What is learned helplessness and how does it affect note-taking?

Learned helplessness can have serious effects on learning, has a close relationship with depression and anxiety. What is ‘learned helplessness’? Find out here.

Clock 2 min read Calendar Published: 15 Apr 2020
Author Luke Garbutt
What is learned helplessness and how does it affect note-taking?

Learned helplessness can have serious effects on learning, has a close relationship with depression and anxiety, and can go entirely unrecognised by the person in its control.

And it could be impacting how your students are experiencing note taking.

So, what is ‘learned helplessness’?

It’s about control (or a lack of it)

We’ve all experienced times when we’ve had little control over what’s happening to us. It can be stressful – or even traumatic, depending on the circumstances.

If we’re repeatedly exposed to such situations, especially in childhood, we can build a general response to the world that emphasizes our own powerlessness within it. Even when opportunities arise to change the outcome of an event or situation, we find ourselves inert, and accepting of the inevitability of what’s about to happen.

This is learned helplessness.

If we think about the experience of students with disabilities, we can see how this mentality might be having a very real effect on study skills.

Learned helplessness and disability support

This article explains the concept of learned helplessness a little further in the K-12 context. What comes through strongly is the idea that students can develop attitudes about learning that emphasize powerlessness.

If students believe they have little agency over their academic progress, or that barriers to learning are insurmountable, they could be in the grip of learned helplessness.

Think about the impact this might have when tackling a new study skill in college, like independent note taking. Very quickly, it’s easy to see how this challenge may become overwhelming and result in a belief that it’s impossible, even with the right tools.

Here are a couple of points you may want to consider:

Are students conditioned to avoid independence?

If the K-12 classroom is designed to automatically give students the academic support they need, transition to higher education poses a fundamental problem – what happens when the student must seek this support for themselves?

It’s what causes many to struggle in the early months of college and is a real concern for disability services departments. Just how many students are there on campus that haven’t sought support?

If students run up against obstacles in a college classroom and don’t have the tools they need to overcome them, it’s easy to see how helplessness might develop. Particularly if earlier experiences of education have set the foundation.

But for those that do come forward, how do we know that the support being offered is right in the long term?

What is learned helplessness and how does it affect note-taking?

Student requests – better the devil you know?

As we discovered in our recent survey of disability support professionals, 58.8% of respondents listed ‘student requests’ as a major factor influencing their choice of note taking provisions.

This seems natural enough. Why wouldn’t you listen to what students want?

Assuming that most are familiar with peer notes from K-12 and want this accommodation, and this is an option you offer, it’s especially easy to sign off.

However, our survey also identified that 66% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘peer notes improve student independence’.

And given that improving independence is a natural way to combat learned helplessness, it’s probably safe to say that student requests won’t always represent the best route to achieving this.

It’s likely that requested accommodations represent the ‘devil you know’ – a kind of crutch to lean against in the face of new challenges.

But what’s the alternative?


Written by Luke Garbutt

Author Bio


Watch our discussion

On April 21st, we hosted a webinar on how disability support departments can balance student requests with student needs, and more effectively combat learned helplessness.

Our panellists discussed:

  • ‘Learned Helplessness’ – does a lack of self-confidence affect students’ willingness to try AT?
  • The importance of note taking skills, and to what extent they are developed in students
  • Methods you can use to encourage students to take notes more independently

The session was attended by over 350 disability support professionals and featured a range of questions submitted by attendees.

Watch the Webinar
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Time for a simpler, smarter note taking accommodation?

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