Check for Understanding… why it matters and how to do it. #rEDSurrey21

This post gives the key points from my ResearchEd Surrey talk at Farnham Heath End School. Firstly, I explored the challenge for teachers in teaching a group of people all at once, with reference to Willingham’s ideas about memory and understanding. When children don’t understand – there are numerous possible reasons: lack of prior knowledge, insufficient fluency, problems with sustaining mental attention. Teachers need to be conscious of the potential for this to be happening across the class:

Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black has this great insight in their classic work Inside the Black Box. When teachers only select students who volunteer and are worried about getting through the material, they tend to ask less demanding questions in order to keep going forwards:

That’s a significant challenge to teachers. Are you making the decision to move on whilst being ‘out of touch with the understanding of most of the class?’ It’s so important to be responsive, ready to move back as well as forward if needed. Rosenshine has a useful set of guidance, comparing more and less effective teachers, stressing the dual purpose of checking students’ learning.

He tells us how not to check for understanding – ie by simply asking ‘have you understood?’ This tells us almost nothing – as students rarely so no or could be wrong in saying yes. But, most importantly, there are always degrees of understanding. Instead of asking if, we should ask what student have understood. Rosenshine gives us a nice list of ways teachers can check for understanding.:

In the flow of instructional teaching, checking for understanding is supported by a range of questioning techniques, all underpinned by cold calling – so that every student engages in thinking and is ready to respond. It can be important to switch between cold calling, asking individuals – and pair-share, where everyone has a change to air their thoughts and rehearse their explanations. This gives the teacher a better sampling of the level of understanding across the class.

We covered many of the ideas in Cold Calling and Cold Call Variations, In our Walkthrus materials, we have a walkthru for Checking for Understanding:

Central to this is that each exchange is a short dialogue. Then by exploring the responses from multiple students we get a sense of the ideas students have grasped and the way they express their idea. It can be useful scaffold student responses, including question stems such as those included in Rosenshine’s Principles:

The main decision-making for a teacher is how to respond in light of the information from these exchanges. Re-teaching requires being ready with additional examples and/or the nimble subject knowledge needed to generate new questions and explanations spontaneously. Deferring to another time can be a good decision – often students just need longer to make sense of things and you might choose to return to the ideas next lesson or next week.. to allow time for more ideas to weave together in students’ minds.

Checking for understanding is exemplified by some ideas related to deliberate vocabulary development as described in this post. We need to connect need words to ideas and meaning students already have.

Building Word Confidence: Everyone read, say, understand, use, practise.

A very common phenomenon in many lessons is that students encounter new words.  The way we approach this ought to be something teachers think about explicitly so that effective strategies are used.  I’ve seen explicit vocabulary development done extremely well but, quite often, I find that it’s approached in a rather shallow manner: new words are…

Thanks to everyone who came to my session.


  1. Dear Mr. Sherrington, What a detailed method for checking for understanding among students. Excellent article. Thank you for including me on your email list. Keep writing… Regards, Hoda

    Hoda Mohtar B.A.Psych, B.Ed Education Consultant EduCounseling Services Intl. Email: 403-26 Dorset St Waterloo-ON N2L3L5 Canada Mobile: +1-519-572-3722 Company registered in Canada Business No. 250733326



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