Opening Lines of Communication to Get Students to Take Responsibility for Their Actions


By Megan Wagaman
Math Department
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

Recently, the research discussion group of the Stanton/George Instructional Innovation Committee met to discuss an article by Scott Gaier titled Understanding Why Students Do What They Do: Using Attribution Theory to Help Students Succeed Academically. In this post, I wanted to share some highlights from the article as well as a the fruits of our group discussion.

One of the greatest challenges in helping students learn is identifying why they do what they do.

Scott Gaier, 2015

Attribution theory, developed by Bernard Weiner, was extensively investigated throughout the 1970s, and is still used today, partly in an attempt to meet this challenge.

The main idea behind attribution theory is that we naturally attribute causes to behaviors we observe; these “attributions” we make about students affect how we handle issues. Attributions made by students (their explanations for their own failure or success) affect how they handle these same issues. Attributions can be a factor in motivation and willingness to expend effort.

The article emphasized that to best help students, teachers need to understand to what a student attributes his or her success or failure, so that the teacher can guide a student to perhaps a better understanding of the situation, and appropriate interventions. As Gaier notes, “ … the more a teacher understands the cause for a student’s behavior, the more likely and able the teacher is to influence the student’s future behavior and decision making.”

For example, if a student thinks he fails all the tests in a class because the class meets at 8:30 and he is not a morning person, the teacher could help the student understand that, morning person or not, the student needs to study, do homework, and thoughtfully review class material — maybe at a time of day when he can better process it.

Essentially, we can push students towards success by helping them get past faulty attributions and take responsibility.

The article emphasized communication and caring as the keys to help students and teachers understand actual reasons underlying observed results.

Our discussion centered on the implications of this idea. How can we help students take responsibility for their learning? How can we find out what students think are underlying causes of lack of success (what students are attributing low achievement to)? How can we help students make the right sort of effort for success?

We did not arrive at one fail-safe method, but we kept coming back to the importance of keeping communication lines open, and how to best do this. It may be by stopping class 5 or 10 minutes early every session so that students know that is an easy time that they can talk to a teacher.

It could be by collecting an “exit ticket” at the end of each class that students hand to you personally, so you have at least a brief personal interaction with each and every one of them.

It could be sending check-in emails to students who have missed class or fallen behind — maybe with a “hope everything is OK” or something that could open the door for them to say more, without opening the door for excuses.

It could be though a quick Google Form survey to see how the each member of the class is doing with course content and expectations.

It could be just finding those casual moments to say hi or have a brief conversation with students, and being sure they realize that coming for help is not a sign of weakness. I

Or, it could simply be remaining ready and aware to not let those teachable, communication-opening moments pass by. Once communication begins, we can help students focus on the factors they can control, help them understand what constitutes effort, and let them know we care.

Gaier concludes with three key take-aways. First, he stresses that “Just having an awareness of attribution theory … is important for teaching and learning.” Second, once we have developed this awareness, “… it is very important to have student-teacher interactions that encourage and foster good communication… teachers need to genuinely care about students and the students’ learning.” Finally, during these interactions, “we need to be willing to be wrong,” and change our beliefs about the reasons for students’ behavior.

Students are ultimately the ones who set their own goals and priorities, and establish their study methods, but by keeping our minds open to their attributions for events, we can help students learn to better manage their situations to find success.


Gaier, S. E. (2015). Understanding why students do what they do: Using Attribution Theory to help students succeed academically. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 31(2), 6 – 19.

Coaching for the Win


By Megan Wagaman
Math Instructor
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

“No matter how well-trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own,” says a caption in a New Yorker article by surgeon, public health researcher, and author, Atul Gawande (2011).

So what do we do? As teachers, how can we improve? How can we recognize the little changes that might make a big difference in our students’ learning? Or the big changes that can revolutionize our teaching?

One method to foster development that many school districts and individuals have been adopting in recent years is to have instructional coaches. There are many roles a coach may play, and many ways in which they can work (Borman & Feger, 2006), but the common theme is that a coach helps instructors improve – whether it is through guidance while planning lessons, observing and critiquing lessons, encouraging thoughtful reflection on classroom issues, helping an instructor try a new strategy, or assisting in other ways as needed.

This was the topic of discussion of the December 4th meeting of the faculty research discussion group at the George campus, in which we reviewed the above cited articles. This post will summarize some of the ideas that came up during our discussion.

Coaching is an exciting concept and it is a great way to foster continuous improvement, but there are some challenges. People need to feel comfortable opening up to it, accepting criticism, and trusting their coach. Going along with that, you need to have the right coach – someone who will foster improvement, rather than the opposite.

How can we implement coaching?

We felt that coaching should be voluntary, and could be facilitated by an institution’s teaching and learning department (CCIT at Delaware Tech). Some aspects of coaching could be best done by instructors in the same field as the coachee, while for others it may not matter. If being in the same field is important, the teaching and learning professionals could help departments investigate different instructional strategies, and the department members could then work together on how to implement them in ways that make sense for their field. It could also be connected to new faculty development or mentoring programs.

A great argument in favor of coaching is that it helps teachers actually implement ideas they learn about. According to Gawande (2011), a study done in California showed that after a professional development workshop, only 10% of teachers used the new skill in their classrooms. However, after coaching was integrated with new skill instruction, more than 90% implemented the method. Even if there are just small things you’d like to get feedback or guidance with, a coach could help.

So, check out these articles and see what you think.


Borman, J., & Feger, S. (2006). Instructional coaching: Key themes from the literature. The Education Alliance at Brown University. Retrieved from

Gawande, A. (2011, October 3). Personal best. The New Yorker. Retrieved from


Another article about coaching:

Garmston, R., Linder, C., & Whitaker, J. (1993). Reflections on cognitive coaching. Educational Leadership, 51(2).

These are about ways and reasons to conduct observations:

Grimm, E. D., Kaufman, T., & Doty, D. (2014). Rethinking classroom observation. Educational Leadership, 71(8), 24-29.

Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2013). A new view of walk-throughs. Educational Leadership, 70(7), 42-45.

Powell, W., & Napoliello, S. (2005). Using observation to improve instruction. Educational Leadership, 62(5), 52-55.

This is about handling teachers resistant to coaching (but I think offers good proactive advice for coaching in general):

Jay, A. B. (2009). Tackling resistance. Journal of Staff Development, 30(5), 56-58.

Here is a link to a video with the coaches talking in the teacher’s earpiece:

And a couple articles to go with it:

Rock, M. L., Gregg, M., Howard, P. W., Ploessl, D. M., Maughn, S., Gable, R. A., & Zigmond, N. P. (2009). See Me, Hear Me, Coach Me. Journal of Staff Development, 30(3), 24-31.

Rock, M. L., Zigmond, N. P., Gregg, M., & Gable, R. A. (2011). The Power of Virtual Coaching. Educational Leadership, 69(2), 42-48.

Here is another video just showing coaching in action:

I read a few chapters from this book. Chapter 7 talks about setting goals; Chapter 4 is about the coaching process (I liked this one a lot):

Aguilar, A. (2013). The Art of Coaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.