out of college. And they’re also less likely to engage in academic success behaviors, like going to office hours, or trying to talk to their instructors after class, things like that. And there are a lot of different reasons for that. They quite honestly don’t have someone at home who can teach them those implicit unspoken rules about college, about what’s expected of you and how you should behave. So they have to learn that on their own and that can take a little extra time, which is pretty valuable when you’re in college, that time. And then, a lot of the time, when you’re a first gen, you’re also coming from a lower income family, which may require you to work while you’re also going to taking classes and it means that you’re a little less likely to live on campus, which can influence you in all kinds of fun ways. But, we were, as I said before, really interested in whether or not there was a difference in the type of help-seeking strategies that students were using and how frequently they were help seeking. We wanted to see if that was maybe part of the reason for this gap.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ll just jump in too, that one of the big inspirations I think, for this work came from a sociologist, actually. Her name is Jessica Calarco. I think she’s at the University of Wisconsi- Madison now, but she wrote a fantastic book, it’s called Negotiating Opportunities. And she did a lot of field work with children, looking at at how children from lower- or upper-middle class families act differently in the classroom and how children approach their teachers or how they seek out resources and things. And she found that more low-income students are much more passive in their health seeking behaviors than upper-middle-class students. And so we had kind of read this work and thought it was really interesting and wanted to see if the same was true at the college level, and how that might look with those types of behaviors in a college setting. So we wanted to see if that gap that they found with children was the same for higher ed.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the methods of your study?

Makita: Yes, so this was a little complicated. But I’ll try to go through it in the most straightforward way I can.

Elizabeth: I will say for a first-year Master’s student, this was about the most difficult kind of laboratory experiment to design for, like right off the bat. But Makita did such a great job. And I think it turned out so well. But the complexities of it actually make it super interesting. So hopefully, we can explain it in a way that is easy to understand.

Makita: So we designed this study when COVID was in full swing, and we were in lockdown and, as a result, the entire study is set up to be conducted through Zoom. So the way it would work was a participant would join a Zoom room, where they would interact with one of our many undergraduate research assistants. And the research assistant would introduce themselves as a lead experimenter, and they would give the participant a phone number and an email, maybe like, “in case we’re disconnected or something goes wrong, you can reach out to me.” And then they’d give this participant 10 questions GRE style math test, and they would have 10 minutes to take it. And immediately after they finish taking this math test, the research assistant would have a short, partially scripted conversation with the participant, they would say things like, “Oh, don’t worry if you didn’t do that well. I didn’t do that well, the first time I took a GRE test, I didn’t even know I was supposed to take it until like right before I took it, I did really bad. But I did way better the second time I took it.” And then in the middle of that partially scripted blurb, they would, in one condition, say “I’m the first in my family to go to college, so nobody at home knew anything about graduate school.” And that was our main intervention. So for half of the students, they heard the research assistant was the first in their family to go to college, and for the other half, they didn’t. So immediately after that, they’re given another survey. And in that survey, they are told, “Hey, you’re going to take another math test after this one. And if you can improve your score by about 20%, or by about two questions, then you will be entered into a raffle to win a $20 gift card.” So we’re incentivizing them to want to do better. And then the survey says, “Do you want to go over your answers from exam one?” If you say yes, then the survey instructs the participant to reach out to their experimenter or this research assistant so they can do so; if the participant says no, then the survey instructs them to reach out to the research assistant to get the link to test number two. So in both cases, this participant has been instructed to reach out to the research assistant to get their attention so that they can move on to the next step. But in one case, they are getting academic help, they are going over their questions from exam one. And in the other case, they are just getting the link to exam two. The thing that makes this study fun is that the experimenter isn’t going to answer, the experimenter is going to leave their Zoom camera black, ostensibly off, while they are potentially off doing something else, or distracted, or maybe something’s gone wrong, and they are disconnected, who knows? And they’re going to ignore any attempt to get their attention for about eight minutes. And during that time, what they did was they recorded any attempt to get their attention. We were looking specifically for any additional behavior outside of the Zoom room, something active and persistent added on to that, like calling us or emailing us or texting us, using that information that was provided to them at the very beginning of the session. So after that eight minutes had past, the researcher would come back and say “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, something went wrong with my computer,” and then they would either help the student go over some answers or give them the link to the next test. And then the student eventually took the final survey with some demographics and final questions in it.

Elizabeth: So it’s a pretty lengthy paradigm. I think our research assistants had so much fun doing this study.

Makita: They really did.

Elizabeth: They had a lot of acting training to make it believable. But in terms of designing it, in a laboratory experiment, you have to kind of make some trade offs with making everything standardized, but also making it at least somewhat realistic to what might happen in the real world. So we were kind of playing off the idea of being an instructor and having a syllabus where you have lots of information about how to contact the instructor. And we have exams all the time, as instructors in our courses. And so it might be the case that they would need to go over the questions that they missed for the first exam before the second exam. And so we were trying to kind of mimic that type of setting in this one-hour laboratory study. But again, this is a sort of a different experience, where you’re not really getting graded, and it’s not going to affect your GPA. So we had to add a little bit in there around incentivizing them to want to do well in this sort of hypothetical situation. But again, I think our research assistants had a great time collecting these data.

John: What did you find in terms of the differences in help-seeking behavior between first-gen and continuing-generation students?

Makita: So we had a couple of different measures of help seeking in this study. The first measure was whether or not the student wanted to go over their answers. And we found that regardless of condition, so regardless of whether or not the experimenter self-identified as a first-generation college student, first gens overall sought less help than continuing-generation college students, which lined up with what we saw in previous studies. Things got a little more interesting when we started looking at the active help seeking behavior. So students who said, “Yes, I want to go over my answers,” we categorized as academic help seekers and students who said, “No, I don’t want to go over my answers,” we categorized as non-academic help seekers. Then, if students used some kind of additional method of help seeking during that eight-minute waiting period when the experimenter wasn’t responding, they were categorized as active help seekers. So we had active academic help seekers and active non-academic help seekers. And what we found was that students, our academic help seekers, weren’t really impacted by the identity of the experimenter, but our non-academic help seekers were. So in our control condition, when first-gen students were seeking non-academic help, about 13% of them used active help seeking, but in our intervention condition, it was more like 43%. So that was a really big jump, and it was really cool to see that. In other words, when first-generation college students had a help provider available, who was also a first-generation college student, they were more likely to reach out to them in this active persistent way on top of sending a message in the Zoom chat, they were also emailing or texting or calling. When the research assistant identified themselves as a first-generation college student that made our first-generation participants feel more comfortable with reaching out to them in this non-academic realm.

Rebecca: So when we think about this study, what are the implications as we talk to educators or higher ed leaders and actions we might take or ways that we might think about it?

Makita: It’s always difficult to try to generalize from a laboratory study to the field or to real life. In this case, because the person who was performing the role of the help provider was a peer, most things that we can generalize this too would also involve peers. So for instance, if we have a upperclassman teaching assistant for a really difficult math class, maybe if that person self-identifies as being first generation that might make first-generation college students in that class feel more comfortable with asking for help in regards to, say working Canvas or Blackboard or accessing their homework or figuring out how to get the right textbook, things like that. Based on these results, we wouldn’t expect it to necessarily help with their academic performance. But overall, engaging in this type of help over time, might.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I would just add that it kind of highlights two nuances of help seeking that we’ve kind of overlooked in the literature so far. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that first-generation college students seek help less often than continuing-generation students. But not a whole lot of people are talking about the types of help seeking. So, there’s passive type of help seeking versus active type of help seeking. So, differentiating that might be really helpful and understanding where we might need to intervene and help these students. And then what we’re seeing in this study is that we also might need to break it down into the type of assistance that the students are seeking. I think a lot of times, we’re just assuming that they’re seeking help for academic reasons, like I don’t understand this content, explain it in a different way, or related to the content of a class. And what we’re seeing here is that we might actually need to break this down into what’s related to the course content and what’s related to more of this sort of navigational type of awareness that first-generation students might not have the background knowledge to address. And so this non-academic help-seeking behavior might really benefit first-generation college students. And there’s a number of different scenarios in which that might be helpful. So applying for scholarships and financial aid, navigating course seeking and course maps, and figuring out the requirements for different degree programs, applying to graduate school, applying to different research opportunities. All of those things are academic-adjacent, but they’re not academic in the sense of the course material that they’re learning in that course. So it might be the case that all of these other types of help-seeking behaviors, it might be important to intervene in those areas to help first-generation college students.

Makita: And something really interesting about this study is that if we hadn’t separated help seeking into academic and non-academic, we wouldn’t see the difference that we found, if we had just examined it as basic help seeking without separating it, then the nuance of this situation would be lost. And as Elizabeth said, in many of the studies that we read, and that we looked at, they look at help seeking as this just basic block, they’re not separating it out into active or passive or academic or non-academic. And it seems like that actually might be really important because how well an intervention is working for a different type of help seeking might be something that we actually didn’t notice in some of these previous studies.

John: And there’s been a lot of studies recently indicating the importance of providing students with more structure, particularly first-gen students, which might help students get past that barrier. But there’s also been a lot of studies that have investigated the effect of a sense of belonging and comfort in the institution. And having that peer connection to someone else with a similar identity as a first-gen student can help break down some of those barriers and help them overcome that, so that they’ll be more comfortable seeking help in the future, I would suspect.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. I think anytime an instructor can talk about their personal experiences, overcoming challenges that they have gone through, I think first-generation identity is something that is not as visible as other types of identities. And so that might be something that we need to provide to students if we feel comfortable doing so and talking about that in a way that might relate to students and that belonging, right, making them feel like you can have the same types of success, the same types of career plans, the same types of goals in college, as other students, no matter what your background is.

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting for instructors to just think about taking the time to be explicit about that. It’s an identity that you might take for granted or not think about exposing, but it might be worth planning to expose that really early on in the semester to see how that might benefit students.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

John: One thing we did on our campus last year was we had a committee that was looking at challenges for first-gen students. And one of the things they did was they created some images that could be used in your signature line indicating that you were a first-gen student. And they distributed that pretty widely. And a lot of faculty and staff members have included that to help form those types of connections. It sounds like, based on your research, can be fairly important.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think it’s a great initiative. I think here on our campus, we have some stickers and some like door hangers that you can put on your office door and things like that. But I like the email signatures a lot, because that kind of gets blasted to everyone. But yeah, I don’t think it can hurt. I mean, it’s a pretty simple type of thing that you can do. There’s not any evidence that it would be negative for anyone, at least at this point. So it’s sort of like a no-cost way of helping potentially a few students along the way. So yeah, I think it’s a great practice.

Rebecca: Are there follow up studies that this is making you kind of itch to do?

Makita: Oh, yes, definitely. For me, the ideal next step would be to try it in a real classroom, have either an instructor, or a TA for a lab, self identify as first gen to half of the class and not self ID the other and then see if help seeking changes. It would be really, really cool if we could do another behavioral measure of help seeking instead of just self report, but it gets a little complicated when you try to figure out how to track whether or not someone is emailing the TA or the instructor without accidentally infringing on someone’s privacy. So we still have a lot to go when it comes to actually figuring out how to run a study like that. But that would be my ideal.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think one of the things that we really need is a really good measure of help seeking, whether it’s self report, or whether it’s a way to assess that in some kind of behavioral data. Right now, there’s several different help-seeking skills out there where students respond to them. But they’re not as nuanced as what we’re seeing here around this academic versus not, this passive versus active. So a measure where we could really look at that nuance, I think, would help the field in general in terms of looking at whether interventions are increasing help seeking in various ways. And then of course, the behavioral measure is really, really interesting to us in terms of what students are actually doing. And we’re still kind of figuring out what that might look like, is that something that we can pull from, like their website data. So how often students are looking in the LMS for certain material, how often they’re clicking on things, whether or not they’re going to tutoring centers and office hours and things like that. So we’re still trying to figure out how to measure the behavioral side. But at the very least, we definitely need a really strong self-report measure of help seeking to move this research along.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Makita: What’s next is I’m going to go back on campus and teach an introductory psychology class.

Elizabeth: Great. Next for me is I have meetings all day. [LAUGHTER], but I’m looking forward to the weekend. Actually, something that’s exciting for me is next week I’m going to a conference in Indiana that’s bringing together a bunch of educators looking to build up infrastructure for conducting research in education. So we’re going to be talking about barriers to doing types of different research in education and how we might solve those in the future. So I’m excited for that. I think it will be a great brainstorming opportunity to figure out how to make this type of research easier to conduct in different educational settings.

Rebecca: That sounds awesome. I hope that you’ll share back what you’ve learned and decided. [LAUGHTER]

Elizabeth: Yes, that’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you. It’s always great talking to you, Elizabeth, and it’s really nice meeting you Makita, and I hope we’ll be able to talk to both of you in the future.

Elizabeth: Great. Thank you so much for having us.

Makita: Thank you


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.