On Accepting Responsibility for Learning


I had grabbed a few items in an unfamiliar grocery store and headed for the express checkout line—10 items or less. I queued up and noticed that the person in front of me had a full cart. I counted the items: 35. Well, that took care of my feeling badly for having 11. When it was my turn, I asked (politely) how someone with 35 items could use the express checkout lane. “It’s not my responsibility,” the clerk replied. “Well, whose responsibility is it?” That generated a shrug, followed by, “If you don’t like it, you can tell her she’s got too much stuff.” So it was my responsibility to police the express lane.

Teaching Professor Blog

This morning I was reading the results of a survey exploring student attitudes about group work (Marks & O’Connor, 2013). The survey asked questions about several group-related factors, including whether students should be accountable for each other’s work in a group setting. Sixty-seven percent disagreed either strongly or mildly. The researchers write that in groups, individual and group accountability balance each other out: “Our own experience is that students have a hard time appreciating this level of accountability” (p. 154). In professional contexts, group members are collectively, not individually, responsible for what they produce. Even though students strenuously object to group grades, they’re not unlike assessments made in professional contexts.

Students have a hard time accepting responsibility elsewhere as well. A poor exam score is because the test was unfair. A problem meeting a deadline is not the result of procrastination but of not having been given enough time to complete the assignment. Poor performance in a course is because the content is hard and boring. Sometimes students can’t learn because the teacher isn’t any good. Students may theoretically know they’re the ones who have to do the learning, but when they don’t take the actions needed to accomplish that objective—when they don’t take responsibility for their learning—they frequently blame someone or something else.

It’s important that we teach using strategies and approaches that encourage students to accept and act on those responsibilities that are inherently a part of their educational experiences. It starts with there being consequences when they ignore those responsibilities. Why do students come to class unprepared? Because they’ve learned that in some (they’re hoping all) courses, nothing happens if they’re unprepared. Most certainly the consequences cannot be too dire; I’m not advocating public humiliation. But a student should not be able to sit unprepared in a course session without feeling some discomfort.

Sometimes a dramatic change can make the point about collective responsibility. Post a question, telling students they’ll have 15 minutes to discuss it next session. You’ll be taking notes and grading the discussion, not individual contributions to it. There will likely be some awkward silences, but everyone will be attentive. The first time I tried this and gave everyone points equivalent to a C for the discussion, a rich debriefing exchange followed, and the next discussion improved significantly. It felt like an exemplary teachable moment.

Could it be that students don’t always accept responsibility because we don’t give them responsibility for very much? We control what they’re to learn and how they’re to learn it, and we certify whether they’ve learned it. Teachers do experience some anxiety when they give students responsibility but students don’t accept it: Not having an attendance policy in a beginning course competes with peers proclaiming that college is cool because you can skip class. Students tend to take the advice of peers over teachers. They skip class and experience consequences with long-term effects. Maybe it’s more responsible to require them to be in class at the front end of a college career. But should we use attendance policies in a senior-level majors’ course? If students don’t know by that juncture that showing up matters, either they haven’t learned or we haven’t successfully taught an important life lesson.

Out in the parking lot I ran into the 35-item shopper and asked her about using the express lane. She apologized more than once but then said, “They don’t enforce it,” and “Everybody does it,” and “They never have enough clerks and self-checkout stations open”—a trivial but nonetheless telling example of “it’s not my fault; they made me do it.” Life can be lived without taking responsibility for it, but it’s a lesser way to live and dangerous in a democracy. And as Hannah Arendt (1958) wrote, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it” (p. 513).


Arendt, H. (1958). The crisis in education. Partisan Review, 25(4), 493–513. Retrieved from http://archives.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=326029

Marks, M. B., & O’Connor, A. H. (2013). Understanding students’ attitudes about group work: What does this suggest for instructors of business? Journal of Education for Business, 88(3), 147–158. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2012.664579