male sitting at a table looking at a female across the table; a laptop is on the table between them
January 05, 2023

The Office Hours Conundrum

What factors facilitate (or impede) student self-advocacy?
by Kurt Prescott
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*

Like many other teachers in the spring of 2020, I found myself grappling with the early ramifications of education’s foray into online learning. Specifically, my school had allocated time for digital office hours each week only to find that students were not showing up. There were many reasonable explanations for this. Perhaps students were experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and needed a break from their computer. Maybe, having gone gradeless, students no longer felt the need to check-in with their teachers. Or perhaps they simply didn’t know what virtual office hours were for.

In truth, it was almost certainly a combination of all three explanations (and more), though this latter point about how students understand the purpose of office hours has stayed with me over the years. Indeed, I have long been struck by the ways in which office hours (or designated time during the school day to meet with teachers) privileges students with strong executive functioning skills or prior institutional knowledge, putting them at a distinct advantage over their peers. If a student knows where and when office hours are taking place, as well as how to use them, it stands to reason that they would be more likely to find academic success. On the flip side, those students who stand to benefit the most from this one-on-one time are often the least likely to show up, presenting a conundrum for educators seeking to improve the learning outcomes of all students.

Defining the Problem

Given the importance of time management and self-moderation in upper schools, I decided to focus on improving the self-advocacy skills of ninth graders for my Action Research Project with the Tang Institute this year. My initial assumption was that new ninth-graders would be at a disadvantage when it came to their ability to self-advocate, perhaps because they were less familiar with the school culture, had not established relationships with teachers, or didn’t know what available resources were available to them. Conversely, I assumed that their peers who had been at the school previously (some since kindergarten) would be at an advantage for the same reasons.

However, these were just hypotheses. If I truly aimed to develop an effective intervention, then I first needed to understand and clarify the nature of the problem I sought to solve. With that in mind, my first step was to create a systems map that reflected the transition into ninth grade in all its complexity. Moreover, I used this map to identify potential adults within the school community that could offer additional insight into both the ninth grade transition and what factors might facilitate (or impede) student self-advocacy. I spent the months of October and November interviewing seven individuals, which allowed me to identify and isolate various themes and patterns in the ninth-grade transition process.

My initial predictions couldn’t have been more wrong.

New Students Demonstrate Stronger Self-Advocacy Skills

Contrary to my initial assumptions, new ninth-grade students actually demonstrated stronger self-advocacy skills than their peers. Using the aforementioned qualitative interviews as guideposts, I developed a brief survey that presented students with a series of statements related to academic self-advocacy and asked them to indicate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed using a 5-point Likert scale.

Returning Students

New Students

When I don't understand feedback on a specific assignment, I reach out to my teacher for additional clarification.



I will set up a time to meet with my English teacher if I have questions about my work.



When I meet with my teacher, I have a clear plan for what I want to accomplish.



As you can see in the above table, new students consistently reported higher rates of agreement than returning students. In retrospect, this makes sense: ninth grade admissions as much more competitive and academic skill sets are a major factor in this process, which means that new students are often quite well prepared when it comes to the demands of the upper school program. Yet, even this doesn’t tell the full story. When disaggregated by gender identity, we can see that new male students report the highest rates of agreement when considering statements about academic self-advocacy, while returning female students report the lowest rates.

Returning Female Students

Returning Male Students

New Female Students

New Male Students

When I don't understand feedback on a specific assignment, I reach out to my teacher for additional clarification.





I will set up a time to meet with my English teacher if I have questions about my work.





When I meet with my teacher, I have a clear plan for what I want to accomplish.





So what does this all mean? Do returning female students have weaker self-advocacy skills relative to their peers? Are new male students somehow at an advantage? Not necessarily. The above data reflects student self-perception, which may not be commensurate with their actual skillset. Put another away: having a clear plan when meeting with teachers does not mean that it is an effective plan, which is what we are ultimately after.

That said, this data points the way toward future intervention, which I hope to develop and implement early in 2023. Specifically, I am currently considering the role of relational trust between teachers and students and whether focusing on this dynamic can increase student self-advocacy. I am also considering whether developing scripts or planning frameworks for teacher meetings can boost student confidence when it comes to their own initiation of these conversations. I am certain that this work will continue to throw more surprises my way, though that is precisely what keeps me in it. If I already knew the outcome, there would be little point in taking the next step.


*Kurt Prescott is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development. Prescott taught in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Phillips Academy from 2016 to 2020 and was a Tang Fellow during the last two years of his tenure. He is currently a humanities instructor and institutional research apprentice at Maret School in Washington, D.C.

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