The impact of help-seeking interventions have on closing the achievement gap

Parnes, M. F., Kanchewa, S. S., Marks, A. K., & Schwartz, S. E. O. (2020). Closing the college achievement gap: Impacts and processes of a help-seeking intervention. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 67, 101121.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Research indicates that many students that need the most help tend to avoid seeking assistance in order to ward off unwanted scrutiny of  their academic or social struggles
  • This study assesses if the Connected Scholars intervention influences students to seek out more help and get better access to support 
    • Special attention was paid to how Connected Scholars impacted first generation college students’ status, GPAs, and student-instructor relationships 
  • A longitudinal, quasi-experimental study was implemented to gather findings from Connected Scholars (a four-session, group intervention)
  • 396 college bound students were recruited for the study
  • Findings indicate that implementing an affordable intervention can have have a positive impact on first-generation college students and help close the current achievement gap 
  • Results also show that shifts in students’ network orientation and desire to seek help partially influenced student-instructor relationships and students’ GPAs within Connected Scholars

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Compared to more privileged students, underrepresented college students experience disparities in social capital and social support that contribute to academic achievement gaps. This longitudinal, quasi-experimental study examines how a 4-session, group-based intervention (Connected Scholars) may improve underrepresented student outcomes by increasing help-seeking and network orientation. Participants were 396 public university students, 65% female, 90% racial/ethnic minority, and 42% first-generation college students (FGCS). We examined the effect of Connected Scholars on student-instructor relationships and GPA through the intervention’s influence on help-seeking and network orientation. Additionally, we investigated differential impacts of FGCS status. Results indicated changes in help-seeking and network orientation partially accounted for the impact of Connected Scholars on GPA and student-instructor relationships, and positive effects were observed for FGCS. Findings suggest a relatively low-cost intervention can have meaningful impacts on FGCS and help close achievement gaps in the first year of college. Further policy and practice implications are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The results of this study are consistent with previous qualitative research on the intervention indicating that Connected Scholars increased the value students placed on social capital and mentoring relationships, and strengthened their self-efficacy in recruiting support (Schwartz et al., 2016). Results also support previous research demonstrating the benefit of help-seeking in academic contexts (Morosanu et al., 2010; Newman, 2003), and the importance of building these skills in emerging adulthood (Zarrett and Eccles, 2006). These findings indicate that Connected Scholars may facilitate the development of positive help-seeking attitudes and network orientation that will serve as protective factors during emerging adulthood, helping youth cultivate networks of support during and after college. This study also provides further nuance into various pathways through which help-seeking and network orientation may be associated with student outcomes, as well as how those pathways may differ for FGCS and continuing-generation students.

Of note, in the model of indirect effects with FGCS status, changes in help-seeking avoidance were associated with improved GPA, while changes in student help-seeking experiences were associated with improved instructor relationships. This highlights the importance of addressing students’ tendency to avoid asking for help and the impact this can have on academic performance. At the same time, it also suggests that the avoidance of academic help-seeking does not deter students from forming close relationships with instructors. Rather, students’ previous experiences of help-seeking are better predictors of whether or not students form close relationships with instructors. Thus, future interventions may benefit from having university instructors or staff make concerted efforts to discuss students’ past experiences of help-seeking, reflecting on why the encounters may have not gone well and what can be done in the future to ensure more positive interactions.

Findings also suggest that the Connected Scholars intervention may offer students new corrective help-seeking experiences with instructors. Allowing students to draw on these experiences to inform future help-seeking behavior may contribute to improved student-instructor relationships. However, it may be that these new corrective experiences do not necessarily encourage students to ask for academic support, but more generally allow students to form closer bonds with instructors. For example, these experiences may influence students to ask for more general advice around college systems or simply may affect their perceptions of instructors’ availability to provide help. Interestingly, students’ perceptions of help-seeking usefulness accounted for the relationship between Connected Scholars and student outcomes only when FGCS status was added into the model as a moderator. This builds on previous research indicating that many FGCS report seeing little use in seeking help from professors due to communication barriers and lack of understanding from professors (Collier and Morgan, 2008). These findings suggest that perceptions of the usefulness of asking for help may be particularly important to address for FGCS, both by shifting FGCS’s perceptions as well as ensuring that professors are aware of potential barriers and are able to make themselves accessible to FGCS.


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