20 Ways To Improve Student Follow-Through And Accountability

How Can You Help Students Turn In Work? Finish A Project? Meet A Deadline?

by Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

There are two types of people: those that follow through and those that don’t. I’m not a lifetime member of team follow-through…yet (bonus points for channeling Dweck’s growth mindset here).

For instance, I consider following through with my doctor’s iron vitamin recommendation. But, won’t follow through with my son’s before bed plea for bottomless cups of juice.

Following through is tough. It’s difficult because:

  • 50% of us live in the Unwillingness Trifecta: Unmotivated. Forgetful. Commitment Phobia.
  • 20% of us use majority of our time on YouTube cat clips
  • 15% of us serve as master blame ninjas asking, ‘Why didn’t you remind me?’
  • 10% of us avoid saying (and spelling) ‘accountability’ as much as humanly possible
  • 5% of us stockpile excuses for our future non-follow-through binges

And even worse, student follow-through is an epic challenge for teachers. It starts with frustration when students don’t respond- or half-heartedly respond to feedback. Then moves to the shame that such few students fail to follow through. And, lastly, it’s the blame: we blame ourselves when students won’t commit to revising or reworking their assignments.

I know what you are thinking: But…it’s the students’ responsibility. But…what about holding the student accountable? Yes, that’s true, but there’s nothing wrong with improving the odds for your students to follow through.

So, how can teachers improve the odds? Easy. We’ll simply expand our teensy-weensy follow-through repertoires. We’ll add strategies that have been successful before and strategies that are supported with research.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of 13 quick strategies to equip students with a little follow-through swag.

13 Ways To Help Students Do What They Say They’re Going To Do

1. Make it the default ‘expectation’

Adopt the (firm but empathetic and human) stance that follow-through tactics such as revision/edits are expected unless the student puts into writing why the assignment deserves to stand as-is.

2. Specify time

Ask students to identify a particular time/day they will dedicate to follow-through efforts. In one study about health-related behaviors, almost 30% of individuals followed through with a vaccine when encouraged to select a specific time to do so (compared to 3% that followed up after only talking about the effects of the vaccine).

In addition, determine how much time is really available for follow-through efforts. For example, have students map out their daily schedule. This schedule must account for breaks and mishaps in time management. In addition, the schedule should include how long it will take to complete the follow-through task.

3. Mix closed and open-ended questions

Ask students open-end questions about their follow-through plan. For instance questions about how they will follow through, who will help them, and when (see item #2). In a study to increase voting efforts, individuals were more likely to follow-through with casting a vote after answering open-end questions about their plan vs. isolated yes/no questions.

4. Create a ‘commitment device’

Yes, struggling to follow through is common, but one hack (thanks to James Clear for sharing this) is to decrease obstacles that get in the way of accomplishing your goal.

For instance, when committing to a deadline for completing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the author locked his clothes in the closet (decreased likelihood to stop writing and leave home). For the classroom, the trick is to decrease obstacles that get in the way of student follow through. Talk to the student to identify the biggest obstacle and develop ways to decrease the pressure of the obstacle.  Research identifies common obstacles for student follow through as:

  1. a) lack of clarity of expectations
  2. b) over-reliance on instructor
  3. c) upset that how to improve was unclear
  4. d) belief that the ability to improve was limited

5. Eliminate all-or-nothing thinking

Thinking in extremes (such as attempting to revise every mistake or believing you’d never be able to follow through) overwhelms the student.

Reassure students that it is possible to follow through even with only small steps- small behavior changes. For instance, in revising a paper, the student may begin the process by starting with grammar concerns and then later take steps to address the remainder of the revision needs (organization, thematic issues, etc.). Research shows that a series of small behaviors influence people to follow through and maintain behavior changes in the future.

6. Develop a checklist

Dr. Atul Gamande compiled fascinating research on the power of checklists to facilitate behavior.

He explains how a 1 to 5-minute checklist prevents individuals from dropping the ball and makes follow-through easier. In the classroom, the checklist can include common reasons students have not followed through with the particular assignment in the past. The checklist may involve a timeline of check-in points to ensure the student remains on track. The checklist may also include a list of questions that the student needs to be answered in order to properly follow-through with the assignment.

See How Checklists Can Improve Learning

7. Say no

Encourage students to consider, ‘What can I say no to, so I can say yes to following through?’ Further, ask students to make a quick list of the things that stand in the way of their follow-through efforts.

8. Acknowledge task difficulty

Allow students to vent and express how following through is a challenge.

Help the student explore the tough elements required in following through. Ask the student if they are able to commit to following through even if they do not earn the grade they want or if the process takes longer than anticipated. Research indicates that when individuals acknowledge task difficulty and the personal sacrifice required to face the task, commitment is significantly more likely.

9. Scaling

Ask students about their motivation to follow through. Allow students to use a scale to describe their intention towards actually following through. For example, ask, “On a scale of 1-10 how important is following-through to you?” Next, try to match their level of commitment.

For instance, if their scaled number is low, you and the student may agree to be laxer in terms of the follow-through expectations. If the student’s number is high, the expectation may be more rigorous in nature. Relationship research reveals that if people share an equal investment in a task, their commitments to one another are more likely to last.

10. Identify specific challenges

Are students to blame when they don’t follow through?

New research shows that the structure of the brain influences unresponsiveness. Specifically, data shows that in some cases, the brain has to work harder in order to turn decisions into actions. With this in mind, if a student shows a lack of interest in follow-through behaviors, we must consider biology (not their attitude towards following through) as the culprit.

Instead of assuming the student is indifferent or unmotivated, begin a dialogue with the student about how to make follow-through efforts feel less draining.

11. Identify their ‘magic time’

Writer Craig Ballantyne discusses how we each have a time during the day that we are most productive–the magic time. Help students identify this time and encourage them to align their follow-through efforts with this time.

12. Address burnout

Are your students burned out? Signs of student burnout include late work, incomplete work, irritability, etc. 

Talk to students that appear disengaged because this would decrease the likelihood of quality follow-through. Researchers link feelings of teacher burnout with avoiding decisions (procrastinating with their follow through efforts) and making irrational decisions (deciding not to follow through even though this will negatively impact their grade).

See Tips To Reduce Teacher Burnout

13. Model commitment

The best way to encourage students to follow through is when you demonstrate and model the behavior daily. In one study where a school committed to maintaining clean classrooms, student actions toward this goal increased as their instructor’s commitment became more visible (as the instructor modeled picking up trash during class and praised students for picking up trash).

14. Help them see the value of follow-through

15. Metacognitive and ‘behavioral’ journaling

16. Use a calendar and/or digital reminders

17. Gamify it

18. Model it as a teacher

19. Use ‘follow-through buddies’

20. Use positive pre-supposition statement stems


  • Association for Psychological Science. (2011, May 18). Want lasting love? It’s not more commitment, but equal commitment that matters. ScienceDaily.
  • Fredenall, L.D., Robbins, T., & Moore, D. (2001). The influence of instructor leadership on student commitment and performance. Education Research Quarterly, 55.
  • Robinson, S., Pope, D., & Holyoak, L., (2013). Can we meet their expectations? Experiences and perceptions of feedback in first year undergraduate students.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(3), 260-272.
  • Rogers, T., Milkman, K. L., John, L. K., & Norton, M. I. (2015). Beyond good intentions: Prompting people to make plans that improves follow through on important tasks. Behavior Science & Policy, 1(2), 33-41.
  • University of California – Los Angeles. (2012, February 1). Here is what real commitment to your marriage means. ScienceDaily.
  • University of Chicago Press Journals. (2012, September 11). Want to encourage eco-friendly behavior? Give consumers a nudge (Don’t tell them what to do). ScienceDaily.
  • University of Oxford. (2015, November 13). Brain structure may be root of apathy: Can’t be bothered to read on? It might be due looser connections in your brain. ScienceDaily.

13 Ways To Help Students Do What They Say They’re Going To Do