Today's Lesson

Three Ways to Check for Understanding

By Yoshika Wason

Today’s Lesson is a column where we share lesson plans and discuss classroom best practices.

“Do you understand?”

A classroom full of blank stares comes as a response.

“Any questions?”

Radio silence.

“…ok? Let’s move on then.”

We’ve all experienced awkward classroom moments like this that leave us feeling frustrated or unsure of our teaching abilities. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this situation and strategies to get a more accurate sense of what students understand. In the education world, we call these strategies a Check for Understanding, or CFU for short.

To put it simply, a CFU is a way for teachers to answer the question “are students learning what I’m teaching?” A CFU usually happens for a short period of time during a lesson and typically does not require much advanced planning and preparation. There are other terms to describe CFUs like informal assessments, formative assessments, and dipsticks. In contrast, on the opposite side of the CFU spectrum there are formal assessments or summative assessment like tests, formal quizzes, and long term projects.

Why Should I Use a CFU?

Recently, a fellow new ALT asked me, “what English games do students like?” to which I replied, “well you should ask your students that question, instead of me.” I could have told this ALT about the top 3 English games my students like (snowman, castles, and bingo) but it’s quite possible that this ALT’s students like entirely different games. My point is, when trying to find out information about student learning, ALTs can save themselves the guesswork and instead go straight to the source for accurate data.

If you take a pragmatic approach to teaching, there are a number of reasons to implement CFUs in the classroom. At its core, a CFU is an invaluable tool to gauge if students are meeting the lesson objectives that I’m sure you carefully crafted while lesson planning. A CFU can also be a way to identify student misconceptions that you did not anticipate. In addition, a CFU can pinpoint which students have mastered content and which students need additional time to approach target goals. When needed, a CFU can be used as an aid for clarifying the directions of a game or activity. And if your supervisor asks, “how did your lesson go?” you can support your response with evidence from the CFUs you used in your lesson.

Student Self-Evaluation

One of the most common forms of a student self-evaluation CFU is the “thumbs up/down method.” To try this strategy, right after you teach a new topic, concept, definition, etc. ask the class, “do you understand this new topic/concept/definition/etc? Show a thumbs up for yes and a thumbs down for no.” Then wait a few seconds to make sure that all students show their thinking. This will give you more information to work with than if you only asked “do you understand?” and only a few students volunteered answers. Personally I still find the question “do you understand this new topic?” too vague for my liking so I prefer more targeted questions like, “can you solve a problem like this on your own now?” or “is my answer correct?” after I model how to answer a question (sometimes I purposefully give a wrong answer.)

A variation of the “thumbs up/down method” is to ask students to show how much they understand on their fingers using a scale of one to three or from “fist to five.” Another type of student self-evaluation is to ask students to write down two things they learned and one thing they still have questions about at the end of class. This last strategy also falls under the category of an exit ticket, which we will discuss in more detail later in the column.

Although student self-evaluations are a useful CFU to use in the classroom, they do have some limitations. For example, students can lie and give a thumbs up when they really don’t understand the content and sometimes students think they understand but they actually don’t fully grasp the content. That being said, I think student self-evaluations are a great way to get a quick pulse check on how the class is doing and they work well when additional forms of CFUs are also used in the same lesson.

Teacher Circulation

While circulating, consider taking notes on a checklist or worksheet

There is a good reason why teachers are known for using the idiom “I have eyes on the back of my head.” Typically, teachers are constantly scanning the room with their eyes and circulating throughout the room. Personally, I spend more time moving throughout the classroom than standing in front of the room. While I’m making my rounds through the classroom, I pay close attention to what students are saying and take a look at their written responses. I take mental notes on commonalities on how each student or group is approaching the assignment and take literal notes of mistakes that students are making. I also look for strong student answers that I want to share with the class. Based on what I observe, I give students in-the-moment feedback. Believe it or not, this type of informal observation while circulating is considered a CFU.

If you choose to circulate while students work on an assignment, be careful not to spend too much time with just one student or group: even if certain students are struggling, prioritize getting a sense of how the class is doing as a whole and then circle back to those who need additional support. Thankfully, with the help of a JTE, the scope of observational CFUs is widened and the chances of a student receiving extra support are higher.

Exit Tickets

An exit ticket I recently gave to my class. To answer the first two questions, students demonstrated how well they mastered two sentence structures covered that lesson.

My favorite form of CFUs are exit tickets because they give me a clear understanding of what students learned that lesson. The basic concept of an exit ticket is to have students write down answers to a few questions tied to the lesson objectives at the end of the class. For example, an exit ticket for a vocabulary lesson might ask students to spell words they learned that lesson and at the end of a grammar lesson, an exit ticket might ask students to write a sentence using the same grammar structure from that lesson. When I explain exit tickets to students, I frame it as a way for them to show what they know and an exit ticket also acts as their ticket to leave the classroom. I typically allocate 3-5 minutes at the end of class for students to do an exit ticket.

After class, I look through the exit tickets and separate them into two piles: one pile for correct responses and another for incorrect responses. I look to see what the ratio of correct to incorrect responses is to get a big picture idea of what students learned. Then, I will look through the incorrect responses to find out if there are common mistakes and misconceptions in student thinking. Be prepared to be surprised by the data you collect from exit tickets; sometimes during a lesson it seems like students understand the content but the exit tickets paint a different picture and other times, you will discover that the content was too easy for your class. It’s not all bad though; there are times I look at all the results of an exit ticket and feel proud that so many students met the lesson objectives.

As with any CFU, there are some limitations to exit tickets. For example, if the questions are not related to lesson objectives then the information that is collected won’t be very useful. Also, because exit tickets are completed at the end of a class, you won’t be able to give feedback to students until the next time you see them again. And if the pacing of your lesson doesn’t go as planned, you may run out of time to hand out exit tickets.

What to do After a CFU

So you administered a CFU, now what? Well, based on the information you collected, consider what appropriate action to take. For example, if a CFU alerts you that many students are making the same mistake, perhaps you will stop the class for a few minutes to give some clarifying points to the whole class. Other actions you might consider include re-teaching a certain topic again next lesson, pulling a small group of students for extra practice, or providing additional teacher models for an activity. Whatever actions you choose to take, CFUs will improve your lessons by making your teaching practice more intentional and purposeful.

3 thoughts on “Three Ways to Check for Understanding

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