Help! Research Based Approaches for Improving Service Utilization and Student Success

By Perry Fittrer, Ph.D.
Assistant Director of the McNair Scholars Program 

As the new academic year begins, Student Services is gearing up to provide students with a wide range of support services. However, many students may never seek help from these carefully crafted services and programs. Why is this? How do we increase service utilization? How do we encourage students to get the help they need, when they need it?

Help-seeking research on college students is vast and varied with much emphasis placed on seeking psychological help (Li, Dorstyn, & Denson, 2014). However, research on help seeking for academic purposes is less prevalent. Academic help seeking can be defined as “an act of effort; that is, the student is actively using available resources in order to increase the probability of success in the future” (Ames & Lau, 1982, p. 414). Karabenick (2003; 2004) frames academic help seeking across five primary constructs, which are instructive in developing an understanding of how students seek help:

  • Informal vs. formal help: Preferences for the source of help being from an informal source such as a friend, or from a formal source such as a service.
  • Instrumental: Help which allows the student to develop skills needed to address the issue themselves later on.
  • Executive: Help that addresses the immediate issue and does not build future skills.
  • Avoidance: Real or perceived barriers that prevent students from seeking help.
  • Threat: Real or perceived socioemotional costs of seeking help for students.

Positive help-seeking behavior can be a predictor of academic outcomes (Ryan & Shin, 2011) and students with lower GPA’s tend to report higher levels of avoidance (Fittrer, 2016). Given that positive help seeking may be important for student success, several strategies can be implemented to increase service utilization by mitigating the systemic and perceptual barriers to help seeking. 

Systemic barriers to help seeking are barriers created by the way a program or service is structured. In order to mitigate these barriers, they must first be assessed internally by critically examining why students may not use the service and then externally by asking students. This assessment will lead to the identification of barriers with timing, location, delivery method, procedural issues, etc. For example, a complicated appointment scheduling process may turn students away or students may want online information instead of a workshop. In order to address the help seeking constructs, consider providing help from peers and professionals alike, through multiple mediums, and in structured and unstructured ways. Streamline processes and access to information as much as possible. Even the smallest issue, may turn a student away from the help they seek.

More difficult to address are the perceptual barriers to help seeking. These barriers include the threat that students may perceive from seeking help including stereotype threat. Seeking help should be normalized as a positive behavior of successful students. Particularly with first-year students, communicating this early may develop positive attitudes and behaviors towards help that will extend to graduation. We can do this through scaffolding required services in programs, facilitating discussion around the perceptions of seeking help, challenging stereotypes, and emphasizing the value of help to academic and personal success. Consider what the perceptions of your services and programs are and how that may affect help seeking behaviors.

Additional research in this area is needed to best encourage students to seek help. Qualitative and mixed methods research on academic help seeking among college students is of particular importance due to the quantitative methods used in most help-seeking studies (Makara & Karabenick, 2013). The Student Services Research Group is pursuing research on this topic in a wide range of contexts from student government to student conduct. Stay tuned for more research findings this year. This very brief overview of help seeking is just a start to improve service utilization on our campus so please let us know your thoughts and ideas on the topic.



Ames, R., & Lau, S. (1982). An attributional analysis of student help-seeking in academic settings. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(3), 414-23.

Fittrer, P. (2016). Academic help seeking constructs and group differences: An examination of first-year university students (Doctoral dissertation, UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, RENO).

Karabenick, S. A. (2003). Seeking help in large college classes: A person-centered approach. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28(1), 37-58.

Karabenick, S. A. (2004). Perceived Achievement Goal Structure and College Student Help Seeking. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(3), 569–581.

Li, W., Dorstyn, D. S., & Denson, L. A. (2014). Psychosocial correlates of college students’ help-seeking intention: A meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(3), 163-170.

Makara, K. & Karabenick, S. (2013). In Karabenick, S., M. Puustinen (Eds.), Advances in help-seeking research and applications: The role of emerging technologies. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Ryan, A. M., & Shin, H. (2011). Help-seeking tendencies during early adolescence: An examination of motivational correlates and consequences for achievement. Learning and Instruction, 21(2), 247–256.