January 20, 2018

Are You Asking for Help? It’s the New Smart!

Are you asking for help - photo copyright Rick Sherrell 2011

(This post is another retool from my Chatty Professor blog. I wrote it as a welcome to college love letter, if you will. My revision of this message for Campus Talk Blog is a continued personal plea: Don’t suffer in silence! Read on… then start asking! You can even write into this blog and ask a question—I’m glad to help.)

You’ve just received an assignment or exam with a grade that you aren’t happy about.

Or maybe you didn’t submit an assignment at all because you were confused. You thought that somehow, some way, you’d figure it out. But then you didn’t, and the deadline passed.

Quite possibly, you’ve stopped attending one of your classes. You realized early on you were in over your head. Now you’re just not showing up, but you haven’t withdrawn from the class either.

When students face these situations, the one thing that they typically don’t do is the one thing that has the greatest chance of solving the problem. Ready?

Asking for help!

There seems to be a widespread perception that asking for help equals weakness. I want to start a revolution that supports asking for help as a sign of strength. In fact, I’m spreading this phrase:

Asking for help is “the new smart”!

I teach my public speaking students that when they verbally cite credible sources in their speeches, they should picture themselves carrying the experts from those sources piggyback… sort of like a “credibility totem pole.” Or, like acrobats who flip and land on the shoulders of a “catcher.”

Think of this image when you use the “smarts” of others to support you. Asking others for help means that you carry their knowledge and wisdom on your shoulders. Then, you become stronger in your own knowledge.

College is the place to ask for help!

You can phrase it any way you like from:

-“Can you help?”


-“I don’t know what in the heck is going on here and I need to figure it out”


-“I’m totally lost and would like not to be.”

You can even approach the question somewhat covertly or abstractly:

-“I think I have an idea of what we’re supposed to be doing, but just want to ensure that I’m correct”


-“I’m missing the mark on this particular concept and I think I know why.”

Bottom line:

The minute you become too proud or ashamed to ask for help is the minute that you’ve made a decision about the outcome of a troubling situation.

Ready for another bottom line?

Smart people don’t have all the answers, but they know when they don’t have them. Then, they strive to figure out where to get them. Now, I consider myself a pretty smart woman, but I don’t attribute my smartness to my degrees or my academic career.

I am smart because I am unafraid to find the people who know more and learn from them when I’m stuck.

Whether you are in high school or college, be selfish. Build your own “smart totem pole” or “acrobatic routine of brilliance.”

At the very least, open your mouth and ask for help from the people who have signed up to give it to you.

Need more ammunition? Read this USA Today College piece by an actual student who got over her fear of asking for help and went for it–with impressive results!

About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Irma ruiz says:

    Hi my name is Irma and I just have a quick question, I am currently going into college and I want to become a Dermatologist but I don’t really know what exactly classes I need for all the years it would help me so much if you can help me. Thank you so much for your time.

  2. Hi, Millicent,

    I TOTALLY agree that we need to have our students ask as many questions as possible. I’m definitely noticing that those deeper points of inquiry are challenging for students these days. Case in point: When my students work on speech outlines, particularly persuasion, they will often stop once the answers (research) becomes too challenging–and this is usually early on in the content formation stage! I always say, dig deeper, tackle the problem in a number of different ways… or “Ask the librarian!” I believe that the constant questioning is what opens up solutions and Plan A,B,C,D through X!

    I love the idea of the Never Ending Question game and I’m game for that! I’d love to hear more!


  3. Millicent St. Claire says:

    Hey Professor! Great article. You hit the nail on the head regarding questions and I have one for you.

    Do you think we should get back to the basics with the socratic method?

    I find that in my accelerated learning classes, I find it necessary to teach a segment on “how to ask questions” as many people have been shut down as children when they heard, “Stop asking so many questions!” Do you think a , a crime was committed in that moment? Hmmm.

    Aren’t we supposed supposed to question EVERYTHING?

    And wasn’t it Einstein who said, “The important thing is to NOT STOP ASKING QUESTIONS?”

    And not just “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” but also, “Could it be?…Might we?….Is there another way?….If we try this….then what?

    Do you think we should do more to teach our youth to ask deep questions?

    Have you ever played the “Never Ending Question Game?” It both tough and fun and it helps my students. Perhaps we can try it together sometime, eh?

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