Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Learner Responsibility in Learning Assessment

By Cara Lee, Mathematics Faculty, Part-Time

Cara teaches at Cascade, and has presented lively sessions on student empowerment in PCC's Teaching Learning Centers

With fierce determination I stood in front of my Math 65 class last term at the SE Center in week 5. I had been feeling increasingly frustrated and drained after each class as the responsibility of the planning, facilitation and assessment was on my shoulders along with the weight of the learning for 35 students.

In my mind I wanted to chew them out for not stepping up to the plate, not doing their homework and not being fully present in class. I knew, however, that a stern lecture or speech would simply yield another “Whatever.”

Instead, I said, “Do you know what I love about teaching college?” Students started to look up from their papers. “You are adults and you are in charge of your own learning. You don’t have to be here, but you are here - by choice.” They gave me their full attention as they sat up straighter, smiled and immediately became more engaged.

In the discussion about learning assessment, I have been trying to figure out where the learners come in. What is their role and what are their responsibilities? Isn’t it their job to learn and to know whether they’ve learned the material or not?

The familiar adage comes to mind, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” I think this is the mindset of teacher-centered teaching, where the focus is on what the teacher is doing. If the students don’t get it then it’s their fault. They haven’t taken responsibility.

But rather than place all of the responsibility on the students or the teacher, I think the answer lies in the middle. We can form a partnership with our learners on the first day. Agreements are made on the first day whether we do it consciously or not. Most learners are adept at sensing what is actually required of them and whether they will have any control in the process.

In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Maryellen Weimer shares the way her colleague took the horse metaphor one step further. “He said it was the teacher’s job to put salt in the oats so that once the horse got to water, it was damn thirsty” (p.103).

Many students do not have experience being responsible for their own learning and don’t have the skills to know what they don’t know. It felt like many of my learners in the math 65 class wanted me to pour the water into their mouths and tell them when to swallow, while they complained about the process. But I was the one who had assumed too much responsibility for their learning and that is what I needed to correct.

In class that day I handed out a mid-term self-assessment form for each student to complete. They each wrote their goals for the class in order to determine how they were doing. They calculated their current grade and listed the number of hours they were studying per week compared to the 10 recommended (hint, hint). They listed other resources they were using. They decided whether or not they were meeting their goals and wrote out a plan for the rest of the term.

I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was very impressed by the shift in the class. The learners did accept the responsibility that I gave back to them. The complainers stopped complaining and started working and asking more questions. The biggest complainer became the hardest worker. With the awareness that they had a choice, they made a different choice.

So in learner-centered teaching, what are we as teachers responsible for? According to Weimer,

We do have an obligation to show (not tell) students the value and necessity of learning. We have an obligation to make our content relevant, demonstrate its power to answer questions, and otherwise show its inherent intrigue. Once a student interest is piqued, we have the responsibility to lead them to all the learning resources they need. As the student learns, we have the responsibility to monitor the process and offer constructive feedback and assessment” (p. 103).

And what are students responsible for?

Fundamentally, the responsibility to learn is theirs and theirs alone. We can try to force them into accepting that responsibility along with the obligation to grow and develop as learners, but we do them a much greater service if we create conditions and develop policies and practices that enable them to understand their responsibility and that empower them to accept it” (Weimer, p.104).

I work hard to show interesting and relevant motivations for my content, and I also think that if I am the hardest worker in the class then there is a problem. Some of these shifts are subtle, yet very powerful and only the beginning, I think, of the transformation from teacher-centered to learner-centered teaching. My initial response to the learning assessment movement was, “Oh great, more work for the teachers,” but now I think it’s a different type of work for the teachers and more work for the learners – or more ownership at the least.

I highly recommend Weimer’s book, which gives five key changes to practice. The five changes are the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purpose and processes of evaluation. She gives many concrete examples of how she centers on her learners in her classes.

Inspired by the Anderson Conference I have made three self-assessment tools for my students which you are welcome to use and modify to fit your style. Self reflection is one of PCC’s core outcomes and I am excited about using these tools to show students how to take charge of their own learning. You can find these tools as well as the latest handouts for my TLC talk, Create the Students of your dreams: 3 ways to empower and motivate students at http://www.pcc.edu/staff/index.cfm/1394,12879,30,html.

Now, would someone please pass the salt...

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner Centered Teaching: Five Keys Changes to Practice.

San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.


  1. Cara, thank you for this, I wrestle with many of the same issues you describe in your post. I teach in the Art department, and while there are differences in our curricula, we share many of the same students, and questions about how to facilitate their success.

    After participating in the “Assessing Core Outcomes” class winter term, which was geared to be informative about assessment at the departmental and institutional level, I shifted my classroom teaching practice this term to one that focuses on assessment feedback rather than grade feedback for weekly assignments.

    As part of this change I familiarized students with an assessment rubric the first week of class, before they had done any work. I showed them a sample rubric with specific categories and definitions. Then we went through some slides of past student work and assessed each one based on that rubric. One of the most powerful elements of this exercise was the illustration that even work that looks “bad” on first view might actually have nailed certain elements, and visa versa. I was happily and mightily surprised at the relative consensus the class was able to come to (regardless of their past experience, and minimal editorializing from me) and the learning that happened for all of us via the lively conversation this experiment generated. It really jumpstarted my class!

    Now when I post the weeks homework I include the assessment rubric designed for it. During critique students have a printed rubric, which they sign and exchange with another student’s when they get up to present their work. These two students then assess each other’s work. I collect those completed assessments with the work and use the same sheet to give my assessment. It has been a lot more work for me up front to think about and design new rubrics each week, however I end up spending much less time grading. (I used to use a very simple continuum sheet with four or five categories, and often ended up scrawling copious notes that I doubt many students read, or deciphered.) I also think the process of designing each weeks rubric helps me communicate more clearly the key elements we are focusing on during class.

    This term I have witnessed both an increase in substantive commentary during critique, and also more self awareness by the student who’s work is being talked about; often they will offer up where the strengths and weaknesses are in their own work as they introduce it, unprompted by me.

    I teach two sections (one at night,) and they are uneven in results so far, however the trend seems clear. I attribute this to two factors: one is the students are taking and feeling more ownership of the process, and the other is the lessening of “accumulating grade points” as a motivational concept; which appears to result in more focus on the objectives we are exploring.

    I don’t imagine that this is a “silver bullet” that will propel all my students into engagement and ownership of their own learning experience, but I’m going to pursue it.
    Thanks again for your post!

  2. Wow, Sanone, thanks for sharing your practice. What a great way to shift responsibility to the learners and reinforce concepts at the same time. I agree that there is often more work up front but it pays off big time! Cara