What is a meaning of Helpless?

Meaning of helpless: “Unable to defend oneself or to act without help.” A student who has a history of failure and does not expect this to change will attribute failure to ability an internal and stable factor. This pattern is characteristic of students classified as having learned helplessness. These individuals expect that their actions will be futile in affecting future outcomes. Consequently, they give up. Learned helplessness was first investigated in young animals who had been presented with inescapable electric shocks in one situation; when placed in a different situation, they failed to try to escape or avoid the shock (Seligman & Maier, 1967). Animals that demonstrated no connection between their activity and avoiding the shock had learned to be helpless. It was further hypothesized that humans responded the same way: they were passive in situations where they believed their actions would have no effect on what happens to them. In this original explanation, helplessness was viewed as global affecting all domains of one’s life. Later research found that people may experience helplessness in one situation and not in others (Alloy, Abramson, Peterson, & Seligman, 1984). This means that a student may feel helpless in learning math but not in learning history.

Helplessness exists in achievement situations when students do not see a connection between their actions and their performance and grades. The important aspect of learned helplessness is how it affects the motivational behavior of students in the face of failure. The attributions a student makes for failure act as a bridge between a student’s willingness to try again and the student’s tendency to give up.

Helpless and Mastery Orientation

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In a now-classic study, Diener and Dweck (1978) identified two patterns of responses to failure following success in problem-solving tasks: a maladaptive-helpless orientation and an adaptive-mastery orientation. Children showed different response patterns to failure in their thinking, self-talk, affect, and actions. Keep in mind that the students in the study had the same failure experience while performing the tasks, but there were two different patterns of response to the failure outcome. The thinking, self-talk, and actions of the helpless-oriented children formed a self-defeating pattern. When failure is attributed to lack of ability, there is a decline in performance. Attribution to lack of effort does not show this decline (Dweck & Goetz, 1978).

Are there ability differences in learned helplessness? Butkowsky and Willows (1980) compared good, average, and poor readers. They found that poor readers had lower expectancies of success on a reading task. Poor readers overwhelmingly attributed their failures to lack of ability (68% compared with 13% for average readers and 12% for good readers). They took less responsibility for success, attributing success more to task ease an external cause than did the good and average readers. In the face of difficulty, poor readers became less persistent a self-defeating behavior. Helplessness was also found when children studied new material that required them to read passages with confusing concepts.

In a study by Licht and Dweck (1984), half the children received material with a clear passage, and the other half received a confusing passage. There were no differences between mastery orientation and helpless orientation when the passage was clearly written. In contrast, when the passage was not clear, most of the mastery children reached the learning criterion, whereas only one third of the helpless children did. This investigation is important because some academic subjects, like math, are characterized by constant new learning, which may be initially confusing to students. Mastery students will not be discouraged by the initial difficulty, whereas helpless students immediately lose confidence although they may be equally competent. When teaching new material, teachers can be especially alert for this pattern of helplessness in the face of initial difficulty.

Learned Helplessness and Students with Learning Disabilities

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Are some students more prone to experience a sense of helplessness? Students particularly susceptible to the pattern of learned helplessness are those students who are identified as having learning disabilities (LD) (Licht, 1983). Children with LD experience much failure over a long period of time on a variety of school tasks. As a result, these children come to doubt their academic abilities, with the accompanying belief that nothing they can do will help them be successful. This is followed by the self-defeating response of decreasing effort. Children with LD have been found to exhibit the following characteristics of the learned helplessness pattern (Licht, 1983):

  • Score lower than non-LD children on measures of self-esteem and perceptions of ability,
  • Are more likely to attribute difficulty with tasks to lack of ability,
  • Are less likely to attribute failure to insufficient effort, and
  • Lower their expectations for future success and display greater decline in expectation following failure.

It is important for teachers to be aware of the characteristics of helplessness because learned helplessness may explain the students’ apparent lack of motivation. How can a teacher identify a helpless pattern? What can a teacher do to lessen the likelihood of helplessness and help students who have this tendency? Butkowsky and Willows (1980) suggested that educators must begin to rethink failure as a necessary component of the learning process and not as a damaging experience to be avoided.

Does the pattern of learned helplessness show up in young children? Dweck and Sorich (1999) concluded that there is clear evidence of a helplessness pattern in children younger than age 8. After experiencing failure or criticism, they show signs of helplessness like self-blame, lowered persistence, and lack of constructive strategies. Mastery-oriented children, in contrast, assumed they were still good even when their work had errors, and believed they could improve through effort. An important implication for parents and teachers, according to the authors, is to be very cautious when giving feedback to children. Extremely positive or negative feedback can be detrimental to children’s beliefs about their competence.


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