The Importance of Seeking Help in Academic Writing
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
by Christoforos Spyropoulos
A common occurrence among many freshmen is a surprising underestimation of the importance of asking for help with academic writing, due to the minute emphasis placed on help seeking by most high school institutes. Several high-school students are used to writing alone and sometimes may view asking for help as embarrassing or as a threat to their ego (Karabenick, 2003). Nevertheless, seeking advice and guidance as a freshman is extremely important in smoothly transitioning to and succeeding in academic writing. With writing being a collective process (Ede & Lunsford, 1983), a major effort has been exerted by many academic institutions around the world to provide students with adequate support for their writing. In such a context, significant research has been conducted in order to determine the efficacy of help seeking which has aroused much controversy. Although several studies suggest the habit of help seeking could yield an adverse effect in students’ approach to writing, there have recently been many studies arguing that the interactive element of help seeking could enable students to develop their abilities and evolve as writers. For this study, the efficacy of help seeking will be assessed by examining the impacts of writing center visitation and office hours on writing performance, writing skills and students’ confidence. Therefore, the following investigation will show that there is a potential positive effect of help seeking in enhancing students’ skills and confidence in their writing.
One of the most intriguing and widely researched implications of help seeking is its correlation to students’ apparent writing performance. In this context, the implementation of an empirical statistical analysis is mandatory, which in turn implies an extensive emphasis on quantitative data, such as achieved grades in writing courses. In most studies, help seeking is primarily assessed by examining the efficacy of its various manifestations. One such common indication of help seeking is the students’ frequency of writing center visitation, with several studies analyzing the effectiveness of writing centers in improving writing performance. As a result, through such a quantitative approach, it has been suggested that the frequency of writing center visitations is indeed a major predictor of writing performance (Williams, Takaku, & Bauman, 2006). This relationship has been further generalized, in order to eliminate any dependency on the ways in which help seeking is expressed, and rather focus solely on students’ help seeking behavior. In an additional study, Williams and Takaku concluded that there is an overall positive relationship between help seeking and academic performance, regardless of the medium through which help seeking is expressed (Williams & Takaku, 2011). Thus, any improvements in academic performance are not attributed to the source of help but rather to the help seeking attitude of the student. The intrinsic need for help and hence the students’ actively displayed help seeking behavior can be directly linked to an apparent improvement in writing performance as reflected in achieved grades.
Enhancing Writing Skills
Despite the above, this overreliance on quantitative variables, such as writing center visitation and achieved grades, provides limited and rather superficial inferences. Therefore, a proportional relationship between help seeking improvement in writing performance has been challenged on many grounds. Most notably, the nature of such an assessment has been criticized as ineffective in determining the efficacy of help seeking (Jones, 2001; Lerner, 2001). The complex and multivariate nature of writing, especially in an academic context, attributes a more abstract element to writing and accordingly makes it less well defined (Hayes, Hatch & Silk, 2000).This complicates any writing-related study, and thus, demands an extensive qualitative approach in order to meaningfully examine the importance of help seeking. Many studies have concluded that instead of an outright increase in academic performance, help seeking leads to the development of a mandatory set of skills, which allow students to further expand their writing abilities. In fact, the true value of help seeking is not witnessed by a simple increase in writing performance, rather, by the enhancement of actual writing skills which may not be immediately reflected in the student’s writing grades (North, 1984a).
One of the most important skills that help seeking develops is the student’s ability to better understand and engage with the learning task. Since most sources of help, such as writing center sessions and office hours of instructors, entail an extensive face to face interaction, it is easier to achieve a deeper understanding of various writing techniques (Hughes, Wainwright & Cresswell, 2012, p. 29). This comprehensive understanding, which sometimes may extend beyond the predetermined learning objectives, allows for a further enhancement of other significantly important skills. Through the interactive element of help seeking, students are able to increase the level of their analysis and effectively formulate and support complex arguments (Rafoth, 2010, p. 150). Regarding this communicative characteristic of help seeking, students are physically exposed to an audience, the writing center tutor or their instructor, which enables them to better comprehend the importance of an audience in their writing. Thus, a communicative environment allows students to effectively identify and incorporate their audience in their writing and in turn dramatically increase their argumentative skills by verbalizing these one-to-one discussions (Rafoth, 2010, p. 149).
Building up Confidence
The development of such essential writing skills leads to another equally important aspect of help seeking: its contribution to increasing students’ confidence in their writing. Such confidence is essential for enabling students to keep moving forward, improving and growing as writers (Leahy, 1990, p. 47), and preventing impulsive decisions which can adversely impact the writing experience (Rafoth, 2010, p. 151). At its core, help seeking encourages self-reflection on learning needs and raises the levels of “meta-learning awareness” (Norton, Owens & Clark, 2004, p. 423). This better understanding of strengths and weaknesses is a significant source of confidence for students and encourages not only further development but also instills an endeavor for continuous engagement in writing. Additionally, the interactive nature of manifestations of help seeking provides a reassuring environment which helps the student gain the necessary confidence in their writing to encourage further exploration and experimentation with writing and in the process improve the quality of the writing product (Rafoth, 2010, pp. 150-152).
Despite all the above, it has been suggested that instead of building such confidence, help seeking can have a negative impact on the approach and attitude of some students towards writing. This is revealed through some freshmen’s overreliance and dependence on sources of help, with a limited ability to write autonomously and think critically (Garner, 2005). As a result, contrary to what was mentioned previously, help seeking could lead to an abandonment of all sense of agency, increasing the students’ desire of having their writing fixed by others and rarely relying on their own personal input (Conroy, Lerner, & Siska, 1998). Consequently, any element of personal engagement is removed from the writing process which in turn eliminates any sense of responsibility and ownership, isolating the writer from the writing product.
Examining a variety of previous research on the efficacy of help seeking, a distinct pattern can be observed: there appears to be either a quantitative or qualitative focus. With this unilateral approach raising significant limitations regarding reliability and reproducibility of results and undermining the quality of the study, the most suitable method for assessing the importance of help seeking is an integration of both quantitative and qualitative elements into the analysis. This would eliminate any sole dependency on empirical observations and incorporate intangible yet essential factors into the examination.
Despite many studies focusing exclusively on writing centers, for this study, office hours of professors were also considered as a manifestation of help seeking, extending to a greater range of help agents. A sample of 20 students from a Writing 102 class along with 22 Writing Center tutors in AUS completed two separate surveys (Appendices A, B) to determine the effect of help seeking. The effectiveness of both office hours and Writing Center sessions in enhancing writing skills and building up confidence was considered. Students in survey A were initially asked to comment on the frequency they utilize such resources along with their preference between these two options. In this context the quantitative element would examine the nature of the statistical relationship between students’ frequency of Writing Center or office hour visits and the grades achieved in composition writing courses. However, due to time constraints and the complexity involved in obtaining such data, the impact of help seeking on academic performance was also reduced into being assessed qualitatively by letting students and Writing Center tutors to convey their experiences with help seeking. The multiple perspectives were obtained for a more complicated analysis to be made, allowing for a wider understanding on the implications of help seeking on academic writing.
In the first question of the survey (Appendix A), half of the interviewed WRI 102 students admitted visiting office hours of professors or the Writing Center, even on a periodic, non-regular basis, with 20% percent of students never reaching out to any of those sources for help (Figure 1).
In addition, from the open-ended responses collected in question 2, there was an approximately equal distribution of preference between office hours and Writing Center sessions.
Gathering responses from both surveys regarding achieved grades, there seems to be an overall positive relationship between help seeking and writing performance. In question 3 of the survey given to students (Appendix A), the vast majority (80%) agreed that either office hours of professors or Writing Center sessions can lead to an improvement of achieved grades. Interestingly, despite the three options available, none of the students taking the study rejected any improvement outright. Rather, the remaining 20% of students opted for being uncertain (Figure 2).
Writing center tutors provided comparable responses in the first part of the open-ended question 3 (Appendix B). Many of the tutors agreed that frequent visits to the writing centers could lead to an increase in academic performance. Others argued that advances in academic performance are not always evident and sometimes they can be obscured.
According to the university’s internal policy, tutors must perform exceptionally well in introductory writing courses in order to be admitted to the Writing Center team; however in question 2 (Appendix B), almost 60% of tutors acknowledged that they had never been to the Writing Center as tutees and none of the participants asked was a regular visitor of the writing center prior to becoming a tutor (Figure 3).
Enhancing Writing Skills
Regarding the development of crucial writing skills, most students while justifying their preference between writing centers and office hours, brought up a plethora of skills which their preferred source of help had enabled them to improve (Question 2, Appendix A). Several responses were mainly focused on improving contextual understanding, determining the most effective structure and developing a concise argumentation.
Furthermore, amongst others, students found that the most significant skills such sources of help have allowed them to develop were identifying errors, omissions and ambiguities with their writing, being able to select the most appropriate syntax and vocabulary, identify the main points of an academic text, and properly use citation systems. (Question 4, Appendix A). On a similar note, at the end of the survey (Question 6, Appendix A), the majority of students reported that through available help, they had indeed improved as writers, with 30% percent being indecisive and 10% having noticed no improvement (Figure 4).
Tutors also provided ample skills that the Writing Center can instill in students. In question 1 (Appendix B), most tutors argued that some essential skills that tutees find helpful are, amongst others: organizing and presenting ideas effectively, adequately explaining and supporting arguments, selecting appropriate vocabulary and syntax, and the ability to brainstorm and expand on multiple ideas.
Building up Confidence
Overall, there seems to be a positive correlation between help seeking and boosting students’ confidence. In question 5 (Appendix A), 55% of students reported that they had experienced a noticeable increase in their confidence regarding their writing, with 35% of students providing an inconclusive response (Figure 5).
Moreover, in their open-ended responses in question 3, (Appendix B) several tutors mentioned that through frequent visits students displayed a continuously growing confidence in their own abilities as well as feeling more able to produce quality writing. Despite that, several responses reported that some students fail to benefit from Writing Center sessions and to develop more confidence in their writing. According to tutors, certain students tend to adopt an unproductive attitude towards help seeking, without any desire to assimilate and implement the advice given, but rather to pursue an occasional, marginal improvement in their writing product, with minimal personal input.
While investigating the importance of help seeking with regards to academic writing, it is essential to consider multiple ways in which such seeking of help is realized. From students’ responses in the first two questions of the survey in Appendix A, we can conclude that both office hours and writing centers are suitable manifestations of help seeking. Since students seem to frequently utilize both mediums for help, without any apparent skewness on preference, focusing only on Writing Center visits as a display of an active help seeking behavior could be ineffective in supporting an adequate analysis. Thus, examining any characteristics of help seeking requires a holistic consideration of multiple forms and mediums which in turn allows for a deeper assessment.
Regarding the effect in performance, the data presented earlier indicate an ostensible correlation between students’ utilization of sources of help and achieved grades. In line with previous studies (Williams & Takaku, 2011), students’ help seeking behavior could be an effective predictor of academic performance. Nevertheless, the nature of examining such a relationship demands for a multivariable, complex analysis. With the interpretation of academic performance not being far from vague (Jones, 2001), simply asking students’ opinion limits the usefulness of the results.
Furthermore, as previous studies have illustrated (Williams & Takaku, 2011; Williams, Takaku, & Bauman, 2006), assessing such impact on achieved grades requires a far larger sample size, studied over a prolonged period of time. Given that in total 16 students reported an increase in their composition grades, an affirmative conclusion cannot be drawn. The quantitative element strongly attached to writing performance, although not being employed in the present study, seems to be misleading in assessing help seeking efficacy. In spite of the extended emphasis placed on achieved grades, most tutors focused less on performance and more on skill when asked about the Writing Center’s efficacy. Thus, in line with Hayes, Hatch and Silk (2000), the complex and apparently coevolutionary nature of writing necessitates the involvement of other less distinct facets while assessing the efficacy of help seeking.
Enhancing Writing Skills
Considering the development of writing skills, it can be said that regular exploitation of sources of help, can build a variety of skills. As mentioned previously, the majority of students was able to identify several skills developed due to receiving help. This enhancement can be directly linked to students reporting that they have become better writers through help seeking. Such a correlation between skills’ development and writing improvement agrees with Rafoth’s (2010) and Hughes, Wainwright and Cresswell’s (2012), arguments. This development of essential skills is clearly significant and rather crucial in enabling continuous development and equipping students accordingly in becoming more able to produce quality writing.
Although the most important and helpful skills students and tutors reported are mainly different from those mentioned in the literature review, this is by no means a contradiction. Rather, it evidently shows the variety and diversity of skills that help seeking can inculcate. This increases the effectiveness of sources of help in providing students with essential skills, not exposing them to a routine pattern of rhetorical situations but allowing for a holistic well-rounded experience. Thus, the very abstract nature of writing, although causing individual helping sessions to be distinctly dissimilar (Jones, 2001), allows for different skills to be expanded at various visits, further reinforcing the significance of help seeking. Hence, with help seeking manifestations having so much to offer in terms of skill development, in line with North’s (1984) argument, the true value of help seeking is evident by the multifarious skills it instills in students.
Building up Confidence
Examining all responses from both surveys regarding their confidence in their writing, it appears that help seeking can be responsible for boosting students’ confidence. This, again, could have led to many students’ belief of improving as writers through receiving help. Therefore, in line with Rafoth (2010), such confidence developed through sources of help is essential for students to not only continue being engaged in writing, but also to be able to acknowledge improvements and strengths in their writing abilities. This is particularly important in encouraging students to maintain a necessary level of percipience, preventing them from retiring from the writing process.
Despite the above, as previous studies (Garner, 2005; Conroy, Lerner, & Siska, 1998) and tutors’ responses supported, certain students’ attitude towards help seeking and writing could prevent any motivation and confidence in writing. Although tutors reported that some students tend to adopt a passive approach towards help seeking being overly dependent on Writing Center sessions, it is not clear whether it is help seeking itself or other factors which cause such dependence. However, previous studies (Conroy, Lerner, & Siska, 1998) suggest that the fundamental interactive element of help seeking limits students’ personal endeavor and thus, creates an environment of dependency. Even though the source of such erroneous attitudes could be manifestations of help seeking, not by necessarily promoting such a behavior but by allowing it to exist, several students have experienced an increase in confidence in their writing. Hence, this might imply a situational rather than a systematic phenomenon and could be limited to an individual basis. Irrespectively, such behavior is adverse as it prevents students from developing essential writing skills in addition to confidence, impeding improvements in their writing abilities.
With all the above in mind it can be said that, for the most part, much of help seeking research appears to be asking the wrong question. The complex and abstract nature of writing, along with the multifaceted manifestations of help seeking, demands for greater emphasis being placed on the intrapersonal components of the writing process. The development of essential writing skills along with the enhancement of writing related confidence plays a significant role in encouraging students to continue engaging in writing, and accordingly allows for an evolvement in their writing ability. Therefore, we can see that a pursued help seeking behavior accompanied by the existence of supportive sources of help is crucial in enabling students to grow and develop as writers.
However, it should not be assumed that seeking help is the sole prerequisite for improving as a writer. Although some students may display such a counterproductive attitude, it must be made clear that in addition to help seeking behavior, individual endeavor is fundamental in enabling students to benefit fully from the help they receive, and to witness a true enhancement of their capacity to produce quality writing. In fact, the efficacy of help seeking in improving students’ writing abilities is nonexistent without exerting a continuous effort on a personal level. In this context, it was found that most tutors, having advanced writing skills, rarely pursued help seeking behavior in composition courses. This requires additional research in order to determine the relationship between adequate writing abilities and the necessity of a help seeking behavior. Regardless, it is apparent that help seeking could have a positive impact on students’ skills and confidence regarding their writing, increasing the quality of the writing product.
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Appendix A: Survey handed to students
1) How frequently do you visit the Writing Center or meet with your professor during office hours?
C Only when assignments are due
2) Do you prefer going to the Writing Center, office hours of professors or both when you need help with your writing? Justify your answer (Maximum of 500 characters).
3) Is it your opinion that Writing Center sessions and office hours with professors can improve your writing performance (i.e. grades)?
C I don’t know
4) Are there any of the following skills you think that Writing Center sessions and office hours with professors help you to develop? (You can choose multiple responses).
o Identify main points/ purpose of a text
o Better explain and support my arguments and formulate a thesis statement
o Identify errors, omissions and ambiguities in my writing
o Find the appropriate vocabulary, syntax and grammar to use
o Brainstorm ideas, how to start and end my writing
o Organize and present ideas effectively
o Encourage me to reread/ review my writing
o Accurately use APA and other citation systems in my writing
o Help me deal with anxiety and low self esteem
5) Do you believe that Writing Center visitation or office hours have increased your confidence in your writing?
C I don’t know
6) Do you feel that you have improved as a writer through Writing Center sessions and office hours?
C I don’t know
Appendix B: Survey handed to tutors
1) In your opinion as a tutor which of the following do students find more beneficial in Writing Center sessions? (You can choose multiple responses).
o How to identify main points/ purpose of a text
o How explain and support their arguments and formulate a thesis statement
o Helping to identify errors, omissions and ambiguities in their writing
o Helping to find the appropriate vocabulary, syntax and grammar
o Brainstorming ideas, how to start and end their writing
o How to organize and present their ideas more effectively
o Rereading/ reviewing and appraising their writing
o How to accurately use APA and other citation systems
o How to deal with anxiety and low self esteem
2) Before becoming a tutor in the Writing Center, how often did you visit the Writing Center as a tutee?
C Only when assignments were due
3) Do you believe that students who seek help and frequently visit the Writing Center really improve their writing skills and academic performance? Justify your answer (Maximum of 500 characters).