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Operational Definition: What is Help Seeking?

Help Seeking refers to students’ attitudes toward and tendency to ask for assistance when problems arise. While the ISSAQ scale includes this general tendency, scale conceptualization and development were informed greatly by the work of Stuart Karabenick (1998, 2003, 2004; Karabenick & Newman, 2013).


Karabenick proposed that seeking help - an observed behavior - was not simply a unidimensional behavior or trait. Rather than viewing students as either willing or unwilling to seek help, Karabenick proposed several dimensions that not only articulated the underlying perceptions of help seeking behavior, but also qualified the ways in which students seek help. Among these were:

  • Threat: Do students view help seeking as an indication of weakness, or a sign to others that they are unable to succeed on their own?

  • Efficacy: Do students believe that, if they seek help, it will actually be effective?

  • Source: Do students ask for help from friends and family, or formal sources such as faculty and staff?

  • Function: Do students seek help in order to foster learning, or simply to assist in task completion?


While these specific factors are not quantified in the ISSAQ framework, they did contribute to the development of items and the guidance of feedback and interventions.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Some large scale studies have shown Help Seeking and similar constructs to be predictive of academic success. Both Markle et al. (2013) and Richardson, Abraham, & Bond (2012) found help seeking scales to be significantly correlated with academic success. However, Markle et al. saw no significant relationship with retention. The Robbins et al. (2004) meta-analysis did not include any factors closely related to help seeking behavior.


Generally, research into help seeking has tied the construct to more specific resource access behaviors. For example, Buscemi et al. (2010) explored the role of help seeking in the use of alcohol treatment programs among college students. Similarly, Eisenberg et al. (2007) studied the role of help seeking in relation to students’ use of mental health resources.

Practical Relationship to Success

As with several other factors in the ISSAQ framework, Help Seeking is as much an outcome of previous experiences in students’ lives as it is a predictor of their success in college. Conversations with students can help uncover just why they are willing to seek help, which is critical to understand before determining how to best connect students with resources (and encouraging them to do so on their own).


This is where Karabenick’s framework of help seeking becomes useful. Threat, for example, is an initial issue to discuss that can be helpful in many cases. Many practitioners will note that students from many traditionally underserved populations are more likely to be hesitant to ask for help. Karabenick and Newman note that this is because, in several ways, help seeking is a cultural process. Students from such populations may view higher education as a different, almost foreign culture, and thus unlikely to ask for help.

Additionally, certain students, because of their background, may be less likely to ask for help. If students already feel like an outsider because of their background (e.g., first generation college student, student of color), asking for help can be - in their eyes - and indication of weakness or inability (Shapiro, 1983).

Lastly, thinking of Help Seeking as a skill can shift some of the ways institutions support their students. New student orientation, student success courses, and similar transitional programs often treat help seeking as an informational process. Students need to know where these resources are, what they do, how to access them, etc. Conversely, Karabenick’s framework would suggest an attitudinal approach to help seeking. Thus, interventions should focus more on assuring students that seeking help is a good idea, rather than simply providing the requisite information.

How do I help students improve in Help Seeking?

Help Seeking is a Dispositional Factor.

This means that direct interventions should be provided in the context of a broader coaching conversation.

When it comes to promoting Help Seeking, many institutions may require a shift in goals more than a shift in interventions. As mentioned, interventions often take an informational, rather than attitudinal, approach to Help Seeking.

Consider activities such as "scavenger hunts," which are popular among first-year programs (see an example from the University of Tennessee here). These exercises are helpful and effective, but faculty, staff, and others should understand that such activities are most helpful when they promote a positive attitude and tendency toward Help Seeking. Simply learning where a resource is and what it does is less likely to impact a student's long-term success.

Additionally, and particularly with students from traditionally underserved populations, considering perceptions of threat around Help Seeking are vital. For many, this is the critical hurdle between awareness of a resource and accessing it.

See the Student Resource Hub here



Buscemi, J., Murphy, J. G., Martens, M. P., McDevitt-Murphy, M. E., Dennhardt, A. A., & Skidmore, J. R. (2010). Help-seeking for alcohol-related problems in college students: Correlates and preferred resources. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24(4), 571.

Eisenberg, D., Golberstein, E., & Gollust, S. E. (2007). Help-seeking and access to mental health care in a university student population. Medical care, 594-601.

Karabenick, S. A. (Ed.). (1998). Strategic help seeking: Implications for learning and teaching. Routledge.

Karabenick, S. A. (2003). Seeking help in large college classes: A person-centered approach. Contemporary educational psychology, 28(1), 37-58.

Karabenick, S. A. (2004). Perceived achievement goal structure and college student help seeking. Journal of educational psychology, 96(3), 569.

Karabenick, S. A., & Newman, R. S. (Eds.). (2013). Help seeking in academic settings: Goals, groups, and contexts. Routledge.

Shapiro, E. G. (1983). Embarrassment and help-seeking. New directions in helping, 2, 143-163.

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