Checking for understanding

In valid and efficient ways

Hey 👋

Hope this week has been kind, and that you’ve been thinking about responsiveness in the classroom. This week, we’re keeping on theme with a dive into the attributes of effective formative assessment…

Big idea 🍉

Responsive teaching is about making small course-corrections to our teaching as we go. This rests heavily on us having a secure knowledge of what our students know (and don’t know) at every point along the way.

Which is why great teaching entails regularly checking for understanding.

However, not all checking for understanding is equal. The best approaches (A) allow us to be confident in the course-correcting decisions we make, and (B) take as little time as possible so we can maximise the time our students spend learning. They are both valid and efficient.

“Teaching without formative assessment is like painting with your eyes closed.”

— Craig Barton

Let’s consider some examples:

1. Loaded assumption

This is when we ask things like "everyone got it?" (while nodding our head) or "any questions?" (while looking away) or get students to Red-Amber-Green their work.

If students haven’t 'got it', self-esteem preservation means they are unlikely to announce this. Or they might think they do get it even if they don't. Assuming the best and relying on the subjective perspectives of novices may well be quick, but it leads to pretty wonky course-correction.

2. Skewed sampling

This is when we ask things like "what’s an adjective?" and then take answers from those students to offer them.

We’re assessing what students know (rather than what they think they know) and so this is better than loaded assumption. BUT, we’re still only taking a sample, and one that is skewed by those confident enough to put their hands up. We can of course improve validity by random sampling and asking more students, but then efficiency starts to take a hit.

3. Whole-class questioning

This is when we pose a question and gather objective answers from the whole class, almost simultaneously. Such as putting a multi-choice question on the board and prompting students to answer using their fingers, or getting them to spell a word on their mini-whiteboards.

Compared with loaded assumption or sampling, whole-class questioning can allow us to be much more confident about what our students know (and don't), in just as little time. It is both valid and efficient.

Bonus → As well as being an effective approach to checking for understanding, whole-class questioning also increases the number of student who are thinking hard about the topic (aka ‘ratio’). As a result, it is good for developing understanding as well as assessing it.

Caveat → Effective whole-class questioning requires sharp execution. If you don’t get all students to answer at once, some will end up opting out or copying peer responses (and you’ll end up with a skewed sample again).


• Responsive teaching relies on regular checking for understanding.

• Checking for understanding is most powerful when it is valid and efficient.

• Whole-class questioning is a powerful approach, but requires sharp execution.

Challenge → How often do you check for understanding? What are your go-to approaches? How might you make them more valid and efficient?

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