The Trouble With Accountability

How external motivation can undermine performance

Posted Jul 29, 2014

These days, college administrators like to talk about “accountability” and “assessment.” Imposing a business model on higher education, they require professors to analyze samples of student work at the end of a course, convinced that this “assessment of student learning” will measure that course’s success. But outcomes assessment is a pseudo-science, without a pretest to measure what students knew before going into a course or a control group to rule out any placebo effects. Nevertheless, each year college faculty spend countless hours pouring over samples of student work to produce assessment data, which takes valuable time away from actual teaching—course design, lesson plans, class preparation, grading, and conferences with students.

The waste of time would be bad enough, but administrators routinely judge the merits of academic programs with assessment data instead of focusing on academic quality. Admittedly, quality is harder to measure. Yet most college professors are dedicated professionals with strong internal motivation: we believe in education, have earned doctoral degrees in our disciplines, and conduct research to stay current in our fields. We can tell when our students have mastered the material because we grade their assignments, conduct class discussions, ask questions in class, and watch their reactions, responding with appropriate explanations. Yet we are increasingly micromanaged and saddled with meaningless assessment exercises.

As administrators rely on micromanagement and assessment to improve higher education, they may actually be undermining it. Recent research (Wrzesniewski, Schwartz, Cong, Kane, Omar, & Kolditz, 2014) has shown that when people with strong internal motivation are reinforced for strong instrumental (external) motivation, their performance suffers. So when faculty members are pressured to focus on assessment or “teach to the test,” their concern with externals can actually sabotage their performance. As the researchers conclude, “an overreliance on accountability can create the very behavior (such as poor teaching) that it is designed to prevent” (Wrzesniewski  & Schwartz, 2014).

How about you? Does your manager routinely micromanage you at work or give out pizza and prizes, substituting instrumental incentives for internal motivation? If so, these practices are counterproductive, actively undermining performance.

What really motivates you to excel?


Wrzesniewski, A. & Schwartz, B. (2014, July 6). The secret of effective motivation. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Wrzesniewski, A., Schwartz, B., Cong, X., Kane, M., Omar, A., & Kolditz, T. (2014). Multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets. PNAS. Advance online publication. doi/10.1073/pnas.1405298111


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.


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