Asking for help in an academic setting is a peculiar and sometimes paradoxical thing. 

Students who need help often shy away from asking for it, but people—like teachers and tutors—are in that profession because they love being asked to help students.

Not only is it okay for students to ask for help, but it is also an essential part of the learning process. 

However, there are truly right and wrong ways to seek help. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll put it this way: the correct way to seek help is through an active approach. Taking a passive approach when you need help is not only going to hurt you in the long run, but if you do it repeatedly, it will also likely put people off from helping you.

To clarify, an active approach is one in which you do all that you can to solve your challenges on your own, and then carefully prepare to ask for help. This preparation means that you'll be ready to receive help and be respectful of your helper's time. When you ask for help in this way, your helper will be happy to assist you and moreover, will get a feeling of fulfillment from their efforts.  

On the other hand, a passive approach would be anything in which you expect someone to solve your problems for you. This is tantamount to giving up and looking for an easy way out. Not only does reflect poorly on you, but it also reinforces your struggle. If you get someone else to solve your problem, you'll never learn how to do it yourself. What's more, when you dump your problems in someone else's lap, that person will be less excited about helping you.

Still not sure which approach you’ve been taking? Here are some phrases that can help you identify whether you're in the active or passive mindset:

Phrases associated with an active approach to seeking help:

  • "I understand everything up to this point, but nothing after."
  • "I'm not sure why..."
  • "I understand _____, but I don't understand _____."
  • "I think I'm in over my head and need some guidance on how to get out."
  • "Something isn't making sense, but I've tried and and I can't figure out what I'm missing."

Phrases associated with a passive approach to seeking help:

  • "I don't know what to do."
  • "My teacher can't teach, so I'm lost."
  • "I can't do this. I just need to get this done."
  • "This subject makes no sense."
  • "This is dumb."

So, now that you understand the differences between the two approaches, how do you actually ask for help?

Well, first you need to really get clear on what it is you need help with. This can be hard, especially if a subject is difficult, but you need to go back through what you've done to identify where things fall apart for you. There are different scopes for this: you may be reviewing a single math problem to find out where your understanding breaks down, or you may be reviewing an entire semester's worth of materials to figure out where you lose your understanding. Review carefully and try to isolate the specific instance when something becomes unclear.

Then, depending on how much time you have, you should actually try to remedy the situation yourself. Can you look something up? Review lecture notes? Rewrite something? First, be proactive; one of my favorite college professors taught me this. He said he would do everything he could to identify and resolve his stumbling points before asking others for help. This way, he encouraged his own learning and respected the time of the people he was asking for help. Of course, if you're up against a deadline, you may need to skip this step.

Once you've identified exactly what you need help with, make it crystal clear by writing it down. 

You may have one question (or many), but they should be written down clearly so that when you approach someone for help, you don't forget anything and the time is well spent.

Let's look at a quick example: let's say you're working on writing a paper but it just isn't going well. You've got an outline and a draft of the paper, but you can't get it to flow correctly. You're exasperated and in need of help. In fact, you almost don't know what is even wrong.

First, start by taking a step back and taking a deep breath. 

Then, analyze your situation: Is this a problem with a lack of knowledge, an argument, writing mechanics, or something else? Once you've completed this assessment, try to zoom in and write out the specific problem; for example, "I'm having trouble connecting my argument in the first half of the paper with the conclusion in the second half."

Then, think about who can help. 

If it's a professor or teaching fellow, schedule an appointment, making sure to send along your draft and problem statement ahead of time. If you are getting help from a friend or classmate, bring these materials along with you.

By following these steps, you're not only making it easier and more productive to ask for help, but you're also helping yourself understand your own learning process in a more thorough way. 

You'll also make sure that the person whom you're asking will get the satisfaction of having helped someone who really needed it, instead of feeling frustrated that the time could have been better spent. In fact, this form of analysis and preparation is actually the first step in learning how to tutor yourself.