March 29th, 2017

What Happens in a Course is a Shared Responsibility


Professor in front of class

One thing about student evaluations that troubles me is how they give students the impression that it’s the teacher who makes or breaks the course. A few instruments query students about their own efforts, but I’m not sure those kinds of questions make it clear that what happens in any course is the combined result of teacher and student actions. Early in my teaching career, I heard a wise colleague tell students, “It’s not my class. It’s not your class. It’s our class, and together we will make it a good or not-so-good learning experience.”

Teaching Professor Blog Yes, faculty have more responsibility for what happens in the course than students do. Teachers can take all sorts of actions that positively impact course experiences—starting by demonstrating that we care about students. We can carefully prepare and organize course materials, design effective activities, treat all students fairly, offer clear explanations, and establish policies that promote learning. Although this list could go on and on, teachers can’t do everything it takes to create a constructive learning environment. If students decide not to speak in class, a participation policy that encourages interaction makes no difference. If students opt not to engage in the course activities the teacher has planned, those activities will not support learning. The teacher can lead, but if no one follows, the course doesn’t go anywhere.

Students can contribute to the success of a course in three different areas, starting with their individual efforts to learn. They can attend class or participate regularly online, do the reading or homework problems, pay attention, take notes, ask questions, study for exams, complete assignments, and take advantage of office hours and other resources when they need help.

Next, students can support the efforts that the teacher makes to help them learn. They can respond nonverbally by nodding, showing interest, and occasionally smiling. They can volunteer to answer questions as well as ask them. They can offer examples and share relevant experiences. They can participate in group activities and take leadership roles in getting the group started. They can provide the teacher with constructive feedback, suggesting ways the course could be improved and noting the teacher’s actions that help them learn.

Third, individual students can contribute to the learning experiences of others in the course. They can do that by avoiding disruptive behaviors like coming and going during class or surfing the web instead of taking notes and participating in discussions. They can help others by trying to clarify what’s confusing, respectfully responding to each other, learning the names of others in class, and chatting socially before class begins or via the online discussion board. What one or two students do makes a huge difference. If even a few students start contributing positively, everyone in the class feels the influence. Positive behaviors infuse the room with energy, keep the class flowing, and motivate other students to contribute. Unfortunately, the opposite is equally true.

I don’t think the ways in which we solicit instructional feedback from students makes them aware of their roles in the course and how they can contribute to a successful learning experience. “It was a boring course,” they write on the evaluation. Well, did you do anything to help make it interesting? “We had to work in groups, and it was a big waste of time.” Well, what did you do when the group was wasting time? “The homework problems weren’t at all like the ones we did in class.” Well, did you ask the instructor to explain how a homework problem was related to the ones solved in class?

So, how do we help students understand that what happens in a course is a shared responsibility? How do we encourage them to make contributions that are constructive? How about a midcourse evaluation titled something like, “How are we doing?” The students provide the teacher with some feedback—not so much on presentation skills but more on the climate for learning that exists within the course. In turn, the teacher provides the class (as a whole) with some feedback on their contributions to the well-being of the course. A follow-up discussion reveals the results, but it’s not about who’s at fault. Rather, it’s about how both the students and teacher could be doing better. It’s a forward-looking, action-oriented exchange.

On Faculty Focus Premium there is a feedback activity that highlights the roles played by teachers and students. It can be configured in a variety of different ways—three options are recommended here.

  • Students can provide input on the conditions for learning created by the instructor.
  • The instructor can provide input on how well students are functioning as a community of learners.
  • The students can evaluate the course in terms of how it functions as a learning community.

Visit Creating a Climate for Learning: A Survey for Students and Teachers »

  • Perry Shaw

    So true, Maryellen, that the process of learning is a shared responsibility.
    We embed this truth in the student course evaluations, in which we ask students not only to evaluate the course content and the instructor but also their own engagement in the learning process. Students have a questionable right to critique a course or an instructor if they have made no initiative in improving the learning.

    • Samuel Yawila

      Perry, asking students to evaluate their engagement in the learning process will be very helpful. Students will really have to be sincere and rate their level of engagement. I have just quickly scanned our university evaluation form. It asks the students to evaluate the teacher, the pedagogy, course content…But nothing about that student evaluation component.

      • Perry Shaw

        Samuel, if you would like to see what we do at our school, drop me an email at and I will send you our evaluation form.

  • Perry Shaw

    Also, surely the administration have a role. We have all experienced situations where policies with questionable educational value have been imposed upon us from above, or where the classroom environment verges on dismal, or where the institutional focus on GPA is so strong that it undermines the sort of hospitable space that best facilitates learning. Only when students, faculty, and administration work together can we hope to aspire to sort of quality learning we long for.

  • Victor Maxson

    Maryellen, You should look at the work of Dr. Ruth Stehl. Her primary work revolves around assessment, of which this surly is a piece. The metaphor she employs compares the learning process to white water rafting with the guide (instructor) leading the rafters (students) on a trip down the river. Obviously in this metaphor, we are all in the raft together.

  • Rich

    Your three recommendations are consistent with the principles of cooperative learning researched and developed by Johnson and Johnson. Worth exploring to learn to design and facilitate specific learning processes that produce this effort and shared responsibility.

  • Samuel Yawila

    Marlyellen, thanks for sharing these thoughts. It is important that those who teach perceive the course and the all classroom environment as ‘ours’ – it is surely a shared responsibility. I think we can also remind students of their role by setting tasks that get them involved in generating knowledge. I also like the idea of the middle term check up where we ask the question, ‘how are we doing?’