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Student responsibility for learning.

Many teachers complain about the problem of getting students to be responsible for their own learning. If word of mouth is an indicator, this problem is serious and becoming more so. This paper presents the results of a study utilizing Morris's (1961) philosophical notion that a person may "be responsible" or "be held responsible." Students who are being responsible will do the work without constant reminders or prodding. Students who are being held responsible will do the work only when someone is somehow forcing them to do so. This distinction is discussed in more detail in Bacon (1991).

Others have described various aspects of "being responsible." Maslow (1976), for example, states that the self-actualized individual will take responsibility. He further states, "Each time one takes responsibility, this is an actualizing of the self". Rogers (1983) discusses results from his study of 75 juvenile delinquents (Rogers et al., 1948) in which he says, "I began to see the significance of inner autonomy. The individual who sees himself and his situation clearly and who freely takes responsibility for that self and for that situation is a very different person from the one who is simply in the grip of outside circumstances. This difference shows up clearly in important aspects of his behavior". Brown (1975) explains that, in confluent education, "What is sought here is a more intelligent use of mind so that individuals will not avoid taking responsibility for that large portion of their existence wherein potentially they could take responsibility.... As the student becomes more in touch with his interior and exterior reality, he can also take more and more responsibility for his own learning".

The present study was an effort to better understand student perspectives on responsibility for learning as suggested by the distinction between being responsible and being held responsible. Following Anderson and Prawat (1983), responsibility is viewed here as "... a complex concept involving a number of related issues, such as accountability and control.... Perception of control is an important factor in responding to one's own behavior as well. Individuals who feel in control are much more willing to accept responsibility for their own behavior. In the classroom, responsible behavior involves self-regulation and self-control by students". It is further contended that responsible persons are not satisfied following the path of least resistance. They will seek out challenges or, at the very least, will not back away from such challenges as they are presented.

The kinds of parameters applied in definitions of responsibility are discussed in the research on intrinsic motivation (e.g., Anderson & Prawat, 1983). For example, Lepper and Malone (1986) offer a way of organizing the various approaches to intrinsic motivation that seems heuristically useful for the present study. They discuss four theoretical orientations for looking at the concept of individual intrinsic motivation. Each represents the work of a number of scholars who have studied intrinsic motivation. These orientations are: humans as problem solvers, humans as information-processors, humans as voluntary actors, and the concept of fantasy. The notions of control and challenge are central to the first and third orientations. Working from an intrinsic motivation perspective, therefore, will enable us to study such central parameters of responsibility as control and challenge (for discussions of challenge, see Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990; Deci, 1975, 1980; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Harter, 1978; Lepper & Greene, 1978; Weiner, 1980; White, 1959; for effort as an element of challenge, see Anderson & Prawat, 1983; Covington, 1984a, 1984b; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990; Harter, 1974; for control, see Condry, 1977; DeCharms, 1968; Deci, 1975, 1980; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Nuttin, 1973).

In this paper, an intrinsic motivation view of student responsibility for learning is used. Additionally, the following definition of intrinsic motivation is utilized: "... the innate, natural propensity to engage one's interests and exercise one's capacities, and in so doing, to seek and conquer optimal challenges. Such motivation emerges spontaneously from internal tendencies and can motivate behavior even without the aid of extrinsic rewards or environmental controls" (Deci & Ryan, 1985, p. 43). Both responsibility and intrinsic motivation emphasize personal control. Likewise, both suggest that responsible persons take on challenges. They take on tasks that require greater personal involvement.

To define responsibility from an intrinsic motivation perspective means we must recognize, as have Anderson and Prawat (1983), that, "Responsibility has both visible components (behavior) and invisible components (cognition, affect, and attitude)". The present research uses a methodology that brings out the "invisible" components.

Traditionally, most of the research on responsibility has been conducted from an outsider perspective (such as the "time on task" research; see Rossmiller, 1983; Strother, 1984; Wyne & Stuck, 1982). An outsider observes what students are doing and infers whether or not they are responsible. However, fully understanding students' conceptions of responsibility requires research from an insider perspective, wherein the students are able to describe exactly what their experiences in school and sense of responsibility are like. This means responsibility for learning must be investigated from the students' perspective in order to discover what they see as relevant or meaningful.



Five classes in a Southern California middle school were selected for this study. All were special nine-week "exploration classes" intended to provide sixth- and seventh-grade students with a sample of different subjects over the course of the school year. We participated in and observed the following classes: metal shop (26 students), study skills (25 students), keyboarding (28 students), art (27 students), and Latin/German (25 students). Acting as participants/observers allowed us to study students in their classes and to informally ask questions about their lessons. Beyond attending these classes, we had lunch with the sixth graders and used that experience to further our understanding of student responsibility.

Besides being participants/observers, we conducted interviews with 52 of the 131 students in the five classes during the fourth quarter (about 40% of the students). While some effort was made to interview a wide range of students, the interviews were principally conducted on the basis of availability. The students for the study came to be interviewed in one of three ways: they volunteered to be interviewed as a part of the study, they were recommended for interviews by the teachers, and they were selected by the researcher based on observations of and interactions with them.

While we did not attempt to create a statistically representative sample, we did interview a diverse group of students. Our intention was to create a sample that was representative of the students at this particular school; to this end, feel we were successful. Those observed and interviewed were "typical" of sixth- and seventh-grade middle school students in the sense that we included boys and girls, minorities and nonminorities, high-ability and low-ability students, and hard workers and not-so-hard workers.


The research involved being participants/observers for approximately four months in a Southern California middle school. We participated in five classes, did the assignments for those classes, and observed and talked to other students in the classes. The format for observations was to take notes on class activities and on the behaviors of the students as they engaged in those activities. We did not attempt to chronicle behaviors of all students, but focused on those we came to know. When we formally and informally interviewed the observed students, we were able to ask them about specific class activities and to elaborate on what they were doing at the time (to the best of their recollection). In this way we were able to use their behaviors as examples for our questions and help them to deal concretely with the topic of responsibility for learning.

Additionally, the approach involved use of a "nonstandardized interview" format (using the same questions for all interviewees but keeping the order flexible; see Goetz & LeCompte, 1984) so that the students could help shape the interviews. Agar (1980) points out, "The more you know, the more specific questions you can ask." We had some basic questions for which we wanted answers, but also expected the students to be able to expand on our list. As an exploratory study of student perspectives on responsibility for learning, we anticipated that the students would have certain ideas about what it means to be responsible for learning, and we wanted to assist them in articulating those ideas.

Interviews were conducted on school grounds, during school time, and lasted forty to forty-five minutes. Interviews were recorded using extensive field notes made while interviewing, which were then expanded upon immediately following the interview.

Three primary questions were addressed: (1) Do students perceive school as a place for learning? (2) What understanding of responsibility for learning do middle school students have? (a) Do they share an understanding of responsibility for learning? (b) Do they include the concepts of control and challenge? (3) Do middle school students see themselves as being responsible?


The four months as participants/observers taught us much about the day-to-day lives of these sixth- and seventh-grade students. For the most part, we did not often see these students as being actively engaged in learning. There were short periods when the teacher would assign a task and they would be involved in what was going on, but learning that required a concentrated or extended effort was typically avoided.

When compelled to engage in learning activities, the students would do only the minimum required to complete the assignment. Given a choice, they would most often prefer talking to their friends or just "hanging out." Hanging out included reading materials not required for the class (e.g., magazines, library books) and drawing (mostly "doodles"). The classes observed did not seem to promote a strong desire to learn on the part of the students; rather, the classes were merely tolerated and the activities endured. The students often did not do the assigned work, but avoided engaging in activities which might lead to confrontations with teachers. The implied message was, "We won't make trouble for you (the teacher), if you don't expect us to do too much." For example, students were given ample time to complete a research paper during study skills class, but several of the boys did not do the assignment and thus failed. In the metal shop class, several girls did not do the assigned projects by themselves, which gave them time for socializing.

The responses obtained in the 52 interviews led to the creation of the following categories as essential elements of the students' understanding of responsibility for learning: (1) Do the Work, (2) Obey the Rules, (3) Pay Attention, (4) Learn or Study, (5) Try or Make an Effort, and (6) Responsibility as Something Given or Taken. No students mentioned all six categories, but each typically mentioned two or three as being important. Table 1 summarizes the findings. Categories are listed in order of importance, based on the frequency of student responses.

Do the Work

This category was the one most often included in the students' definitions of responsibility for learning. Approximately 71% (n = 37) of the 52 students who were interviewed mentioned this as a student responsibility. On a superficial level, this figure would indicate that the school was doing a good job of motivating the students and making them responsible. However, many of these students went on to say TABULAR DATA OMITTED that they did not do the work. When asked why, they said that the work was boring. They clearly saw that a major objective of their teachers was to get them to do the work, and if they did, they would do well in school. Yet, they overwhelmingly indicated to us, in informal conversations and through our observations, that they chose not to do the work.

What did the students mean by "do the work"? Typically, they meant that they handed something in when an assignment was due. At times we would find students rushing through an assignment just before class was to begin. They were aware that they could not do the job properly, but they would at least have something to hand in.

The idea that one might do the work and still not do well in school was not seen as a possibility. According to these students, one learns by doing what the teacher asks.

Obey the Rules

Just under 54% (n = 28) of the students mentioned this category, which was based on the overwhelming indications by students that following the rules and observing the codes of behavior set forth by both the teachers and the school were important. A keyboarding student very directly informed us, "Come to school and don't get in trouble and do what they |teachers~ tell you to, whether you want to or not." A girl in keyboarding class expressed this idea more simply: "Be good in class."

What did the students mean by "obey the rules"? Some referred to specific rules, such as "Not talk" and "Not fight." Others talked about respecting the teacher as being one of their responsibilities. Two students specifically stated, "Not talk back to the teacher." Mostly, our observations indicated that the students' responsibility was not to do anything that would get them in trouble with the teacher or the school administration. Tacitly, the students operated from the perspective of not giving the teachers any reason to give them trouble. This resulted in a kind of negotiated peace, wherein both teachers and students at least partially got what they wanted.

Pay Attention

The Pay Attention category is a very simple concept mentioned by almost 37% (n = 19) of the interviewees. Students believed they were responsible for listening to what their teachers had to say. More accurately, as our observations indicated, they must give the impression of listening. Ten of the students who mentioned this category just said, "Pay attention."

No doubt, most students would find that listening to the teacher improves their chances of doing well in school. However, much like Do the Work, students knew they were supposed to listen, and at the same time admitted that they did not always do so. One girl told us that she did not listen to her teachers, and when asked why, she stated, "Because they're boring."

Learn or Study

While a number of students, 27% (n = 14), did mention Learn or Study, it was not by any means the most important category (it ranked fourth of the six categories). In no class was learning or studying mentioned most often as a student responsibility. In metal shop, studying was mentioned second most often. From our vantage point, the students did not appear to do much learning and/or studying. They were more concerned with getting through the assignments and having something to hand in to the teacher.

The most interesting finding was that their conceptions of learning and studying did not include the acquisition of knowledge as an objective. For example, one student in metal shop told us that, to be responsible, they "Have to get good grades and everything," while a student in keyboarding told us that one must, "Talk less and get straight A's."

One girl did distinguish between learning and getting good grades. She gave the following definition of student responsibility for learning: "To get their work done and do it as best you can. You should learn what you're doing, know what you're doing." When asked what she meant by this, she said that students should not just learn something to please the teacher or to pass a test; they should actually know the subject.

Try or Make an Effort

Try or Make an Effort was also included by 27% (n = 14) of the students. This category was exemplified by a boy in study skills class who said, "If they |students~ try hard enough, they can accomplish what they want. Usually they say, 'It's too hard,' when actually it's pretty easy |to do well in school~." One girl in the keyboarding class elaborated on the notion that students do not really have to do everything in order to do well in school--a "good enough" perspective: "You can't be perfect. You can try your best. You have to get most of your work done. Try as hard as you can."

This category was very closely linked to Do the Work. It was also closely linked to the Learn or Study category in that making the effort was sometimes seen as synonymous with studying or learning. The students we interviewed believed it was important to at least attempt to complete their assignments, and as long as they handed something in, they apparently felt that credit for effort was somehow due.

Responsibility as Something that Is Given or Taken

In all but one of the five classes, one person mentioned responsibility as something that is given or taken. In the one exception, two students mentioned this category. Overall, based on an extremely small sample (six students) who mentioned this category, students saw responsibility as being taken. Only one of the six saw responsibility as something that is given. That student perceived responsibility as being something one can "earn," as one might earn a prize. All the others mentioned or implied that responsibility to some extent involves making choices. That is, students must decide that they are going to do their work and then get it done. For these students, and some others, there was an awareness that they are the only ones who can get the job done and, very consciously, decide whether or not they do it. A girl in keyboarding class said, "They make their own decisions. They have a choice between wanting to study or not."

One student saw responsibility as something that can be given. According to him, students will not acquire responsibility on their own; they must be given responsibility by a person with power or authority: "Responsibility is something that has to be earned. It doesn't come naturally."

The other students saw responsibility as something that a person must "take" for him/herself. The student has to provide some of the driving force behind completing the work.

The small number of students who mentioned this category becomes more significant by virtue of the fact that we did not see students "taking responsibility" for their learning. They were content to blame someone else for their failure to complete assignments successfully.


From this study, we have concluded that the students did not perceive school as being a place for learning. They saw school as neither challenging nor as allowing them enough control to make the work challenging. Further, although they said they felt responsible for learning, they were actually "being held responsible" rather than "being responsible."

To elaborate on these points, we found that rather than seeing school as a place to learn, students considered it a place where they can spend a great deal of time with their friends. Other researchers such as Cusick (1973) and Larkin (1979) have made similar observations. The work they do there is merely meant to satisfy the demands of teachers.

We found that Learn or Study was mentioned as the fourth (of six) most frequently mentioned category. When the students talked about something they were learning that interested them, it was generally something outside of school. They saw little connection between school and the rest of their lives. During lunch, the sixth-grade boys had little desire to discuss anything about school. They would talk about academic-related matters only when we specifically asked about them. Completing a specific assignment had relevance only insofar as it affected their immediate lives. They typically did not think of assignments as relating to their future in any clear way. Thus, these students exemplified what Rhea (1968) called "institutionalized paternalism." They did the schoolwork because they saw it as a means of getting to something else, rather than as an end in itself.

This failure of students to see school as a place for learning is especially disturbing since we contend that teachers and administrators may have inadvertently played a role in creating this situation. The students' understanding of what school is supposed to be was very different from the more ideal conception of school as a learning center. For them, the "implicit curriculum" (Goodlad, 1984) of doing what they were told and not causing any trouble seemed to play a more significant role than did the curriculum. A more thorough understanding of the dynamics involved may enable teachers to make a change for the better.

Our second conclusion, that these students had a shared conception of responsibility for learning, was based on the similarity of topics they addressed in their definitions of responsibility for learning. The fact that we wound up with only six categories of responsibilities confirms that these students held some common ideas about the meaning of responsibility for learning. This finding can provide a basis for a fuller understanding of this important subject.

Furthermore, our second finding indicates that the students did not see school as offering them either control or challenge, as an examination of the six categories reveals. The Doing the Work category has relevance for both challenge and control. When students have a firm understanding that an assignment is important, they are more likely to complete that assignment; this is in keeping with Allen's (1982) "passing the course" goal. In this case, the students may experience the work as being challenging. More often than not, the students did not have much interest in what they were doing in school. As a result, they often chose not to do the work, thereby gaining a small measure of control.

The other five categories also seemed to indicate that students needed to maintain some control over their situation, even if the only way they could do so was by not doing anything. This finding would seem to corroborate the findings of other researchers such as Woods (1979) and Everhart (1984).

Responsibility as Something Given or Taken is an interesting category. While only a few students mentioned it, we believe it is important, especially for an intrinsic motivation approach to responsibility for learning. Five out of six students who mentioned this category said that responsibility is something that must be taken. That is, intrinsically motivated students would see the need to take responsibility for what they were doing in school, in which case taking responsibility could be a means of taking control.

The undercurrent perceived from what students told us was that of frustration. They did not see how they could constructively do something about having more control and thus they expressed their frustration in ways that were disruptive of what the teacher was trying to do. This is similar to what Woods (1979) and Everhart (1984) found in their respective studies. Students often will do only what the teacher has specifically asked them to do and no more.

We had anticipated that Try or Make an Effort would be an important category in regard to challenge. However, as long as the students had done the bare minimum, they felt they were being responsible. We never got the impression that students were trying very hard in school. Here, too, the findings parallel those of other researchers such as Cusick (1973) and Larkin (1979). Some students did make an effort to complete assignments to the best of their ability, but these were the exceptions. A possible explanation is that the students did not feel challenged by the work they were doing and therefore did not see a need to make an effort.

The students did not feel challenged even by the exploration classes. In fact, they typically described them as being easy. They did a minimal amount of work, yet still felt they were being responsible for the work they were assigned.

The third conclusion, that the students saw themselves as being responsible for their learning, was based on the fact that they often told us they were responsible. However, we suggest that what the students were really saying was that they were "being held responsible." If we reexamine the definitions students gave for responsibility for learning, this makes a great deal of sense. Students who are "being held responsible" will do the work only when a teacher or some other authority figure holds them accountable. Students who are "being responsible" will do whatever needs to be done because they feel that doing so is important. The students we interviewed generally did just enough work to get by, and sometimes a little less. Likewise, the Obey the Rules and Try or Make an Effort categories indicated that these students were "being held responsible."

The students often maintained that they were being responsible even when faced with the fact that they were failing the class. Here again our findings at a middle school are very much in keeping with those of Rhea (1968) in his study of "institutionalized paternalism" at a high school. Rhea found that the students felt that doing what they were supposed to do would enable them to be taken care of somehow later on (by getting into college or by getting a job). They recognized that they had very little control over what they were doing and, as a result, approached their classes from a standpoint of "being held responsible."

There are three implications from these findings. First, educators need to demonstrate to students that the primary reason for schools is for learning. Second, the fact that the students had a shared conception of responsibility for learning offers us a starting point for helping them take responsibility. By emphasizing what students perceive as being the key elements of responsibility for learning, we may be better able to assist them by creating appropriate, meaningful learning experiences. Third, students should experience schoolwork as being challenging. That is not to say that teachers should make the tasks more difficult. Rather, they should tailor activities to their students' particular talents, abilities, and needs.

Along with promoting challenge as a part of the school experience, teachers need to provide students with an opportunity to exercise control. That is, students should have some say as to the content and form of their education.

The final point that needs to be stressed has to do with responsibility. So long as we allow students merely to "be held responsible," they will probably be content to put forth minimal effort in order to get by. If we want students to take some initiative in their own learning, we must enable them to "be responsible."


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Reprint requests to Charles S. Bacon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Education, Indiana University/Purdue University at Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46805.
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Author:Bacon, Charles S.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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