No more excuses written on chalk board


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.

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