Checking for understanding is an essential aspect of teaching. You need to check that your students have understood what you taught them. It’s how you know what to do next.
However, if you are like most teachers, your time is already stretched thin, and you don’t want to be creating even more mountains of marking to take home with you every night.
The good news is that you don’t have to. Checking for understanding can occur within the flow of your day-to-day lessons. The key, according to Dylan Wiliam, is in learning to listen.
What Do You Listen For When Checking for Understanding?
You listen to see if your students ‘get it’, whatever ‘it’ might be in a particular lesson. This requires you to be very clear about what ‘it’ is that you want them to learn and master.
For example, you may want your students to be able to describe the energy transfer and transformation involved in simple scenarios, such as dropping a ball or releasing a mousetrap.
However, you also listen to the thinking behind your students’ responses, and especially for any misconceptions that they may hold.
If, as in the above example, you wanted students to be able to describe the energy transfer and transformation involved in simple scenarios, you would listen for common misconceptions such as:
- Stationary objects have no energy.
- Gravity is the only form of potential energy
- Things use up energy
- Only stretched objects have elastic potential energy
These are not just ‘nice words’, ‘noble intentions’ or ‘meaningless platitudes’. As you will see when you read on, they drive how you subsequently go about assessing your students understanding within the lesson.
Checking for Understanding by Listening?
In order to check for understanding, you need to get students to talk to you, and you achieve this through asking them questions. However, the nature of your questions matters – in fact, it matters a lot.
When using questions to determine what to do next, you need to ask ones that gauge the level of understanding for your whole class, not just individual students. This requires using some form of what Wiliam calls an all student response system. Here are some examples of such systems.
All of these systems involve asking your students some form of a multiple-choice question.
Multiple-choice questions do have some inherent limitations. However, if constructed thoughtfully, they are an ideal way to check your students’ understanding at the end of a lesson.
Crafting Thoughtful Multiple-Choice Questions
The first step in crafting thoughtful multiple-choice questions is to consider what it was that you wanted them to learn and master.
Continuing our example where we wanted students to be able to describe the energy transfer and transformation involved in simple scenarios, you could use a true-false statement, such as when you hit a golf ball, energy is transformed from the club to the ball, and have students to indicate true or false using the thumb’s response. This particular question determines whether students understand the difference between transferred and transformed.
Alternatively, you could present your students with a short series of true-false statements:
- When you hold a ball, the ball contains energy.
- When you let go of the ball, potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy.
- A stretched rubber band has potential energy.
- When you hit a ball, the energy is transferred from the club to the ball.
You could also include a multiple-choice question specifically designed to warn you about student misconceptions. For example:
In the above diagram, which spring has potential energy? The …
- Spring at rest
- Stretched spring
- Compressed spring
The correct answer is 2 & 3. Obviously, you need to get your students used to the idea that there will sometimes be more than one right answer. Assuming you have already done this, the question helps to raise flags about the common misconception that only stretched objects have elastic potential energy.
You could present all of these questions in just a few minutes, and with nothing more than your students’ fingers, you have found out enough about their understanding to make a sound decision about what to do next.
How do you go about checking for understanding?