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Helplessness in College
Background significant and notable problem within higher education is the conditioned state of mind associated with learned helplessness. Challenges to educators are often played out through the compounded years of this learning roadblock in a student's life, leaving many individuals with test anxiety so great that they are unable to test effectively on the concepts they have learned.
Learned helplessness (e.g., when someone learns from repeated, unpleasant, and painful experiences that he or she is unable to control the aversive environment or escape, that person will gradually lose the motivation to change the situation) (Roberts, 1996, p. 7-8)
Challenge is especially high with regard to math learning. (Tobias, 1991, pp. 91-93) The system design therefore creates a challenge to students and instructors, who have no other way, than testing to determine the level of knowledge a student has actually achieved during instruction. Any situation where an alternative to testing cannot be offered, such as math or statistics people with even a very high level of intelligence can be at risk for learned helplessness challenges. These students historically have very little trouble performing in situations where the learning of coarse material can be proven through creative means such as composition writing, yet with regard to functions that require sets of rote memorization the student appears not to have gained these concepts, regardless of their actual level of knowledge. (Maimon, 2002, p. 32)
This work proposes to analyze the phenomena of learned helplessness in college age students to increase the body of growing research on the subject and illicit greater understanding of its causes and possible solutions.
Logic Model greater understanding of the phenomena of learned helplessness among college students will assist educators in development of plans to better serve the needs of these students, through initial recognition of the problem and possibly alternative grading systems, or at the very least alternative testing environments for those who are effected. Logical solutions to test anxiety and math anxiety will assist students in their goals of combating the effects of learned helplessness through proactive treatments empowering students to break free from the psychological pitfalls of the phenomena, and eventually achieve success in troubling curricula.
Ultimately, the work will serve as a first step to assist educators in developing a comprehensive guide to intervene in situations where learned helplessness may be present.
Statement of Problem
The phenomena of learned helplessness has been met by many theories and many myths about the learning ability of the student, garnered from the work professionals do with students. Some of the real reasons have been gleaned from the answers students themselves give for their failure to perform in test environments, possibly recounting historical failures, despite their possible or real competence with the material and some are observational for the instructor, such as competence on daily work, or in class work but failure on exams.
An enormous failure rate now exists in college mathematics courses. In fact, of approximately 600,000 students who take freshmen calculus annually, about 250,000 fail the course. This failure rate of over 40% raises some important questions: Are we discouraging our students from studying mathematics, and are we thereby conditioning them to be helpless in mathematics?
(Wieschenberg, 1994, p. 51)
The myth that students are simply not learning has lead to a great deal of challenges for both the student and educator, as the system fails the student as they fail on their exams. They have put in the time and learned the material but have little if any way to demonstrate their learning, in the present educational environment.
Significance of Study
The students challenged by this psychological pitfall are often very capable and intelligent individuals and yet they are at risk of failure, throughout their years of education, leaving them with few alternatives to achieve the success of a degree and likely better their career opportunities in the long run. Students are at risk for a further abuse by the society at large and by the educational system as there is often a skewed sense of lack of intelligence, on the part of any individual who cannot prove competency through testing.
In teaching developmental reading to college freshmen, we have seen many bright, able students who do poorly on tests and attribute their performance to their extreme nervousness coming into the test or their inability to "think" or concentrate during the test.
(Mealey & Host, 1992, p. 147)
The problem is evident in many ways, and yet available opportunities for students are limited to traditional means such as help labs and study skills courses.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Those who are at greatest danger for the phenomena of developing learned helplessness seem to be those who begin their young educational lives with learning troubles, yet probably the most difficult individuals to help fall through the cracks, having proven their intelligence in many other subjects but being unable to do well in test-based subjects. In short those individuals, who are at greatest risk for undetected learned helplessness, are those who have a higher ability to self-adjust to their difficulties, masking the problem until solutions and challenges become more complicated on a secondary and post-secondary level. This work will first analyze some of the available empirical data on learned helplessness individually and then address a few available works on the two linked phenomena, as a springboard to this call for research.
There have been many attempts to develop techniques to combat learned helplessness: "Despite the development of such techniques, sole reliance on the pessimistic explanatory style as a risk factor for helplessness abounds." (McKean, 1994, p. 178) The challenge is the then reducing the pessimistic explanatory style in instruction and intervention,
The pessimistic explanatory style has been shown to be related to failure and quitting among beginning insurance salespeople (Seligman & Schulman, 1986), poor academic performance in college students (Peterson & Barrett, 1987), depression in college students told they had failed an exam (Metalsky, Abramson, Seligman, Semmel, & Peterson, 1982), and most recently, stress-induced illness in members of Harvard University's longitudinal Study of Adult Development (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988).
(McKean, 1994, p. 178)
Within the field of sociological/psychological literature there has been a great deal of summary work associating the phenomena of learned helplessness and higher education, and a great deal of specialized empirical research on the implications of risk factors, such as gender, learning disabilities and even underlying domino psychological issues such as depression associated with learned helplessness. (Campbell & Henry, 1999, p. 95)
In one empirical work a college population was tested in reverse fashion, researchers garnered results from assessing risk factors that are present in the self-reporting of people with the pessimistic explanatory style, these people were more likely than others to exhibit symptoms such as procrastination lower grade point averages, and more dysphoria and additionally the researcher found these students more likely to report that many events are uncontrollable.
Too much acceptance may cause some people to bypass serenity and arrive instead at learned helplessness (LH). LH describes the maladaptive passivity that results from believing that important, often negative events are beyond a person's control. Once a person develops the expectation that many events will be uncontrollable, he or she is at risk of developing helplessness (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Seligman, 1975).
(McKean, 1994, p. 177)
This work is very interesting in it examines the reverse of the phenomena determining that those people who are at greatest risk for LH exhibit signs and symptoms of thinking that can be combated through alternative techniques, such as study skills courses that accentuate a more positive explanatory style and reaffirm personal control over success.
In addition to this expectation of uncontrollability, the attributional reformulation of the LH model (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978) adds a second risk factor for helplessness. People learn to be helpless if they explain their inability to control important events by blaming internal ("It's me!"), global ("It'll affect everything I do!"), and stable ("It'll last forever!") causes. Although not articulated in LH theory, this pessimistic explanatory style could contribute to helplessness by confirming the expectation of uncontrollability. By attributing uncontrollable negative outcomes to internal, all encompassing, and lasting causes, people may perpetuate the belief that future events will also be uncontrollable. (McKean, 1994, pp. 177-178)
The challenges to educators would not then be simply offering challenged students alternatives to testing as a source of proof of understanding but also reiterating good study skills and downplaying the pessimistic explanatory style that leads to ideas of uncontrollability and therefore LH. In some extreme cases this research would even lead to the implementation of educational counseling sessions that might assist the student in cognitively altering their global view of pessimism. In the above notation of failure rates in mathematics is a clear example of the ways in which the uncontrollable ideals of explanatory pessimism have decreased the student's ability to regard certain subjects or challenges as worthwhile to pursue excellence, or even competency in. In one work…[continue]
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