Whose responsibility is learning?

Posted by on Jan 19, 2015 in Post-Secondary | 3 Comments

Christopher DanielsonChristopher Danielson

MCTM VP Mathematics

A teacher friend wrote me a note recently. She is teaching College Algebra in a high school, and she asked, “Do you think being a college teacher absolves you from the making sure they learn it part of teaching?” She mentioned two competing forces—teaching students responsibility for their learning, and wanting to make sure they understand. On the one hand there is the need to prepare students for the instruction they’ll get in college, and on the other hand there is the desire to ensure they are prepared for the content they’ll get in college.

There is this idea that K—12 teachers are supposed to nurture learning in students, while college teachers are only responsible for presenting content. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is truly part of the post-secondary teaching rhetoric.

A few years back, I had the opportunity to attend a series of professional development sessions at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in a program called Nexus. One question from that session continues to resonate in my mind when I think about my own teaching, and when talking with colleagues at all levels:

In light of a real and documented gap in opportunity and achievement for underrepresented populations in math and science, what is your responsibility to all students?

If we college teachers take that question seriously, we have to acknowledge that our responsibility goes beyond presenting content in an unbiased way. We are not absolved from responsibility to make sure students learn. We must do more to invite, include and to teach all students in our classrooms.

At a minimum, this means extensive use of formative assessment. Vincent Tinto of Syracuse University has studied factors that lead to student retention (including, but not limited to underrepresented student populations) and has concluded that:

Students are more likely to succeed in classrooms that assess their performance and provide frequent feedback about their performance in ways that enable everyone—students, faculty, and staff alike—to adjust their behaviors to better promote student success in the classroom.

In recent years, I have been working on this by having weekly low-stakes quizzes and occasional no-stakes warm-up quizzes. I grade quizzes and return them the next day, but higher scores on the same content later on can override earlier lower scores. That makes a quiz low-stakes. Students can try, get quick feedback, and adjust their behavior. I can ask questions that may be at the very edge of my expectations for students because a quiz is low-stakes. This allows me to adjust instruction in a number of ways—to accelerate if students do well on things I expected to be challenging, and to linger if students are struggling for example.

I often use student solutions to quiz questions as examples in the next class. One time it may be an example of a strategy that we haven’t addressed in class, but that I think other students would benefit from; another time it may be an error or misconception that the class can learn from analyzing (in keeping with my low-stakes policy, though, I ask students first if I’ll quote from their work, and don’t use names unless they want me to).

As for no-stakes warm-up quizzes, these have become one of the more useful tools in my college teaching toolkit in the last few semesters. I ask three or four short questions, give students five minutes to work individually, then have them verify answers and strategies with neighbors. I address any questions or disagreements and we move on. These 8—10 minutes at the beginning of a class period are productive, engage all of my students and get them good feedback about their learning while it’s in progress.

These are just a couple of things that I do in my classroom to acknowledge and act upon my responsibility to include my students, to engage them with the course content, and to hold them accountable for learning.

What do you do to uphold your end of the teacher-student relationship at the college level? I’d love to continue the conversation here, on Twitter (where I am @Trianglemancsd) or on my blog.


  1. Joan Kwako
    January 29, 2015

    Hi Christopher,
    I love your idea about the no-stakes quizzes! I’m going to have my students read your article.
    Thank you for always providing such great ideas.
    Looking forward to seeing you at a meeting soon.

    • Bettie
      August 6, 2015

      I thought I’d have to read a book for a divcsoery like this!

  2. Jered W-M
    February 12, 2015

    I cannot disagree with anything you’ve said. Yet, “problematize” being my favorite MSU verb,…

    What too often gets ignored in discussions about the differences between high school and college work is time. A high-school teacher sees a student for about 140-150 hours per course; in the university, it’s 37.5-40 contact hours, to cover roughly the same amount of content.

    This certainly does not mean that the university instructor’s job is only to present content. But it does mean that college students necessarily bear more responsibility for learning.


Leave a Reply