Researchers find most online learners will do anything before asking for help

Ed Week writer Sarah Sparks gives the example that if you ask a friend to meet you at a new restaurant they could use a variety of tools to get there, like looking at a map, getting directions, or plugging the address into their GPS. But you wouldn’t expect them to go to every door on the block at random, give up, and then go home.

Research from Carnegie Mellon University found that many students who take online courses will typically do anything before they would consider asking for help with a problem. Online programs pose new questions that are otherwise easily addressed in a physical classroom setting. When students have a question they raise their hand or a teacher recognizes they are struggling. But with online learning, students will sit and struggle with a problem and no one ever intervenes.

Computer programs proved to be helpful in identifying weaknesses in online learning because they are able to record how many times a student tries to solve a problem, use a dictionary, or ask for help.├é┬áResearch shows only twenty-five percent of students will ask for help after getting a question wrong. “Seventy-five percent of them will try again. And the pattern persists after any consecutive number of errors; after five, six, attempts, I am still more likely to try again than ask for help, ” says researcher Ido Roll. Researchers also found the eighty-two percent of students who used the hint tool after struggling for an answer did not stop to read it, but clicked through until the had enough hints to guess the right answer.

But there might be a solution. Research on metacognition suggests that if students take the time to reflect on how they are learning they are more prepared to use effective learning strategies that help them learn the best. In the next experiment conducted by Mr. Roll, researchers added new hint tools to the online program that prompted students to be more reflective about problem solving and included help-windows that popped up when students clicked the hint button without enough time lapsing between hints for them to read it.

Results of the new research shows the hint-windows that encourage students to reflect on problem-solving skills decreased the number of students “gaming the system” to get through the course.

Read the full article, “Computer Tutors Prod Students to Ask for Help” at

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