| | |

Do This, Not That: Accountability & Assessment

The first question I am often asked related to Math Workshop is How do I hold the students accountable? I’m going to be brutally honest: holding your students accountable for the work they do in their workstations can make or break the success of a guided math approach. This post about accountability and assessment is the third in a series of three. If you have not read the other two, I suggest you take a few minutes to do that now. Check out the first post about structuring Math Workshop here and the second post about aligning your tasks to the standards here.

This post contains affiliate links, which simply means that when you use my link and purchase a product, I receive a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, and I only link to books and products that I personally recommend.


Set, teach, and reinforce your expectations

Accountability starts with the students having a clear understanding of what you expect of them. As you plan for implementation, you need to carefully think through your routines and procedures. During the first few weeks of the school year, you will teach your routines and procedures, so you need to plan for what you are teaching. The more you plan, the better your classroom will function. In his book What Great Teachers Do DifferentlyTodd Whitaker says that everything that takes place in your classroom is either plandom or random. In other words, if you don’t plan for it, your kiddos will randomly decide what to do in any given situation. Even the subtle difference of using the term math workstations rather than centers sends the message that this is their work. Yes, we want them to enjoy the tasks and games, but at the end of the day, this is their math work. A great activity to do during the first few weeks is to create an anchor chart like the one below that will serve as a visual remind of what Math Workshop should look and sound like and what the student’s and teacher’s jobs are.

Build It Into Your Room Arrangement

When you decide where to put your small group table, remember that if the students know you can see them, that is your first line of accountability. Many teachers like to do their small group instruction on the floor, but that makes it really difficult to see what’s going on in the rest of the room, and the kids know it. My favorite arrangement for small group instruction is a horseshoe-shaped table in a corner where I am facing out into the room. As I’m teaching my small group lesson, I just need to glance up and around the room every few minutes, and the students know that I’m keeping an eye on them.

Utilize Math Journals

A math journal in my room is nothing fancy. It’s a composition notebook or a 25 cent spiral notebook. I’ll probably put a cute label on the front or let the kiddos decorate it. Because I don’t like to worry about which workstations students will need their journals, it is the routine that students just carry their journal to every workstation. That way, they’ll have it if they need it. The next step is to build accountability into each task. For example, the picture below shows how students might be held accountable for playing a game of Multiplication War. Each player takes two playing cards and multiplies the factors. The largest product wins the cards. To add a little accountability, the players would just write the results of each hand in their journals, as shown.

The students, however, need to know that you’re going to look at their work. I, for one, don’t want to haul 22 journals home every night or weekend. Here’s an alternative. Each day, at the end of workshop, have students return to their desks and place their journals out and open to the work they did. You might spend 5 minutes having students take turns sitting in the “Mathematician’s Chair”, sharing something they learned during workshop. During that 5 minutes, you can spin around the room glancing briefly at each journal. You are NOT looking at every line item. You are checking for quantity and quality. First, did students get enough accomplished? If not, you can have a private conversation immediately and explain that you expect them to get more done. Next, you are looking for glaring errors. In the Multiplication War example, if I saw a student who reversed his greater than/less than symbol for every single problem, I would pull that student first thing the next day to correct his misconception.

Go High Tech

If you are fortunate enough to have technology in your classroom, you really want to check out Seesaw. It is absolutely free and can be used by students to create a digital portfolio. Take a minute to watch this intro video.


Do you see that when you build accountability into your workstations, you are also gathering the data you need for assessment? When it comes to accountability and assessment, they go hand in hand. Think about how to frame your accountability to give you information on the skill students are practicing in the workstation. Take, for example, the place value game Build the Biggest. Having the students glue their recording sheet in their math journal would show that they played the game, but would it really show that they know how to use place value to compare numbers? No, not really. So in addition to gluing the recording sheet into their journal, consider having them explain, in writing, how to use place value to compare the numbers 398 and 412. See how that gives you more insight into the actual skill?

What questions do you still have about accountability and assessment? Please add them in the comments.

Similar Posts


  1. Hi Donna,

    Have you had, or seen success, with math journals for first graders? I’m looking for more individual accountability from my students this year and am interested in this method. Thanks!

    1. I have used similar accountability ideas to those listed for first graders in the past. The only thing I might add is…be very explicit with what you expect. Create a sample journal entry and display it or make a list of math words (vocab) students might use in their journals. Students knew to leave their journal entries open on their desks for me to “smiley” (draw a marker smiley face) and be prepared to talk to me about their work if asked.

  2. Can you elaborate more on how you use Seesaw during math workshop? I’m a huge Seesaw fan, familiar with the tool, but wondering how it works with math workshop specifically. Thanks!

    1. Absolutely! First, students can take pictures of the work they have done. Think, Use base-10 blocks to show the number 134 three different ways. Students then take a picture of the different ways they built the number. Next, students could use the record option to either create an audio or video recording explaining, for example, a strategy they used to add or subtract two 3-digit numbers or the strategy they used to play a game. Finally, you can assign Seesaw activities, from the activity library, as a workstation task.

  3. Hello!
    I bought your book this summer “Guided Math Workshop” and am so excited to use this approach. I am having trouble finding and accessing the digital resources listed in Appendix D. Can you help? many thanks!

    1. I don’t have my copy of the book here at home with me, but look toward the front of the book in the Introduction for a section titled How to Use This Book. In that section, you will find a reference to the online resources and the code you need to use to access them.

  4. hello!
    I am looking for the student self-assessment form in your book – do you have a favorite way of letting students self-evaluate their work in each work shop?

  5. Hi Donna!

    I am a current Elementary Ed major in Oklahoma and we just learned about digital portfolios, so the idea of a math journal really speaks to me! Do you have any advice for a first year teacher when it comes to math or the math journal?

    1. I keep it very simple! A blank composition notebook or spiral-bound notebook. For your littles, I’m sure there are notebooks with space for pictures and writing on each page. Also, be sure to check out Seesaw which is a free app for creating digital portfolios.

  6. I love the concept of math journals and see them used often at my school. I am curious do you have any advice how to get students to keep up with their math journal and actually put the information they are given into the math journal for future use. I work with sped. kiddos and this is issue we struggle with daily.

    1. You definitely need to set your expectations and be very direct, especially at first. I thought “turn to the next blank page” was a pretty straightforward direction, but I learned better! Students would just turn a whole fistful of pages! Go very slowly and carefully monitor what students are doing. Find a simple way to review the journals at regular intervals. One way is to just have the students leave their journals out and open to the page they were working on so you can quickly glance at their work and organization. Many teachers put a sticker or checkmark on pages they’ve looked at.

      1. I would have students put a super sticky post-it on the last page they wrote on so it was easier to find the next blank page they needed to use. I have also seen some teachers hot-glue or tape book mark ribbons or elastic bands to mark the place.

  7. I am looking for a GUIDE sample board to implement showing the rotations. Do you have one you could point me to?

    1. Theresa, there are lots of different ways you can do your management board. Some teachers use a pocket chart with the letters G, U, I, D, and E and students’ names on cards beside each letter. Other teachers use their interactive whiteboard and just move the student names under the letters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *