What every teacher should do: check for understanding

What every teacher should do: check for understanding

If we first consider the notion that there is a distinct difference between learning and performance, that is when your students are providing great answers to questions in class they may simply be performing in the moment, later during a test, for example, you may find that they haven’t actually learned anything. This idea is much better articulated in this paper by Soderstrom & Bjork (2015).

So if there is a distinction between performing and learning, how do we know if our students are learning? First we must consider what learning is and there are a number of ideas on this theme.

Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) suggest that “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” Suggesting that if nothing has been retained in your long term memory then we can’t consider it to be learned.

Now edu-famous is the oft wheeled out quote from Daniel Willingham’s excellent Why Don’t Student Like School?. WIllingham says that “memory is the residue of thought”, meaning that what we think about what we inevitably remember.

On this note David Didau writes the following in this post from his brilliant Learning Spy blog:

“Students often remember the context of a lesson whilst forgetting the content. This can lead to the illusion of learning: we remember the memory of having known a thing.”

To dig a little deeper on this notion we can discuss a relevant example from maths which I have taken from Boys Don’t Try by Matt Pinkett & Matt Roberts.

“I once observed a maths interview lesson where the teacher hooked the pupils in by appealing to their stomach. Pupils had to work out the area of a circle, whether it was more economical to buy one 16″ or two 10″ pizzas. This candidate certainly stimulated the senses, producing an elaborate takeaway menu resource. The boys solved the problems, the bell went and they trooped out for lunch, salivating. I asked them the following morning if they enjoyed the lesson. Absolutely, they told me. Could they explain how to solve the problem? Only one of them could. What they’d remembered were the toppings.”

I reckon that we have all delivered lessons like this and when it came to the crunch, the students could put none of their learning onto the lined paper. So what has this got to do with checking for understanding? A lot I think. Learning is invisible (it really is!) so how do we get to know what pupils have actually learned.

First a consideration of memory and how we remember (more on this next week!) We know from Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve (1885) that our memory quickly diminishes almost a nights sleep after learning something.

So perhaps during that one lesson a student is simply performing as they will have yet to shift the learning to their long term memory. Which makes checking for understanding a vital skill of a great teacher.

What we now know that through repetition of the same topic, we must then repeat the learning, we can improve retention of the learning so that after a few weeks the students are no longer performing they are demonstrating what they have learned. Suggesting that their long term memory has been changed, as suggested by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006).

So for me checking for understanding becomes not just a tool for checking that a pupil has understood an instruction, asking ‘have you understood?’ or ‘do you have any questions?’ serves no purpose whatsoever, it becomes a key tool in a teachers arsenal. We must check that pupils understand and not simply remember what we teach them, this requires repetition and a demand for excellence (which I wrote about here).

Rosenshine suggests that great teachers ask a lot of questions. Who doesn’t want to be a great teacher. However, what we must take from this is that we ask a lot of the right questions. Questions that dig deeper, probe if you like, and really help us make learning visible and check that students understand what we are teaching.

To build this culture of checking for understanding there are a few strategies that a teacher can employ. Firstly they can Reject Self Report then they can get into deeper strategies such as probing, say it again, say it better and use show me a boards regularly. Show me boards are an excellent way to make learning really visible to us, this forces students to commit to an answer and will allow a skilled practitioner to really dig deep and check for understanding. Let’s take each of them in turn and explore a little more.

  1. Reject Self Report

Teachnique #1 in Doug Lemov’s outstanding Teach Like a Champion is where we replace ‘functionally rhetorical questions with more objective forms of impromptu assessment’. This is where we ask ‘Everybody got it?’ type questions and as Lemov writes we are often greeted with silent assent. We must ask more questions that are direct, targetted and chosen to meaningfully demonstrate student understanding. These questions are usually done in a minute or less and can really tell us if a student has understood the material at hand.

2. Probing

probing is a skill of really great teachers and it really helps them go deeper. Tom Sherrington wrote a great blog post on Probing here. Examples of probing questions are when teachers ask ‘thats interesting, what makes you say that?’ or ‘is there a different way to say the same thing?’ or ‘what is the evidence that supports your suggestion?’ or finally ‘can you explain how you worked that out?’. As Tom says ‘to be able hold exchanges like this with individuals or a whole class is a key feature of excellent teaching.’

3. Say it again, say it better

In The Learning Rainforest refers to this technique as a silver arrow or better said a ‘quick win’. This is a startegy that teachers should use relentlessly. If you simply ask a student to repeat what they said but better they are able then to re-form their intital response into well structured and impactful sentences. This period of reconsideration will really help them to build their schema and develop their understanding of the learning.

4. Show me boards/mini whiteboards

Bruce Robertson, author of The Teaching Delusion advocates that show me boards should be as integral to a lesson as the humble jotter. Show me boards are great for a number of reasons, they make every student commit to an answer, they make every students thinking visible and allows the teacher to see clearly and quickly if there are any gaps and misconceptions. Bruce gives a few more important reasons as to why you should start using them in every lesson in this blog post.

Checking for understanding, for me, is one of the most important practices in teaching. Once a clear explanation, modelling and direct-interactive instruction period has taken place and the students are busy practicing it would be remiss of us to not check for understanding and dig deep, in every lesson, to monitor the progress of our students learning. I have, perhaps, ventured into other more nuanced areas of teaching but i place checking for understanding as something we could, well certainly me, be better at so that our students really learn the material and undergo a ‘change in their long term memory’.

About the Author
Teaching for 8 years. Blogger, Podcaster and Educator.

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