Leaders of Their Own Learning: Chapter 2: Checking for Understanding during Daily Lessons

How do you know what your students know? Why “Got it?” isn’t good enough.

Checking for understanding during daily lessons encompasses a wide range of techniques—formal and informal, oral and written, verbal and nonverbal—used by teachers and students to track what students understand and can do throughout a lesson. As a result of this ongoing assessment, teachers and students make adjustments to what they are doing to ensure that gaps in understanding are addressed and that students who have mastered concepts are ready to move on to another learning task.

Linked to all aspects of student-engaged assessment, checking for understanding is a key part of supporting students to build lifelong skills of self-assessment. Helping students understand where they currently are in the learning process and where they are going is what enables them to grow and is more important than getting it “right.” It is also no simple task. It requires a classroom culture of trust, where making mistakes is seen as a key part of how everyone learns, and where everyone’s learning needs are respected. Checking for understanding is an essential component of good classroom instruction, showing teachers and students where students are mastering concepts or faltering.

I always know the place I’m headed [the learning target], but to make sure everyone’s on that train I have to check for understanding all the time. Jessica Wood, former sixth-grade ELA teacher, Springfield Renaissance School

Learning Targets

  1. I can explain the power of each type of checking for understanding technique in helping students be leaders of their own learning. .
  2. I can determine the most effective checking for understanding strategies to use in an upcoming lesson

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Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. Copyright 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

Watch: Incorporating Checking for Understanding Techniques in Daily Lessons

When incorporating checking for understanding techniques into a lesson, the first thing to keep in mind is your learning target. First and foremost, you are checking for understanding of student mastery in relation to that target, so you must be clear on what you are expecting students to know and be able to do by the end of the lesson. It’s also important to design your lesson so that it is punctuated with opportunities for students to demonstrate their progress toward the target.

When determining which checks for understanding to insert in your lesson plan,  keep in mind both your learning target and your purpose. Do you want to check whether students can remember factual knowledge? Do you want to know if they are ready to follow the directions you just gave? Or do you want to monitor their self-assessment on a specific learning target?  Table 2.3 that follows, which comes from Chapter 2 of Leaders of Their Own Learning shows a sampling of “Quick Check” strategies for different purposes:

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Table 2.3 from page 70 Leaders of Their Own Learning

Keeping Table 2.3 in mind, watch the video Instructional Strategies that Support Learning—Checking for Understanding and consider the following questions:

  1. What checks for understanding did teacher Jessica Wood use at the beginning of the lesson to ensure that students were ready to learn and to preview the flow of the lesson?
  2. How many times did you see the teacher check for understanding? What strategies did she use?
  3. How did the teacher use the information she received during her checks for understanding?

Review: Pre-Plan Strategic Questions to Monitor Student Learning

It is virtually impossible to check for understanding without asking good questions. Developing good questions in advance and planning for their use is critical to gathering the right information about student learning.

Review Table 2.1 from Chapter 2 of Leaders of Their Own Learning below and consider the following questions: 

  1. What is the relationship between the learning target and the planned questions?
  2. How do the teachers’ questions push students to think deeply and use evidence from the text in support of their answers??
  3. Which of these strategies do you already employ in your classroom? Which strategy would you like to incorporate more frequently?

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Figure 2.1 from pages 65-66 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

Review: Checking for Understanding through Observation of Student Discussion Protocols

When checking for understanding, it is important to find out what each student knows and can do, not just to get an overall sense of whether the class a whole “got it.” One way to do this is incorporating protocols into your lessons. Protocols are structured formats for student discussion that promote simultaneous engagement and allow all students to participate equitably in the discussion. While students are engaged in discussion, you may strategically observe, listen, and record any pertinent information about students’ progress toward meeting the learning target. A tracking form with students’ names on it and room for notes will help you focus on listening for progress on the learning target and will help you keep track of who you have observed or conferred with already.

Review the two resources below, from Chapter 2 of Leaders of Their Own Learning and consider the following questions:

  1. Think about your learning target for tomorrow. How could you incorporate  one of the discussion protocols from the table below to check for students’ understanding?
  2. Design a checklist similar to the one below Table 2.2 to use as you confer with students during work time or as you observe students using a protocol

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Table 2.2 from page 68 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

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Sample checklist from page 72 of Leaders of Their Own Learning

Watch: Engaging Students in Checking Their Own Understanding

In addition to checking for understanding yourself, it is even more important to empower students to monitor their learning themselves. Teaching students how to set goals and self-assess their learning will develop student ownership of their learning.

Watch the video Strategies for Monitoring Progress and consider the following questions:

  1. In what ways was the teacher checking for understanding?
  2. How did these students check their own learning and understanding?
  3. What impact do you think this has on their ownership of their learning?

Dig Deeper

Kids Like Cold Call and No Opt Out:  Cold Call and No Opt Out are two easy-to-implement, high-engagement, checking for understanding strategies. Watch students explain why they think Cold Call and No Opt Out are good checking for understanding techniques for teachers to use. For more information on how to implement these strategies, read pages 72 and 73 of Leaders of Their own Learning.

Promoting Student Ownership and Engagement in Math: Watch this video to see multiple strategies to check for understanding in a math lesson with 11th grade students.

Protocols A-Z.  Check out the National School Reform Faculty website for a wide variety of protocols that you can incorporate into your lessons.

Fostering a Growth Mindset in Students.  If students are going to be invested in monitoring their own progress and checking for understanding themselves, you may need to build a growth mindset in your students to foster the belief that their hard work and effort will yield positive results. Browse Mindset Works for a variety of resources on building a growth mindset in students.

Synthesize/Take Action

For Teachers...

  1. Review The Who, What, and Why of Checking for Understanding, from Chapter 2 of Leaders of Their own Learning. What are the critical moves for you that will allow this practice to take hold in your classroom? 
  2. What checking for understanding strategy will you incorporate into tomorrow’s lesson? What will you do at the beginning, middle and end of the lesson to monitor students’ progress?
  3. What tools can you design to help students to begin monitoring their own progress?

For School Leaders...

  1. Watch the video Schoolwide Structures for Checking for Understanding and review Table 2.6, on page 87 of Leaders of Their Own Learning.
    1. Do you have a schoolwide expectation for which checking for understanding techniques all teachers should employ? If not, how can you involve your staff in developing common expectations they all agree to incorporate into their instruction? How do you imagine such consistencies will impact your teachers and students?
  2. Once your teachers are adept at checking for understanding, how can you coach them to use the information they gather to inform their instruction?