What is the purpose of checking for understanding?

Imagine a sea of blank faces staring at their papers on test day. This is one of the most discouraging sights for any teacher. If you’ve been in the classroom for a while, then you’ve surely taught a lesson that you thought everyone understood, only to find out later on that no one got it at all. These end up being “trashcan tests” since that’s where the papers usually land in the end.

Thankfully, there are classroom strategies that can avoid wasting time while also saving the trees. One of these is checking for understanding.

What does checking for understanding look like?

Think of checking for understanding as an added step in the teaching process. Essentially, it involves checking to see if students are retaining the information while you are still teaching it, not after. It often takes the form of a short formative assessment, but it doesn’t need pencil-and-paper checks.

Checking for understanding doesn’t take a lot of time. Something as simple as having students use their fingers to show how well they understood the lesson can be a check. See the section on how to check for understanding for more practical examples.

Why should you check for understanding? 

Checking for understanding is important because it helps educators make the most of instructional time. It’s a daily basis activity, not one reserved for observation days. If we want students to retain the subject matter, we need to incorporate these checks into every lesson. That may sound tedious, but it doesn’t have to be.

The truth is that most of us try to check for understanding even if we don’t realize it. Unfortunately, these efforts usually fall short. To further understand this, let’s take a look at what checking for understanding isn’t through a common scenario — one that every teacher I know has experienced.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

Mrs. Sherrill is an excellent math teacher. This past weekend, she spent a lot of time preparing a review lesson on adding and subtracting integers, excited about how it combined difficult subject matter with hands-on learning. She had introduced the concept earlier in the week but wanted to focus on it a little more before the students’ quiz on Friday.

The lesson was a hit! The students loved ditching the worksheets and using math manipulatives to work with negative numbers. Walking around the room, Mrs. Sherrill listened to the students speak about the process and move their blocks around to demonstrate to their group members what to do next. They seemed to get it! She was proud of her students (and herself).

She allowed the students to work independently for a while, and at the end of the class period, she asked, “Does anyone have any questions?” No hands went up. “Great,” she thought, “We can move on from this.”

The next morning, her students took the quiz. The result? About 35% of the class bombed the assessment. Shocking results for Mrs. Sherrill! What happened overnight? How did they “lose” all the knowledge they’d gained in the last 24 hours?

The truth is that a third of the class never fully understood the concept. Checking for understanding could have alerted Mrs. Sherrill of this fact.

Photo: Google Edu

5 ways to check for understanding

Hindsight is 20/20, and Mrs. Sherrill quickly realized what she could have done differently. Although it seemed like the students were “getting it,” it is likely that the students who were doing most of the talking were the ones who passed the quiz.

The quieter students at the table let others take the lead so they wouldn’t have to admit that they don’t understand how to add and subtract integers. They were too embarrassed to raise their hands and ask for extra help.

Mrs. Sherrill’s solution? She didn’t throw the tests away, but she did work with the struggling students in small groups and allowed them to retake the test. She also made a list of check-for-understanding strategies to use in future lessons.

Here are five simple ways that you can check for understanding in your own classroom.

1. Signals

This is the easiest and most effective way to check for understanding during the middle of a lesson. Body language alone can often tell you how a child feels if you look closely enough. If you need more detailed proof, try this:

  • Make a chart where students can move clothespins or write their names to show how well they understand a topic.
  • Use a four-finger rating system. Students hold up one finger to show that they don’t understand, two for “I’m a little confused,” three for “I understand,” and four for “I’m able to teach others.”
  • Show color cards (red, yellow, green) to represent understanding as well.

2. Write it out

A straightforward way to check for students’ understanding at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson is to ask them a question. Then, have each student use a dry erase marker to write their answer on a small whiteboard. With a flash of the board or glance at a desk, you’ll quickly be able to assess who understands and who doesn’t. This works really well for math or other subjects where the answer is very short.

If you want to dig a little deeper, have students write a one-minute paper. To check for understanding this way, teachers write a brief question on the board and have students answer it as completely as they can in just one minute. You might also ask students to write for a minute about one of the following:

  • Unanswered questions
  • The most important thing learned
  • What questions might be on the test
  • Most surprising things learned
Students and teacher
Photo: Google Edu

3. Talk it out

If you teach reading, social studies or some other subject that requires comprehension, having students explain what they have learned might work better than writing out a quick answer. There are several different forms of this, such as: 

With 3-2-1 discussions, students talk to a partner (or teacher) about three things they didn’t know before, two things that surprised them about this topic, and one thing they want to start doing with what they’ve learned.

If using talk-it-out strategies as a form of checking for understanding, you must be an active listener and jot down any misconceptions that you notice. Then clear these up in one-on-one sessions or with a follow-up lesson.

4. Use exit tickets

Exit tickets are an excellent option for the end of a lesson. These small pieces of paper have questions designed to generate simple responses or more detailed answers. They might ask students to:

  • Answer specific questions
  • Write a summary (anywhere from 10-100 words in length)
  • Perform self-assessments
  • Where-I-stand cards (have students write their names on an index card labeled with one of the following: got it, almost there, or reteach needed)
  • Take classroom polls

See here for more information on how to use exit tickets to check for understanding.

5. Extension projects

These tasks take a little more class time but are still worthwhile. Allowing students to get creative can show you what they know in a less anxiety-inducing way than a traditional test.

Project examples include:

  • Creating a collage/poster presentation on the lesson or unit
  • Making a postcard that explains the important things learned
  • Crafting flashcards to test themselves and classmates
  • Designing a short quiz for classmates to take

Checking for understanding best practices

The best way to begin checking for understanding is to jump right in. If you’re not sure where to start, consider these best practices:

  1. Ground the lesson to an objective by posting it on your whiteboard and referencing it during the lesson.
  2. Call on students (even those who don’t have their hands raised) and use scaffolding when asking questions.
  3. Don’t allow opt-outs. All students must answer questions posed to them and participate in the discussion, even if they don’t know the answer.
  4. Use one of the strategies discussed above to determine who understands the material and who is struggling at the end of the lesson.
  5. Don’t give up! Checking for understanding isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding and will help you become a more effective teacher in a short period of time.
Student and teacher
Photo: Google Edu

What does the research say?

Checking for understanding has many benefits. It’s simple, effective, and free, so it is definitely the first line of defense for most educators who want to make sure that their teaching is effective.

Engage New York puts it this way: “When we check all students’ levels of understanding throughout each lesson, it sets the tone that everyone’s thinking is important and necessary, and we forward the learning and engagement of all.” 

Research shows that formative assessment options like checking for understanding:

  • Aid teachers in determining next steps for lesson planning and summative assessments
  • Help students learn to self-monitor and justify answers
  • Promote teamwork in the classroom and increase student confidence
  • Boost the level of student learning as well as background knowledge for future lessons
  • Improve student learning abilities (especially for underachieving students)

So, if you’re not used to checking for understanding in your classroom, now is a perfect time to start.

Photo: Google Edu

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