I am an assistant professor at an undergraduate college in India. I teach a rigorous compulsory course in microeconomics, requiring some intermediate-advanced math knowledge. There is no add/drop option at my University/college, nor is there an option to take a course in a later semester. I don't decide the syllabus or the final exam--it is set centrally. We are a publicly funded University and have a diverse set of students.

General math preparation in my country is low, due to poor schooling standards and sometimes, students are not clear about basic concepts: for example, in a third semester intermediate microeconomics course, some of them don't know how to write the (linear) equation of a budget frontier (something taught to them in the first semester). Unless they understand such things, it is impossible for them to grasp the rest of the material, since all topics are related. Is it my responsibility to explain concepts taught in introductory-level courses? I welcome all questions and have a generally amicable attitude, so students don't feel intimidated in getting a clarification.

However, I do get frustrated sometimes when having to answer something very basic, that too repeatedly. I get glowing feedback for most of my courses, but despite being appreciated for my effort and the clarity of explanation, a group of students (around 20% of the class) repeatedly under-performs, which upsets me a lot. How much should I hold students responsible for their learning?

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    Hard to say. I was teaching probabilities on a high ranked northern European university, and the students protested when I was not explaining basic concepts like "n choose k". The board told me I should not assume a lot of previous knowledge, even if there are courses that they are taught these concepts. In other words, I should minimize exposure to previously taught material, even if in my opinion are "trivial". If needed, these concept should be re-introduced (especially because there is no uniform level among the students)
    – PsySp
    Mar 5, 2017 at 13:47
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    This varies enormously by institution. Even at my university the philosophy and institutional demands vary between different colleges, departments, etc. The problem of math skills is so prevalent that in many places in the U.S. the trend is to provide co-requisite support courses in each separate department that review needed math skills for a given course on a just-in-time basis. Mar 5, 2017 at 15:55
  • Giving bad grades is unpleasant, but you must also balance the welfare of the entire class. Time spent on remedial education for the 20% is time away from other topics that might be useful or preparatory for everyone else. If the remedial topic is really as fundamental as you say then reiterating it might not be a bad thing, but it also means that they really should have mastered it by then.
    – David
    Mar 6, 2017 at 7:30

3 Answers 3


I do not think you can solve this problem alone. As such I would suggest collaborating with the teachers who teach the prerequisites to your courses. Knowing what is happening in colleagues classes can help you to know what the students needs our in addition to the governmental requirements. By working together you can determine how much review and overlap should be a part of each course as students move from one course to the next. This kind of joint cooperation is common at the k12 level where there is often a similarly centralized control curriculum that ignores the unique characteristics of students.

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    The problem with collaborating with the prereq instructors is that they sometimes have different standards that are thrust upon them by deans and other administrative folks. At my institution, for instance, the math faculty abide by a "student success" initiative for the Calc 1-3 and DiffEQ courses, which loosely translates to students who should be getting D and F grades end up getting C grades. No amount of collaboration with the math instructors is going to change that because the dean of their college thinks the initiative is so f-ing great.
    – Mad Jack
    Mar 5, 2017 at 15:30
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    See this answer to the following Math Educators question for more information: Should we “program” calculus students, like the physicists seem to want us to?
    – Mad Jack
    Mar 5, 2017 at 15:33

Well first underperform could mean different things to different people. Typically grading schemes and the difficulty of the class are set up to have a standard curve with about 20% of the students performing slightly above the fail cut off. That way you can distinguish between the "good", the "average", the "weak" and the students who should find something else to do. I'm not a big fan of that educational philosophy but that is pretty standard. Attempting to get everyone to a high level of competence would be ambitious and I wouldn't beat myself up trying to hit that standard.

As far as your role, I'm assuming the school has some way of checking that the students are ready to enter the class, otherwise any decent university should have other resources to take the pressure off of you. There should be tutors, set office hours, and a way to set up study groups. Beyond human resources there should be books, recorded lectures and access to self paced lessons on the internet either through something like Khan Academy or some internal software. If the student is taking advantage of all of those resources and still failing there's probably something wrong with the system, assuming the student isn't handicapped in some way, and being that you asked for a measuring stick this here is when I would expect the teacher to pick up the slack. That could mean creating a better resource or providing extra time. If you are frequently getting asked similar questions it might be easier to start recording your responses, or have a specific resource to point to. Eventually you could start referring to previously answered questions. If you're concerned with them wasting their time and money it is probably easier to start the class by giving them a list of concepts that you expect the students to know and when you expect them to know them by with resources explaining them. That way they can do a self check to see if they're ready, or if they can get ready by the time those skills are needed.

On repetition in general though, people don't retain everything they hear and they don't remember everything they once retained so you should expect to repeat information pretty frequently. I'm sure you're aware of that but repetition is how you strengthen the neural connection that form the memory and creates the mastery over the information. It is a valuable tool especially for people who are struggling. The only reason teachers typically don't repeat is because of time constraints, but ideally given enough time you would schedule repetitive drills into the lesson plans until the students start dreaming about your lectures.


I would suggest that you offer your assistance to the student body, and give them a little push, perhaps, as well, to organize peer tutoring. There are many ways this can be set up. There might be an existing student organization that would get excited about this, but there might not be -- that's okay.

You don't have to start big; it's okay to start small.

You could create an incentive for participation by giving some points toward the final grade for a block of 10 hours logged in peer tutoring.

You can create a print tutorial outline with worked problems which the peer tutors could use as a framework.

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