I interviewed some of the best math faculty members at my college to discover how they hold their students accountable for behaviors that typically lead to academic success. This report presents the extrinsic techniques that these instructors employ until the students’ intrinsic motivation takes over. Opinions vary among these instructors as to when this should occur. The majority tapers off accountability as their students mature.  One instructor continues with some measure of accountability through Calculus.


Almost all of the interviewees state in their syllabus that a student may be dropped from the course for excessive unexcused absence. However, except for first week ‘no shows,’ only two instructors actually do so.  Most agree that illness is not an excusable absence, since regardless of the reason for absence, the student is still missing valuable instruction time.  However, no instructor said that s/he requires makeup of the missed lesson to excuse the absence, although all said they recognize the disastrous effect of missing one or more links in the sequentially dependent chain of lesson objectives.

All but one instructor said that they call a student in for counseling, if s/he can be located, on the second or third absence.  They try to determine the student’s problem, warn of the consequences of continued absence, and try to obtain the student’s commitment to uninterrupted attendance.  One instructor says he always gets their commitment.  I asked, “Then does their behavior change?”  “Very seldom,” he replied.  Still, all but two allow the student to remain in the course even though s/he may have little chance of passing.  One instructor said she is concerned that dropping students may affect the status of those on financial aid.

Once the student exceeds the allowable number of absences, one instructor reviews the student’s grade up to this point.  If s/he is failing, the student is dropped.  If s/he is passing, the student remains.  A second instructor drops the student regardless.  Her point is that the attendance policy will not serve as a deterrent to absenteeism if it is an idle bluff. The student with a legitimate absence may, of course, consider it unfair not to be allowed to makeup the missed lessons and assignments.

All but one instructor records attendance and even that instructor constructs a seating chart for noting student names and presence.  Several instructors pass an attendance sheet on a clipboard.  When returned, the instructor himself records the students who arrive late with a red ‘T’ and the absentees with a red ‘A’ so that it cannot be overwritten next session.  Rather than pass the roll, the majority simply note the absences for their record.  This may be haphazard, but then they don’t use the record to drop the student or to require lesson make up.  The one instructor who calls roll every class session feels that the ability to call students by name is worth the extra class time it takes.


All but one instructor collects homework.  The majority collects at each class session.  One collects weekly.  Another collects the homework together with the students’ notebooks at each of three test dates.  All but two make completion of homework a part of the student’s final grade.  The mode is 15%, one gives 5%, two give 15%, and one gives 25%.  Most will accept the homework only when due or after an absence.  However, this provides no incentive to make up missed assignments.

The majority states that grades for homework should not be used to punish or reward, but only to indicate the extent of achieving course objectives. Yet they also feel that without this incentive many would not do the work and thus would fail.  Yet is this sufficient incentive?  Do the students who are just looking to pass the course really care about losing 10% of their final grade?  Worse yet, they realize that if they don’t do today’s assignment, they lose only 0.3%.  Not one instructor requires the student to complete all assignments in order to pass the course. 

The majority checks off the homework but does not grade it.  All say they peruse the homework to determine how well the class achieved the lesson objectives.  Most will occasionally provide written comment.  One instructor does not return the homework unless he wrote a comment or if a student specifically requests it.  However, several other instructors require the student to maintain all homework in a math notebook for reference together with all handouts and class notes.

One instructor grades three problems of each set.  Another exceptionally hardworking instructor not only grades but also provides written correction of each problem of each student’s submission.  Her point is that if the student doesn’t understand how to apply the lesson objective to a particular problem then s/he will be unable to proceed to the next lesson that requires this understanding.  In fact, this is the same rationale as that for requiring the student to complete all assignments.  Yet such effort by the instructor is beyond that of the majority, whose approach is to review requested problems in class within time available, then to refer students with remaining unsolved problems to obtain tutoring assistance at the Math Center or by appointment.

Two instructors give extra credit assignments that are projects requiring research and/or Math Center resources.  They say it gets the student involved and increases their interest in math.


Those instructors with classes that meet three times a week usually give an in-class quiz every Friday.  This promotes attendance on the worst attendance day as well as assesses the student’s comprehension of the week’s learning objectives.  The quiz also serves as the attendance record for that day.  The one instructor whose class meets twice a week gives a quiz every third session.

Another instructor gives take-home quizzes rather than in-class quizzes for a number of reasons.  Foremost, it doesn’t rob the class time needed for that day’s lesson.  It allows longer problem sets that now cover all lesson objectives, and it encourages the student to seek help on problems s/he doesn’t understand. The students are much more prone to seek help on a take home quiz than on daily homework.  Since the student is allowed to get help, s/he can now understand and do all the work and is encouraged by the early success

A third instructor gives a one-problem quiz at the beginning of every class period as a way of encouraging attendance and punctuality, automatically taking role, and assessing whether the students understand the previous lesson objective.  By distributing the quiz throughout the week, it also minimizes the time taken from any one lesson.

The majority gives four tests during the semester plus the final.  One instructor gives three.  Three instructors encourage the students to correct their test mistakes.  One requires it, while two others provide partial credit.  Their rationale is that if the student finally does understand how to solve the problems missed, s/he deserves partial credit. The students are encouraged to get help but must show the complete solution including problem setup, applicable formula, and all solution steps on a clean worksheet in their own handwriting.  The instructors report that this approach has been highly successful.  Not only for fully understanding lesson objectives but also for the students to seek help — many for the first time.  They also report that almost all students participate.

Regarding relative grading, the majority gives 100 points for each test, 200 points for the final examination and 100 to 150 points for quizzes.  No one reported giving credit for class participation, although one instructor gives 10% of each test grade for the student’s math notebook, which includes 5% for the homework.

Most instructors drop from one to three of the student’s quizzes with a mode of two.  Two instructors allow the student to drop one test.  If the students misses a quiz or test that is the one dropped. Otherwise the lowest score quiz or test is dropped from the average.  One instructor substitutes the final examination grade for the lowest score test, thus not allowing the test to be missed.  Most instructors do not allow quiz or test make up.  Several allow make up if pre-informed and the test or quiz is taken before the solutions are revealed to the students.  Most instructors correct the quizzes and tests while others hand out solution sheets. One instructor holds a test make up day near the end of the semester and provides alternate tests. 


A majority of the instructors holds one class early in the semester in the Math Center using MathPro or InterAct.  Some also include a demonstration of the videotape lectures and also point out the tutor desks.  They then encourage the students to return to use the Math Center resources.  Several give extra credit for doing so. For those students who have access to a personal computer, the instructors encourage the students to use the MathPro or InterAct home editions that are included with their texts, now that they have been demonstrated in the Math Center.

A number of the instructors encourage the students to form after-class cooperative work groups.  Several point out the groups of three to five students at the round tables in the Math Center.  The group appoints a leader and divides the homework assignment among the members.  Thus each member only has to do one-third to one-fifth of the assignment.  However, each member explains his/her problem solutions to the other members who then record the solutions for themselves.  If any member doesn’t understand the solution to an assigned problem, and the group cannot help, he goes to the tutor desk and returns to explain the solution to the group. 

One instructor says she doesn’t encourage study groups, as the weakest member then doesn’t do the work.   Others say that the group is the primary source of tutoring for the weakest member.  Several instructors ask their classes to list their free hours that are available for study.  They provide the lists to the students who wish to form study groups.  One instructor actually formed the groups but the arbitrary groups did not work well.  Only one survived.  She now allows the students to form their own groups.

–David Bahrs, Faculty, Mathematics, Montgomery College, MD

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