Driven and dependent

I am honored to be guest-blogging with Michael E. Lopez while Joanne is away on vacation. Like Michael, I haven’t had much time for blogging; Joanne’s vacation allows me to make time and, with it, posts.

Do students in our hyper-collaborative, hyper-interactive environments learn to struggle with problems on their own? Or is that sort of work subtly discouraged?

The San Diego-based virtual charter school iHigh Virtual Academy recommends that prospective students take its iHigh Readiness for Online Learning Quiz to determine whether the school is right for them. Most of the questions (which are all multiple-choice) have to do with competence, organization, and drive. The points accorded to each answer are generally what one would expect, with a few exceptions, such as the following:

8. When I encounter a problem during class, or with my homework:

a) I review the directions, check my work, and try to work through the problem myself. Score 2 points. It is good to try your best to work things out on your own, but you also must be willing to contact your instructor whenever you need help.

b) I do not hesitate to ask my instructor for help. Score 3 points. Successful online students feel comfortable and confident in asking questions and contacting their instructors for assistance.

c) I skip the problem and move on. Score 1 point. Willingness to ask questions, especially asking for help when needed, is a significant success factor in an online independent study program. If your instructor does not hear from you, he/she has no way of knowing that you are not understanding the material.

Why should a student lose a point for trying to work through the problem alone? Option (a) does not read, “I do everything possible to avoid asking for help.” Nor does it read, “I insist on trying to work out the problem alone, even if it means I can’t solve it.” No, it simply reads, quite reasonably, “I review the directions, check my work, and try to work through the problem myself.” Is there any good reason why a student should not receive three points for this answer?

In context, it may not make much difference. Students who score 20 points or higher on the quiz are supposedly well suited to the school. There are 12 questions, with a maximum of three points for each one. Thus, scoring a 2 rather than a 3 here is not going to affect the picture much. But what message does this scoring key send out to the students (given that they score their own quizzes)? It is telling them that asking for help is superior to working out a problem alone.

That message is not unique to iHigh Virtual Academy. In his oft-cited article “Ten Commandments for Effective Study Skills” (The Teaching Professor, December 1992), Larry M. Ludewig writes that asking questions provides “the quickest route between ignorance and knowledge.” (The exact wording in the article may be a little different.) This makes sense: if you don’t know something, ask, and you’ll learn it. Why fret and flail? Why hide your confusion, when it can be resolved?

Thinking you know the answer when you don’t—or being afraid to show that you don’t—can hinder your learning in serious ways. But, as with many other things, asking questions is not an absolute good. Sometimes, if you put in a struggle, you not only solve the problem at hand but come to understand it in ways you woudn’t otherwise. Moreover, through that struggle, you become proficient–you know the problem backwards and forwards and could explain it if asked.

There are times to ask for help and times to refrain from doing so. In a traditional classroom, the best time to ask questions is in class (and, in college, office hours). At home, students are generally supposed to contend with the material alone—and this aloneness is essential. It is the time when students put together what they have learned, when they take on challenges and puzzle things out.

What happens in a virtual school? For one thing, the boundary between class time and home time becomes fuzzy or vanishes. Teachers often answer questions by email or Skype. Students communicate from home with virtual tutors, whether human or automated. In these circumstances, the very sense of working something out alone can disappear. If students feel entitled and encouraged to ask for help at every turn, then they will not learn to distinguish between the times when they really need help and the times when they don’t.

Granted, online learning poses the opposite danger as well. If students do not ask for help early on, if they slip behind because they don’t understand the material and haven’t made this known, then it will be difficult for them to catch up. They may suddenly find themselves so far behind that they see no recourse but to drop out. Asking questions of others, therefore, is necessary for survival. But so is the ability to figure things out oneself. Treat this as inferior to asking questions, and you’ll end up with a pile of text messages that say, “help im stuck.” And the teacher, by golly, will be obliged to help these desperate students, because they are doing the Right Thing.


  1. Cranberry says:

    In a classroom, a teacher can read the student’s body language. Online, that’s impossible. It makes sense that an online student must take the initiative when a point needs clarifying. It’s quite possible for a student to come to a wrong conclusion from something she’s worked through on her own.

    I wouldn’t take it as a sign of dependency, but a sign of the procedures students must follow to thrive in an online environment. Online and in-class are different.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Cranberry’s right — and I should add that a wrong idea that you come to through your own hard work is harder to extricate/eradicate later, particularly if you don’t have time to linger on a topic and work through it. I just had that happen on an assignment recently: it was, it turned out, a little too hard. Most of the students worked quite vigorously to develop interpretations that were quite wrongheaded. It’s going to be some work getting those bad ideas out now and it’s time to move on to the next Chapter….

    Errors and false theories are an important part of learning in some models of education, and they’re VITAL to scientific inquiry, but they aren’t necessarily productive in every model of education.

  3. Good points. It seems that here, as in many cases, it depends largely on the scope and nature of the assignment. If you’re stuck on a sentence that you’re trying to translate from Latin into English, you might well benefit from poring over it a bit. But if you’re writing a paper about political changes in Argentina and have no idea where to begin, it’s a good idea to ask for help.

  4. Cranberry’s point makes me wonder, though, whether online learning will push students toward greater dependency–that is, whether they will be encouraged to ask for help because of the online format.

    It is a question of degree. What concerned me about the quiz was the suggestion that asking for help was better than not doing so. This is not absolutely the case.

  5. Asking for help is fine, but . . . it’s one of my greatest frustrations at times when kids ask first before trying for themselves. “How do I do this?” “What do I do next?” Those questions drive me crazy. On the other hand, a well-framed question can be clarifying not just for the student herself, but for the whole class.

  6. SuperSub says:

    The trained dependency that students exhibit these days is ridiculous. I can give my students a short 10 sentence reading passage that is age or below-age reading level appropriate with a series of questions that use the same language as the reading passage, and on any given day about half of them will constantly ask me for help in finding the answers.
    Do the same thing with skateboarding or fashion magazine, and amazingly they can recall all the information on demand.

    Regarding the online questionnaire, the real problem that I have is that they award a point for giving up on the problem. Zero effort should get zero points.