Increase student engagement and accountability

High engagement and accoutability are important for student attainment and student behaviour. So what can teachers do to increase student engagement and accountability?

I use high participation group alerting techniques such as mini whiteboards or think-write-share to improve engagement and accountability. Alongside this, I use high accountability questioning techniques that keep ‘students on their toes’. For example, by informing students, I will be randomly picking a reciter before asking the question to increase group focus. Keep on reading for more details.

Why do teachers check for understanding?

Generally, teachers will introduce a new concept explicitly to the whole class, then have some guided practise on applying the concept. For example, the teacher introduces the concept of perimeter of a rectangle to the class. Then the teacher shows step by step how to calculate the perimeter. On a seconded worked example, the teacher may check the classes understanding to see if they are ready to work independently on some questions.

There are many ways a teacher can check for understanding. Some increase the engagement and accountability of students more than others. When choosing, here are some questions to think about.

  1. Will the method used inform me how many students understand?
  2. How many of the students will be kept accountable?
  3. Will my choice affect the engagement and behaviour of students?

How do teachers check for understanding?

There are many different methods. These are formative methods of assessing if students understand.

  • Ask for students to raise their hands to answer a question.
  • The teacher will call upon a student randomly.
  • The teacher will predictably move around the classroom to ask students questions.
  • Students are asked to write the answer in a book. Then, the teacher will walk around the room to look.
  • Mini whiteboards to display answers to the teacher.
  • Think-pair-share.
  • Simple fist to five or thumbs up.
  • Online quiz.
  • The list goes on.

So what are the best ways to check for understanding?

Jacob S. Kounin is well known for coining the term withitness. He also researched accountability and ‘group alerting’ in his book ‘Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms.

Group altering is the degree to which the teacher attempts to involve the non-reciting students during teachers checking for understanding. To clarify, the reciter is the student the teacher asks to answer a particular question, and the non-reciters are the other students who have not been asked to do anything. The higher the level of group alerting, the higher the accountability and engagement.

Kounin found techniques that asked the whole class to respond, such as using whole class whiteboards to respond to the teacher. Or where all students were asked to write the answer in their book while one student was randomly chosen to share. Had a higher correlation with increased accountability and engagement.

These methods give lots of ticks to the three questions above. 1) How many students know the answer or understand the concept? This method easily identifies this, tick. 2) How many of the students will be kept accountable? All students are accountable, tick. 3) Will my choice affect the engagement and behaviour of students? Engagement is high, and students will be on task, tick. There are many similarities between withitness and accountability, see below for details. Thus improving student accountability will improve student behaviour.

Accountability may be seen as equivalent to withitness except that withitness refers to communicated knowledgeability about behaviour and misbehaviour, while accountability refers to communicated knowledgeability about children task performances during specific recitation sessions.


Ways I use group alerting in my classroom.

Having whiteboards for each student in a high school setting can be expensive and tricky to move from classroom to classroom. I have found a solution! I use white sheets of paper inside plastic display sleeves, see the below image. This makes them super cheap and easy to carry around. For the board rubber, I cut up a cheap kitchen cloth and leave a piece inside the plastic cover of each whiteboard.

Homemade whiteboard with rubber inside.

What this method of checking for understanding looks like.

I give out the mini whiteboard and pen, and inform the students of the rules of use. “If you don’t use it correctly you will lose the opportunity to use it”. This is normally enough. I introduce my cues. “When you have your answer write it on your sheet and hold it chest high. When most of you have finished I will say, ‘go’ for you to show your answer”.

Whiteboard how to use.

Using this method, I can easily see if the class understand and are ready to work independently. If more than 20% of the students got the answer incorrect during the display of answers, I know I need to keep going with the whole class instruction with further scaffolding. Additionally, I can see who will need extra support or small group work intervention after I set independent work.

Other ways I increase accountability in my classroom.

Kounin’s research talks about ‘keeping students on their toes’ by randomly selecting students. This uncertainty alters students’ awareness and engagement. Thinking, “I better listen and pay attention because she might pick me”. There is a downside to choosing at random. It decreases safety within the classroom. Some students, even after listening and trying, will not get the correct answer. But if asked publically to display their inadequacies, then they can become disengaged or even misbehave.

How I use high accountability- but keep things safe.

Mixing up the variety of how I check for understanding is important. Too much of one thing can become dull. To increase accountability but keep the activity safe, I encourage students to clarify their answers with a partner before I call on a student at random. This think-pair-share is a great skill to inject into a lesson.

Additionally, I use think-write-share to increase accountability and to ensure safety is high. When I introduce this activity, I will inform students that I will randomly choose a student during the sharing part, “So ensure you are thinking of an answer, I could pick you”. The pair part increases the safety; if I’m going down with the wrong answer, I’m not going down alone.

After increasing accountability, I need to check for whole group understanding. My personal go-to is the fist to five; see the below image. There has to be some trust here; it helps if you really know your class and have been working with them for a whilst. This way, you will know the students who put up a five when they really don’t understand. Or the student who does understand but wants you to continue doing all the work on the board. Again if 80% of students understand, then I will assign some mastery repetition questions for students.

Image: Theriot L, September 2015, ‘ Fist to five Poster, Pintrest, viewed 18 April 2015, <;

With so many options to choose from, my advice is to try them all. Find the ones that work for you and your classroom. If you have any success stories, please do share them below.

Increasing engagement and accountability will improve your classroom management. To find out more on courses to improve your classroom management. Click here.

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Kounin, J. S. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

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