Cultivating Student Learning Accountability

Too often teachers confuse compliance with accountability. Simply following directions and formulaically obeying the plan of the lesson is not accountability. In fact, punishing students with zeros, sending the student to the dean and other such tactics when they fall short of following the procedure of learning only results in reduced motivation and performance.

Accountability is not about following rules and procedures rather it is staying committed to learning and growing. It is being responsible for developing one’s own self-efficacy and taking the initiative to follow through with the application of learned content and skills.

This takes a lot of effort to cultivate or even manage but teachers can not throw in the towel and resort to the detrimental practices of point deduction or other passive aggressive moves such as using a passing grade to create accountability.

None of that works.

To cultivate accountability, to help students feel accountable and connected to their learning, teachers should try and do the following:

1. Set clear expectations: Teachers need to be clear about what we expect from students. We must articulate the proficiency aspects of what exactly we are looking for from our students. We must involve the student in conversations and feedback about what we expect from them and how they will know whether they are successful or not. Proficiency-based learning targets help outline to students what we expect from them, how they are going to achieve it, and the criteria to self-assess whether they are hitting our expectations.

2. Deploy formative assessments:  Students use formative assessments to practice skills, and more importantly, become fully aware whether they actually possess those skills. Formative assessment helps students see the skills and supporting content they will need to use to be proficient in a particular expectation. It also helps them decide how to acquire the skills or knowledge that may be lacking and more importantly it helps students begin to trust their own reflective thinking. Ultimately formative assessment builds learning accountability by allowing students to gain a perspective about their own learning that is authentic, digestible and applicable.

3. Use Common Assessments: By combining common assessments with formative assessments we allow students to fail cheaply, in other words, failure of any kind is not a surprise and is even avoided. If a teacher and team of teachers are using commonly developed formative assessments they can give a student an extended stretch of time to engage in reflective dialogue or independent thinking about their learning as well as give them time for the application and reapplication of feedback. All of this allows for more accurate measurement of student performance. The more accurate something is the more we trust it.

4. Co-construct feedback: The most direct way to hold a student accountable is through the feedback we provide them. We must make sure that the feedback is open, honest, ongoing, and leads to action. Students need to know where they stand at all times to be held accountable. Even the slightest distortion in perspective by a student, overconfident or unsure where they stand, can lead to a distrust of the learning process. If a student thinks they are doing well and feedback speaks otherwise, students will be quick to rationalize away feedback to protect their self-perspective. If feedback isn’t clear and accurate students will always side with what they believe to be true about their learning, even if it is based on a general gut feeling.

Furthermore, students must be involved in feedback. By allowing students to first self-evaluate and then cross check it with the teacher, we better involve them in their own learning and ensure that feedback is more accurate.

5. Use Evidence only to grade performance: Students need to be aware of what success criteria they had or were lacking during a performance. If a student received a low mark on their performance they should know exactly what supporting skill or content led to that low proficiency score. Conversely, if they did extremely well on a performance they must know what supporting skill or content got them there. If we simply leverage the evidence a student provided us during the performance to create the grade, we invite a more formative dialogue. This leads the student to a clear indication of what they’re lacking but also why developing that supporting skill or content is important. The student will see that the particular supporting piece is essential to the mastering expectation (target) thus making the learning and application of it more valuable. Now the student is more accountable to learning and applying it.

These five practices are the building blocks to creating a culture of learning accountability in your classroom. All five of these take time to implement but are essential to holding students accountable for learning. If all five are being implemented with fidelity, accountability will be the norm. My question to you is “If you are struggling with student accountability, which of these practices are you leaving out?”

About the Author

Anthony Reibel is a creative, vibrant and caring school leader who hails from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois where he is the current Director of assessment, research, and evaluation. He is the loving husband and an exhausted father of two youthfully active boys. He enjoys art, music, golf and hiking among other hobbies and prefers a good cup of coffee and chunk of dark chocolate to pass the time. After managing several businesses out of college he became a Spanish teacher at Stevenson where he served as a curricular team leader, core team leader, coach, and club sponsor. In 2010 Anthony received recognition from the state of Illinois and in 2011 was named Illinois Computer Educators named him Technology Educator of the Year. Anthony is also co-author of the book Proficiency-Based Assessment which explores the key relationship assessment has with teaching and learning, and explores evidence-based strategies for successful implementation. He is also publisher and chief editor of The Assessor (, a publication that publishes short articles written by teachers and administrators to support the conversation around formative assessment.