Teaching Fundamentals: Checking for Recall and Understanding. 

I would say that this is often one of the weakest areas of practice in teaching in relation to how important it is: checking that students know and understand what we think we have taught them.

If I tell you something or explain something to you I want to be sure that you’ve understood it now and are also beginning the process of learning it – by which I mean getting it into your long term memory. Unless I check,  I don’t know.

I always think an abseiling instruction session is useful to consider; a scenario John Hattie is fond of. If I want you to abseil safely, I’ll show you how to attach your carabiner to the harness and rope with some modelling and explanatory talk – and I’ll want to check you can do it yourself before I let you launch off the cliff: I’m not going to assume you got it just by listening. I’m not going to assume you got it just because you say ‘yes, I’ve got it’. I’m going to check. I want you to show me.  If I’m teaching a group, I’m not going to assume that if the one person who puts their hand up first gets it right, I’m safe to assume that everyone else gets it too. I want to check everyone. And if I want people to abseil independently later, then I’m going to check they can still fix the carabiner correctly tomorrow and again and again – to be sure they’ve really learned it and are not just performing based on short term recall.

Why is this a common weakness? Because it’s complicated.  We are giving our instructional messages to lots of people simultaneously and it’s hard to get the ‘message received’ feedback from everyone.  But that’s what we need to try to do.  Time and logistical pressures mean that  we have to balance methods designed for eliciting feedback from the whole group with some sampling methods that give us an indication of the range of responses from individuals.

There are various tools in the kit that teachers need to make this complex process a routine part of teaching. Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion) and Dylan Wiliam (Embedded Formative Assessment) are good sources in this area.

These are powerful TLAC strategies:

Reject Self Report: Essentially this reinforces the idea that we should always check and never accept students’ self evaluation; their thumbs up or thumbs down can be wrong.

Cold Call: Asking specific students to respond by design where everyone must be prepared -not the self-selection hands-up method that allows some to dominate and others to hide.

Show Call.  This is like cold calling except students have to show their work or demonstrate their understanding in a more extended manner and open it up to critique from the rest of the class. If combined with a ‘teach it back’ approach, it’s possible to get a good sense of whether students are learning.

There are lots of other forms of questioning  too – and the more students who are engaged in giving responses, the better.

There are various whole class response methods:

Show me boards/white boards: Used well these are brilliant for getting a sense of early stage grasp of an idea or for revision. They can capture diagrams, bullet points and calculations. You can see everyone’s answer at once.

Choral call and response. You can’t gauge precise levels of understanding but you can ensure all students are engaged in the beginnings of a recall process as they practise eg in MFL or learning quotations or equations.

Quizzing. Much more efficient than lots of individual questions, you can ask every student multiple questions and then check answers with peer or self assessment in a low stakes formative process. This ought to be a common method.

There are various peer to peer rehearsal strategies that involve all students but then feed into a sampling process that is based on cold call but where everyone has rehearsed their answers which is part of the process of building their understanding and recall.

Think Pair Share.  This can be used for students to check that they’ve retained the key factual points from a learning sequence  before the teacher samples responses.

Paired instruction. Like TPS above but where students take turns to walk through an explanatory sequence, ‘teaching’ a concept to their partner without supporting notes.

Different forms of knowledge will lend themselves to some methods more than others but it’s got to be a basic routine that we place as much emphasis on checking as we do on our instructional output.

The next bit is to act on the information we receive – to adjust our teaching as necessary.  Responsive teaching.


  1. I was reading that neurologists are understanding how our brains learn – through stories. In fact everything we do or learn becomes a story in our memories. So it seems to me that if we teach using stories it will help kids remember what you teach.


  2. I like that you have included strategies to collect formative assessment. It definitely is difficult to get a full picture when you ask closed questions like ‘does everyone understand?’ However, I’m not sure that I agree with you saying it’s hard to implement. There are so many cool and interesting ways to collect formative assessment in ways that kids engage with. Here’s an article that has a heap of easily implementable strategies to collect formative assessment: http://bit.ly/CollectingFormativeAssessment


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