To whom and for what are students accountable in higher education? The language of “holding” students accountable connotes a kind of control faculty wield over students, carrying the threat of consequences if students do not answer to the demands placed on them. But what if we as faculty thought about “holding” in a different way—as holding space for students to take agency and as holding students as they took that agency? And what if we thought of “accountability” as the ability of students—the opportunity and the capacity—to articulate for themselves, and for others to witness and support, how they are taking responsibility in their learning?
My colleague, Margo Schall, thinks about accountability as “the ability to account, or tell about, what is true within your experience.” This rethinking responds to Mia Mingus’ invitation in “Dreaming Accountability”:
“What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge, or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation? What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power? (para 9)“
These conceptions of accountability informed the development of “Accountability Partners” in two different undergraduate education courses offered through the education program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges: an introductory course that I co-facilitate with Schall, and an elective course that I co-facilitate with a BIPOC undergraduate student. We developed this approach the semester that the pandemic sent us all into a new form of isolation and onto virtual platforms.
I offer Accountability Partners as a structure within which students can practice accountability as Schall and Mingus (2019) describe it and within which we as faculty can support and witness that practice.
What are Accountability Partners?
Accountability Partners are pairs of enrolled students who are asked to be present to and support one another’s engagement, learning, and growth over the full term during which they are enrolled in the course. There is no expectation that the pairs navigate or experience the course in the same way, agree on interpretations of course texts, complete assignments together or the same way, or otherwise align their approaches and experiences. Rather, the premise is that they will likely have different goals, approaches, and experiences, and what we ask them to do with and for one another is discern, discuss, and support the pursuit of those. The structure of having an Accountability Partner is simply that—a support structure that does not prescribe or monitor engagement and achievement (Cook-Sather, 2022) but rather ensures each enrolled student has a classmate attending to them, affirming their “values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation” (Mingus, 2019, para 9).
How to introduce Accountability Partners into a course
Prepare students by offering an explanation such as the one above. Then, pair students within the first week or two of the term and, either during class or as an out-of-class assignment, invite them to use the following guidelines:
Explore with your Accountability Partner (a) your own hopes, goals, and needs as a student in this course and (b) the Accountability Partner construct.
1.Introduce yourselves or reconnect (10 minutes)
Share why you are taking the course and what you hope to get out of it. Make sure each of you gets to speak, sharing both larger abstract goals and specific ones. While you are listening, take notes on what the speaker says and share those with the speaker.
2. Identify supports and challenges (10 minutes)
Talk about what kinds of supports and challenges have helped you to thrive in previous courses. What has supported a positive kind of accountability for you? Again, take notes and share those with one another.
3. Read (or reread) and reflect on Mingus’ “Dreaming Accountability” (10 minutes)
Write to yourself for a few minutes and then share thoughts with one another. In what ways does Mingus’ conception of accountability resonate with or contrast your existing notions of accountability?
4. Discuss the support structure of “Accountability Partner” (20 minutes)
Given the expressed purpose of Accountability Partners and what you have discussed and written so far, how would you want your Accountability Partnership to function? What would you want your Accountability Partner to do to support you?
5. Drawing your thoughts together (10 minutes)
Write for a few minutes to yourself about what you have clarified for yourself regarding your hopes and needs for support through the Accountability Partner.
When do Accountability Partners meet and what do they do?
In our courses, Accountability Partners meet once a week for between 5 and 15 minutes at the beginning or at the end of class. We have several purposes for dedicating class time in this way: to demonstrate that the structure is a valued part of course work, to provide consistency, and to support Accountability Partners in building meaningful relationships.
We often offer prompts for these weekly conversations keyed to some aspect of student work for the course, such as: “Share a line from a journal entry. What is a question you are working through?” Typically, Accountability Partners start with these prompts and then move to whatever is on their minds in relation to navigating the course.
Accountability Partners also meet with us for midterm conferences, which we hold in lieu of midterm exams or assignments. We open these conferences by inviting each Accountability Partner to say something about what they have gained either from their partner or from the Accountability Partner structure. This choice is partner of a larger reconceptualization of assessment (Lesnick et al., in preparation).
How do students experience this support structure?
Students embrace and use this structure to different extents, some merely and minimally to check in when asked, some to ensure that they keep focused and productive during the term, and some to develop nurturing relationships with a peer both within and beyond the course. Here are a few points students make about this structure and how they experience it:
- Accountability partners…were a unique opportunity to engage with a peer about readings, experiences, and goals. We often neglect to put accountability and relationships at the forefront of education, but this class highlighted its importance.
- …accountability partnerships center around relationship building which is necessary to feel comfortable in learning environments and also highlights the value of learning from others. In my partnership, I was able to learn not just about my partner’s thoughts on readings and self-directed learning, but also about how their classes were going and other casual conversations that were influential in the success of our partnership.
- …the focus on accountability in the classroom highlighted the value of community of trust. My accountability partner was supportive and encouraged my half-formed thoughts, not making me feel insecure about my reflections. The partnership was influential not just in one-on-one relationships, but also in cultivating a supportive atmosphere. I felt that I was able to share my ideas with other students, knowing that my voice would be appreciated. This learning environment not only made knowledge more accessible, but also highlighted the benefit mutual trust has in supporting students.
Students who have “the honor of supporting” their Accountability Partner and “witnessing” the accountability their partners take are also “changed for the better from its power” (Mingus, 2019, para 9), as are those of us who co-facilitate these courses. The students articulate the importance of relationship, co-creation of understandings, affirmation, and confidence building, demonstrating both the ability to account what is true within their experience and how that informs their engagement, learning , and growth. For all these reasons, my colleagues and I plan to continue to assign Accountability Partners. How might this structure support student engagement, learning, and growth in your courses?
Thanks to Alice Lesnick and Margo Schall for affirmations of and suggestions for this piece.
Alison Cook-Sather is Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr College and director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Cook-Sather has developed internationally recognized programs that position students and teachers as pedagogical partners, published over 100 articles and book chapters, and spoken or consulted on partnership work at over 80 institutions in 13 countries. Author or co-author of eight books, including Pedagogical Partnerships: A How-To Guide for Faculty, Students, and Academic Developers in Higher Education (2019), Promoting Equity and Justice through Pedagogical Partnership (2021), and Co-Creating Equitable Teaching and Learning: Structuring Student Voice into Higher Education (2022), she is founding editor of Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education and founding co-editor of International Journal for Students as Partners. Learn more about Alison’s work at https://www.alisoncooksather.com/
Cook-Sather, Alison. Co-creating Equitable Teaching and Learning: Structuring Student Voice into Higher Education. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2022. https://www.hepg.org/hep-home/books/co-creating-equitable-teaching-and-learning
Lesnick, Alice, Sabea Evans, Margo Schall, Chanelle WIlsoin, and Alison Cook-Sather. “Midcourse Conferences as Co-Creation of Equitable and Inclusive Assessment.” In preparation, 2023.
Mingus, Mia. “Dreaming Accountability.” Leaving Evidence. 2019, May 5. https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2019/05/05/dreaming-accountability-dreaming-a-returning-to-ourselves-and-each-other/
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