Strategies for Checking for Understanding

Excerpts taken from: “Checking for Understanding” by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in Principal Leadership, September 2011 (Vol. 12, #1, p. 60-62)

In this article in Principal Leadership, San Diego State University professors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey describe an all-too-common classroom scenario. The teacher asks, “Did everyone get that?” and, hearing no response, moves on to the next point. Unbeknownst to the teacher, many students are thinking, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m not about to let everyone know that I’m confused.” Fisher and Frey believe that “Checking for understanding is the link between teaching and learning and should be part of every lesson that teachers plan… [It needs to occur] at least every 5-10 minutes, if teachers want to maintain the rigor of the lesson and support student learning.” They suggest the following strategies:

Listening in on student-to-student talk – As students think-pair-share, engage in reciprocal teaching, literacy circles, and Socratic seminars, retell stories and video clips, and respond to prompts, the teacher should tune in on whether they are understanding what’s been taught and follow up accordingly.

Questioning – Many classroom questions fall into the all-too-common, single-answer, “guess what’s in the teacher’s head”, Initiate-Respond-Evaluate pattern that privileges a few students who know the answers and are willing to play the game (“When do we use the FOIL rule?” asks the teacher. Four students raise their hands and teacher calls on Tanya, who responds, “With multiple binomials.” “Good,” says the teacher). Initial questions should be planned in advance, say Fisher and Frey, so as to elicit complex and critical thinking and involve as many students as possible. Some examples:

  • ReQuest – Students read with a partner and take turns asking each other questions, with the teacher monitoring the quality of questions and answers and prodding students toward higher-level queries.
  • Response cards – The teacher asks a question and all students hold up colored answer cards (green for Yes and red for No), giving a sense of the level of mastery in the class and whether anything needs to be re-explained.
  • Clickers – Students respond to multiple-choice questions via wireless response devices, and when results have been displayed (without an indication of which was the right answer), the teacher asks students to convince their neighbors, enlisting peer instruction before re-polling the question. See http://www.nassp.org/pl0911fisher for a video of this technique in action.
  • Spontaneous Questioning – Teachers often ask spontaneous follow-up questions after their initial probes to further check for understanding.

Written work – “When students are writing, they are thinking,” say Fisher and Frey. “In fact, it’s nearly impossible to write and not think.” Short writing-to-learn prompts are an excellent way to check for understanding, as long as the prompts are carefully designed to give the teacher information on deeper understanding. Fisher and Frey particularly like RAFT prompts, which ask students to examine the role, audience, format, and topic of a piece of writing. For example, after learning about the Gettysburg Address, students were asked to write the following RAFT. Role: you are a person attending the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg; Audience: you are writing to a family member; Format: a personal letter; Topic: Lincoln’s speech.

Projects and performances – As students work on worthwhile projects or prepare for performances, the teacher can look over their shoulders, get a sense of whether they are understanding the essential points, and give formative feedback. For example, a teacher asked students to write about a cause they would be willing to fight and perhaps die for and post it on their Facebook page, and checked in on students’ work as it progressed.

Tests – Although these assessments are usually treated as summative, there’s nothing to stop teachers from using insights from students’ answers to reteach and re-explain.

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