Help me help you

Getting academic help isn’t just for the dumb kids anymore

It’s getting harder to think all the way back to high school now, but I’m fairly sure I remember that every kind of structured academic help was pretty much reserved for students who were identified to need it. I’ll skip the part about how mean kids can be and just say that it’s tough to be singled out in school for any reason at all, much less for remedial help. Probably most people who get into university were spared that experience, but we’ve all seen it around us in that environment. It sucks. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that university students are reluctant to seek help.

Academic resources at university are based around a very different set of assumptions. They exist to help all students improve, whether from poor to average, from average to good, or from good to great. And they wait for students to come to them rather than pushing a particular set of students in that direction. Whether it’s academic advising, or a writing centre, or an employment office intended to help with résumés and interview skills, they exist to help any student who walks through the door. And the students who do walk through the door tend to fall into one of two groups. There’s the same selection of students in trouble, who end up there as a last resort. Then there are the very good students determined to take advantage of everything they can. And there’s very little in between. “Average” students, even the ones who’d like to be better than average, just don’t feel comfortable using these services. I guess that’s because their grades aren’t good enough that they can blow off the stigma of seeking help, but also aren’t so bad that they end up in crisis mode. It isn’t this intentional, of course. They just don’t think of themselves as the kind of students who go to a place like that.

Needless to say, this is unfortunate. The very people who work in these offices (generally sincere folks, who want to help) are very frustrated by this too. Of course they are willing and able to help the very good students and also the students in trouble, but what they do is designed explicitly for the typical student who rarely crosses the threshold. Academic support (in a myriad of forms) is a big part of what universities do. They know you can’t possibly get everything you need from your professors (especially not in those classes of several hundred students) and so they design these “extras” to fill in the gaps. They offer help with note taking, and time management, and course selection, and everything else you might turn to a teacher for, in high school, but just can’t always get help with in university. And they want students to come and access that help. But often the students who could benefit the most simply don’t. Because the stigma persists from high school and earlier. “Extra help” is code for failure.

I’ve been looking for years for some magical words to dispel this stigma. I doubt I’m going to find them before I wrap up this blog entry. So I’ll have to settle for simply pointing it out again (as I have to many students) that university operates on a different set of assumptions. That’s all there is to it. That help is there for everyone and is designed for everyone. If you want to avoid thinking of yourself as one of the “dumb” students seeking help, then just think of yourself as one of the brilliant students seeking help, because they are there also. The students most determined to improve their performance take advantage of everything they can find. Now, I admit that can get to be a bit much sometimes, and I don’t expect you to turn into a super-keener overnight, but there are worse habits you could pick up. You don’t have to go all in to follow the lead at least some of the time.

Use the resources that are around you. If you can’t justify it on any other basis then use them just because you’ve paid for it all. Your tuition goes into a lot of things that happen outside the classroom but are designed to help you succeed as a student. Might as well get what you’re paying for.