Avoid the Appearance of Unsolicited Help

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Barry Zimmerman and Manuel Martinez-Pons (1990) suggest that when you offer unsolicited advice or help, students believe the advice or help signals low ability. Sandra Graham and George Barker (1990) found even stronger effects:  Not only do students being helped think of themselves as less capable, but other students watching come to the same conclusion. Graham and Barker also showed that expressions of sympathy following a substandard performance, or praise after an easy task function in the same way. They warned that such well-intentioned teacher behaviors can be powerful and enduring “low-ability cues.” Even first graders attach importance to teacher feedback styles. They believe, for example, that teachers watch low achievers more and scold those they think could do better.

NOTEThere are times when you know that a student needs assistance, but is not requesting it. Instead of walking directly to the student’s desk, your unsolicited help is less obvious if you circulate around the room and randomly stop at the desks of several different students before and after visiting the needy student. A routine practice of randomly stopping at student desks can help disguise unsolicited help.

Avoid asking the student if she is having trouble. Instead you might begin by saying, “I like your opening topic sentence. What kinds of examples will you give in the rest of the paragraph to support your position?” or “Yes, you see clearly the first step in this two-step math problem.  How will you proceed to the second step?” In both of these examples, a common thread exists. First, the teacher begins with a positive comment on a real strength in the student’s work. Second, without focusing on the student’s ability, a question provides information about what additional avenues the student may want to explore. Third, the statements place responsibility for learning onto the student. You might also try a neutral invitation for help, “How are you doing?”

Keep in Mind to…

  • Inconspicuously put yourself in situations where the student can ask for assistance or where you can offer assistance.

Check Your Understanding:

  • Stop at a variety of student desks on the way to and from the desk of a student whom you believe needs assistance.
    True   False

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