Learned Helplessness

As it stands, my school has a problem: we have a significant percentage of students who have grown up learning to be helpless.  They are challenged by college-level work and don’t do it because they haven’t been properly trained.  They do things like plagiarize because they haven’t learned to think.  They drop out because they believe they will fail.  The sad thing is, very few of these students are actually incapable of achieving their degree.

Learned helplessness is the unspoken educational epidemic.  Whether they’re aware of it or not, learned helplessness affects a significant portion of students. By definition, learned helplessness is the “passivity of a student due to changes in cognition and emotion, a loss of motivation, and a shift in behavior “(Yates, 2009).  I think the unmotivated student or the student that gives up is easy to spot; it’s the ones who don’t know they’re holding themselves back, the ones who expect information to be handed to them or finish tasks just to finish that slip through the cracks.  This problem is also a detriment to society, as the skills they now lack keep adults from accessing materials for jobs, financial information, and general well-being.

Because these students have been conditioned to believe they can only learn what is handed to them, they often cannot find or organize information, either physically or internally. Spence & Spence (1990) achieved breakthroughs by taking low-level learners who approached learning with helplessness and making them “organize information in a way that it will make sense and stay in memory. It involves taking responsibility for one’s own learning, active examination of the learning process, and continuously evaluating one’s own efficiency” (6). The students were in different classes and given different assignments based on their needs, wants, and abilities. Furthermore, the process charted the students’ progress and achievements. This process encouraged “independent behaviors” (7), where the student took responsibility for their learning. The individualization of the process helped the students infuse their own experiences and interests into their learning, and allowed them to break from the “one-size-fits-all” approach given in school textbooks and the like. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for not providing this type of differentiation and individualization.

Students need an active role.  Motivation is one of the core elements of learned helplessness; if the student is unmotivated to learn, they withdraw. In my opinion, grades as motivation is an antiquated approach that only works for a select few.  Shifting classroom priorities from grades to portfolios and personal achievement may encourage more students and keep them motivated to learn rather than doing a task solely to achieve a grade. Prensky (2005) suggested, “Maybe if, when learning the ‘old’ stuff, our students could make important decisions every half-second, and could have multiple streams of data coming in, and could be given goals that they want to reach —maybe then they wouldn’t have to, as one kid puts it, ‘power down’ every time they go to class (64).

I also believe learned helplessness is not solely the student’s fault.  Part of the reason I left the teaching profession was the insistence of parents that it was my fault their kid wasn’t earning an A.  I wasn’t about to hand students information without asking them to search on their own, form their own ideas, and support their ideas.  Simply giving students a book is not educating them, and asking students to read a textbook chapter is not necessarily helping them learn or use what they’ve learned.  Furthermore, “guided questions” or worksheets only go so far, especially when they are used as assessment.  This is not to say that assessment isn’t needed.  Of course it is.  Aside from minimal comprehension and proving that you did the work, what is the point in answering a bunch of questions on what you just read?  There are so many more meaningful ways to ask students to engage and apply what they’re learning.

While there are many ways to remedy learned helplessness, I’ve found project-based learning to be very effective.  When I was teaching, I was lucky enough to have principals that let me incorporate a fair amount of project-based learning.  This is slightly risky, because you can’t know the outcome.  What I loved – and the students loved – about it though, is that they were in control.  I wasn’t handing them anything, really, aside from a large-scale problem.

With some careful checks and balances, project-based learning allows the students to choose roles, identify areas in the community that need improvement, apply what they’re learning to come up with a solution, and take action to achieve the solution.

Project-based learning plays into the individualization piece as well, in that the learner can complete the steps that apply to their level of learning, as possibly suggested through collaboration of the teacher and student over the course of time. This type of learning is beneficial to the student because they are not forced to complete activities for which they are over- or under-qualified. This kind of individualization of material may alleviate some of the response of “imminent failure” because they will be more in control of their learning (Seligman,1992).

Even the most apathetic learners took at least some interest in their project, having meaning and responsibility. In turn, they were LEARNING.  And, they weren’t just learning a prescribed set of skills or ideas.  They were reaching into the upper realms of Bloom’s Taxonomy, assessing, developing, and synthesizing because they WANTED TO.  They were applying and learning new soft skills.  They didn’t need me to give them information or hand them the “right” way to do something; they thought for themselves and found their own solutions.

Why can’t we do more elearning like this?  Maybe your school or client isn’t set up for project-based learning.  That doesn’t mean you can’t create elearning that tackles the hardships of learned helplessness.  Even something as simple as branching could make a difference in the level a student is able to achieve within a course.  Provide opportunities for student interest or student choice.  Ask questions, and ask students to ask questions.  Try Thiagi’s Four-Door model, explained excellently by Russ Powell.  Incorporate a simulation, where it’s ok for students to “fall down” a few times before they get it right.  If you’re feeling ambitious, make a game.  If you’re tied up in red tape, at least make sure students are forced to think for themselves and make ways for them to find success in their path to thinking.

Learned helplessness doesn’t have to be imminent!  Do your part to make things achievable, but hold students accountable.  Break the cycle!



Prensky, M. (2005). “Engage me or enrage me”: What today’s learners demand. Retrieved May 1, 2010 from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0553.pdf

Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development and death. San Francisco: Freeman.

Spence, I. & Stan-Spence, A. (1990). Meeting “learned helplessness” head on with “active learning”. 16pp. Retrieved May 1, 2010 from ERIC.

Yates, S. (2009). Teacher identification of student learned helplessness in mathematics. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 21(3), 86-106.


Image obtained under Creative Commons license.  HELP|Rupert_Ganzer.  retrieved from flickr 2/23/15.


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