Five Ways to: Check for Understanding

Five Ways. A series of short posts summarising some everyday classroom practices.

In Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, he stresses the vital importance of Checking for Understanding. I explore this in some detail in this post: Check for Understanding… why it matters and how to do it. In Volume 1 of Walkthrus we cover the general method, emphasising the need to ask students what they’ve understood, not if they’ve understood, engaging two or more of them in short probing dialogues.

However, it always pays to re-read Rosenshine’s paper, beyond the headings. In the detail, he suggests several other specific ways that effective teachers were found to check for understanding. Developing this repertoire of methods for different situations, switching between them in planned and spontaneous moments, can make teaching highly responsive, adapting to the feedback students are giving through their responses. This works particularly well in conjunction with Cold Calling, so that all students form stronger habits around focusing their attention, in readiness to share their understanding if and when they’re asked.

Here are five ways:

Summarise the story so far:

Whether reading a story or text or giving an explanation of any kind, stop at key moments to ask a student to summarise what they’ve understood so far. This prevents you from the delusion that it’s all somehow just ‘going in’. You stop to check! Also, summarising is a good thinking process for the students who are asked.

  • Ok let’s stop there. Yousef, summarise the scene for us. What’s been happening?
  • Right, so that’s what the historian’s analysis was. Amy, could you summarise the key points of her argument?
  • So, that’s how a valley is formed. Let’s try to summarise the main steps? …Jenny, have a go.

Repeat instructions

This seems so obvious but it’s not absolutely routine for everyone and it makes a big difference – saving time compared to having to interrupt and redirect confused students later on. Whenever you’ve given instructions for a task, an activity, some homework…. get a couple of people to repeat them back to you to check that they understood the details:

  • So, that’s the homework everyone. Robert, let me check.. what do you think I’ve asked everyone to do?
  • Before you all get going, Taylor, run through the procedure for me. What do you have to do?.

Agree or disagree

This has two useful applications. One is to help students to form their own opinions – allowing them scope to agree or disagree. The other is as a way to secure attention when other students are talking – a soft check for listening and engagement as well as for understanding. Embedded in this is the follow-on ‘and why?’ Students should give their reasons.

  • Michael has made a really interesting point there….. Samantha, do you agree or disagree with him? (She has to have been listening to answer). Ok. Why do you think that?
  • Looking at those statements, I would say two are true and one is false…. Do you agree or disagree…. Ashley? And why is that?

Think aloud as you plan

This takes time to embed as a normal routine – because students are largely used to thinking privately – in the hidden way we all do. Promoting metacognitive talk is a powerful approach in general and normalising ‘thinking aloud’ can help to explore students’ thought processes as they work out how they’ll approach a task. It’s a great check for understanding:

  • Let’s look at the problem. It’s not a simple one-step process. Aleisha, talk it through for me. How would you go about solving it?
  • Before we crack on with the composition, let’s plan what we’re going to do. …OK, Toni, let’s hear your thoughts. Talk through your ideas for the piece and how you’ll organise them.

Explain or defend your position

When student express opinions or give an analysis, it’s helpful to check that they understand the underlying concepts rather than having learned stock responses without a supporting schema. So, when students make an initial response, probe further, asking them to explain key points or to defend their position, perhaps with a counterargument as a reference:

  • Most of you have selected answer A. Joseph, why did you pick A? Why not B?
  • Interesting Anwar. The rate is increasing more gradually but why would that be?
  • 35%? Are you sure Michael?
  • That’s one way to say it Daisy but is it the best way?

Here’s 10 minute Kitchen Pedagogy video exploring these ideas…

David Goodwin’s superb one-page summary of this post is here. Download it below.

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