Small-Group Pedagogy Mini-Series: Checking for Understanding

Checking for Understanding is beyond asking students if they understand.

Reading time: 3 minutes
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At one stage or another, I suspect you have shared a similar experience of receiving unanimous nods to “Understanding so far?” or “Are we following?”. This could be because students don’t know what they don’t know or they may be too embarrassed to straight out say “no” surrounded by their peers.  Later on, there are blank faces, unexpected misconceptions or the need to reteach. How did this happen? I checked they understood as I went, right?

Checking for Understanding is beyond asking students if they understand. In fact, the quality of the strategy equates to the quality of the responses and direction for your teaching. So, it’s good to have a few different strategies in our teaching toolboxes and even better when we add some more. 

The act of Checking for Understanding is the timely monitoring of whether or not students are meeting the intentions of the lesson. It can also be a moment for students to share their own self-evaluations around comprehension or their readiness. These moments are purposefully targeted by the teacher to gain insight and formative feedback to help direct the teaching throughout a lesson instead of waiting until the conclusion. Students should also understand these checking in stages are completely formative and a safe place to be honest and vulnerable if need be (Fisher and Frey. 2014). 

Checking for Understanding can help to differentiate for individual student needs, call for extra clarifications, target particular misconceptions or plan for follow up with certain students. While Checking for Understanding can offer a lot of valuable data, it is important to not fall into the trap of unintentionally losing the original objective of the lesson when a misconception is spotted – especially if it’s just with one or two students and not the whole group. Although guided by the best of intentions, you don’t need to abandon the reason you planned this lesson in the first place. Of course this does not mean those observations should be ignored. In fact, the teacher now has more information to differentiate and knows what to look out for, especially by the end of that lesson. Now you know which student(s) to follow up with for targeted intervention, which is much more efficient and impactful than stopping what you had planned on the spot. 

Like many pedagogical practices, by showing how to check for understanding you are also modelling its importance. This supports students in their own independent learning – when you’re not there to check their understanding for them. This is a developing skill for students, and the more you do it the better they get.  

Some Checking for Understanding strategies can include:

  • Think, Pair, Share (an easy one to edge in with) 
  • Students repeat key information 
  • Summarise in your own words 
  • Whip around or pass 
  • Mini-group polls 
  • Kahoot 
  • The Tapple strategy 
  • Partner quizzes
  • Self-evaluations like: 
    • Fist to Five (reflection on the levels of understanding)
    • Traffic Light System (reflection on the levels of understanding) (which I personally utilised quite a lot in my classroom with students closing their eyes or indicating non-verbally to safeguard honesty and openness)  
  • This Edutopia link also has some other great ideas.  
  • Response cards: For example, ‘Got it’, ‘Almost There’, ‘Re-Teach Please’ 

While some of these strategies might be more comfortable or suitable than others, I’ve personally found exploring some new ideas can offer insights I wouldn’t have first predicted.

Pedagogical Reflection: 

Which Checking for Understanding idea or method are you going to try? What information are you hoping to glean and how will that influence your practices/objectives?  

References

Fisher, D. and Frey, N., (2014). Chapter 1: Why check for understanding?. In Checking for understanding: formative assessment techniques for your classroom, 2nd Edition  [online] Ascd.org.Retrieved 3 January 2021, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/115011/chapters/Why-Check-for-Understanding%C2%A2.aspx.

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