Learned Helplessness and Academia

One of the big issues in academia is how students come to class without the knowledge or skills needed to do well.  At some point, someone (or many ones) failed them.  They may have come from a disadvantaged background and thus may not have had parental support growing up, English might be their second language and they might be struggling in class, or they may have missed a large chunk of school at some point which set them back significantly.  There are also a slew of disabilities (learning and otherwise) that can affect a student's ability to do well in class. None of these things are the student's fault, but nonetheless students are affected by them and in order to be successful, they must learn to overcome them.

Recently, I had a the wonderful experience of not having access to my printed test forms (they were locked in the print shop which is closed on weekends and I happened to be teaching a Friday/Saturday class).  So I improvised and projected the test questions on the board.  It was as slow and frustrating as you are imagining it to be.  When we were a few minutes into the short answer questions, a student came up to me and handed in her exam.  She told me that she couldn't read the board, so it didn't make sense for her to try and take the test.  This student was more willing to fail the exam than to try to ask me if there were another solution available, and this opened my eyes to an internal factor that affects students: the concept of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is the idea that even if there is a solution to our problem available, if we have learned previously that there are no solutions, then we will no longer try to help ourselves.  Or put differently, people who have learned that they cannot change their circumstances are unlikely to try to get out of a situation even though it might not be hopeless. This is different than actual helplessness.  A student who is not fluent in English will probably not get an A in their English class (there is little they can ethically do to fix their situation), but a student who felt dumb in elementary school (due to situations outside of their control like those mentioned above) might believe that they can't excel in college.  My student just assumed that her situation was hopeless, when she could have asked to sit closer or make the projection larger.  There was a solution, but her mind assumed that the only option was for her to fail.

There are two lessons to take from this.  The first lesson is for instructors.  We have to remember that many of our students under-perform not because they want to, but because they've learned they can't perform well.  They've learned that studying or working hard might not always pay off or that professors might not be flexible or accommodating.  It's part of our job to help students understand what is in their control and what isn't.  The second lesson is for all of us.  Yes, there are things that are hopeless, and it's healthy to know when to give up on something, but we also have to be mindful that not everything that seems hopeless actually is.  The hard part is discerning between the two.