21 Ways to Check for Student Understanding

May 2nd, 2014 42 Comments Features

light bulb moment

The ultimate goal of teaching is to do just that – teach, not stand up in the front of the room and talk. But sometimes it’s easier to talk than to teach, as we all know, especially when we need to cover a lot of material in a short amount of time. We hope students will understand, if not now then before test time, and we keep our fingers crossed that their results will indicate we’ve done our job.

The problem is, we rely on these tests to measure understanding, and then we move on. Few of us take the time to address weaknesses and misunderstandings after the tests have been graded, and by that time it’s too late for students to be interested. This means we need to rethink how we approach assessment during class.

The most effective way to test student understanding is to do it while the lesson’s still going on. Asking students to fill out a questionnaire and then correcting misunderstandings during the next class period won’t work because students have already moved on. You’ve got to take advantage of the moment. If you hope to spend the majority of your time getting through to students, and not just talking, then understanding must be measured and dealt with as soon as the first frown appears on a face.

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Here are a few in-class tips to get you started:

1. Avoid Yes/No questions.

Avoid yes/no questions and phrases like “Does this make sense?” In response to these questions, students usually answer “yes”. So of course it’s surprising when several students later admit that they’re lost. To help students grasp ideas in class, ask pointed questions that require students to use their own prior knowledge.

2. Ask students to reflect.

During the last five minutes of class ask students to reflect on the lesson and write down what they’ve learned. Then, ask them to consider how they would apply this concept or skill in a practical setting.

3. Use quizzes.

Give a short quiz at the end of class to check for comprehension.

4. Ask students to summarize.

Have students summarize or paraphrase important concepts and lessons. This can be done orally, visually, or otherwise.

5. Hand signals.

Hand signals can be used to rate or indicate students’ understanding of content. Students can show anywhere from five fingers to signal maximum understanding to one finger to signal minimal understanding. This strategy requires engagement by all students and allows the teacher to check for understanding within a large group.

6. Response cards.

Index cards, signs, whiteboards, magnetic boards, or other items are simultaneously held up by all students in class to indicate their response to a question or problem presented by the teacher. Using response devices, the teacher can easily note the responses of individual students while teaching the whole group.

7. Four corners.

A quick and easy snapshot of student understanding, Four Corners provides an opportunity for student movement while permitting the teacher to monitor and assess understanding. The teacher poses a question or makes a statement. Students then move to the appropriate corner of the classroom to indicate their response to the prompt. For example, the corner choices might include “I strongly agree,” “I strongly disagree,” “I agree somewhat,” and “I’m not sure.”

8. Think-pair-share.

Students take a few minutes to think about the question or prompt. Next, they pair with a designated partner to compare thoughts before sharing with the whole class.

9. Choral reading.

Students mark text to identify a particular concept and chime in, reading the marked text aloud in unison with the teacher. This strategy helps students develop fluency; differentiate between the reading of statements and questions; and practice phrasing, pacing, and reading dialogue.

10. One question quiz.

Ask a single focused question with a specific goal that can be answered within a minute or two. You can quickly scan the written responses to assess student understanding.

11. Socratic seminar.

Students ask questions of one another about an essential question, topic, or selected text. The questions initiate a conversation that continues with a series of responses and additional questions. Students learn to formulate questions that address issues to facilitate their own discussion and arrive at a new understanding.

12. 3-2-1.

Students consider what they have learned by responding to the following prompt at the end of the lesson: 3) things they learned from your lesson; 2) things they want to know more about; and 1) questions they have. The prompt stimulates student reflection on the lesson and helps to process the learning.

13. Ticket out the door.

Students write in response to a specific prompt for a short period of time. Teachers collect their responses as a “ticket out the door” to check for students’ understanding of a concept taught. This exercise quickly generates multiple ideas that could be turned into longer pieces of writing at a later time.

14. Journal reflections.

Students write their reflections on a lesson, such as what they learned, what caused them difficulty, strategies they found helpful, or other lesson-related topics. Students can reflect on and process lessons. By reading student journals, teachers can identify class and individual misconceptions and successes.

15. Formative pencil–paper assessment.

Students respond individually to short, pencil–paper formative assessments of skills and knowledge taught in the lesson. Teachers may elect to have students self-correct. The teacher collects assessment results to monitor individual student progress and to inform future instruction. Both student and teacher can quickly assess whether the student acquired the intended knowledge and skills. This is a formative assessment, so a grade is not the intended purpose.

16. Misconception check.

Present students with common or predictable misconceptions about a concept you’re covering. Ask them whether they agree or disagree and to explain why.

17. Analogy prompt.

Periodically, present students with an analogy prompt: “the concept being covered is like ____ because ____.”

18. Practice frequency.

Check for understanding at least three times a lesson, minimum.

19. Use variety.

Teachers should use enough different individual and whole group techniques to check understanding that they accurately know what all students know. More than likely, this means during a single class the same technique should not be repeated.

20. Make it useful.

The true test is whether or not you can adjust your course or continue as planned based on the information received in each check. Do you need to stop and start over? Pull a few students aside for three minutes to re-teach? Or move on?

21. Peer instruction.

Perhaps the most accurate way to check for understanding is to have one student try to teach another student what she’s learned. If she can do that successfully, it’s clear she understood your lesson.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

42 Responses

  1. Brendon Ross says:

    As an educator, this is huge. Great tips. This goes far beyond just asking your students “do you get it?” and I really like the ones that involve movement! Being crammed in a desk all day is no fun at all.

    Love the opportunities for future lessons and engagement. Thanks for sharing these. I’ll definitely be putting some of these into use in my own classroom.


  2. Brian says:

    Great food for thought and I am eager to try quite a few of the approaches with my students! Thanks!

  3. Lalit Pant says:

    At present scenario it is very tough to get any idea about what is going inside the mind of pupil. You have give here some fundamental thing which should be noticed by educator.

  4. Thanks so much for bringing me up to date as I’m a little out of practice. Just got a promotion in my current workplace and thought your ideas were fantastic. Thank you for your help

  5. Mona says:

    Can you give us real examples.. about vocabulary or grammar.


    Great tips! They are very useful and applicable to any situation in teaching regardless the subject, curriculum and so forth! Thank you!

  7. marteau says:

    Great tips! thanks

  8. Fatima says:

    These tips are innovative. Absolutely awesome. Thank you so much for sharing!

  9. Aparna Gopinath says:

    Will definetly try out the steps in classroom teaching

  10. Ogbewele Elizabeth says:

    Great insights I can try out in my class.

  11. Nesma says:

    Regarding all that is mentioned. .does it apply for all ages lower and upper grades?

  12. Brian McLaughlin says:

    Very helpful and informative article that i can’t wait to adapt and implement into my own teaching.

  13. Enga says:

    Very useful information that I will implement in my classroom.

  14. Galina Faustova says:

    Thank you for refreshing really important methods for any language teacher. I have been using the majority of them and can say: “It works!”

  15. Dr. D'mello says:

    Thank you for sharing your teaching tips. They are very innovative and can surely keep students motivated and engrossed.

  16. Lazarous Sikazwe says:

    Thank you for these teaching tips. I know they will go a long for me especially that I am not a professional teacher.

  17. Chahida Nhari says:

    Dear Saga
    À great deal of thanks should be expressed to you for such a valuable article whose practical ideas I will implement in my classroom . I should admit that it s a big loss for me that I haven’t known about these tips in the beginning of my career.

  18. Maria says:

    Thanks very much for these interesting teaching tips. I’ll use them but I must adapt them to my little children of primary school (first class).

  19. Sofia says:

    Thanks for sharing that information with us! It is a wonderful piece in our teaching lifes.

  20. Niaz wali AFGHAN says:

    Thank you very much for sharing us this great information with us. I will try to use them on students and i will to teach to others to follow the same track.

  21. Dharmendra Bhattarai says:

    Thanks for sharing. I can use some of the tips during my teacher training.
    Dharmendra / Nepal

  22. Steve A. Gatlin says:

    Some of these I use, and some of these I will definitely use in the future.

  23. marks4sure says:

    Excellent Tips. Thanks for sharing

  24. Ama Dansoa says:

    Thank you
    Great tips. Will be using most of them in my lessons.

  25. Mohammed Abu Qadah says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips.

  26. I love these suggestions! In particular, I have found the student-driven assessments invaluable tools for building executive function skills and promoting growth in ways that aren’t teacher-reliant.

  27. Jacque Kaercher says:

    This is a great article! What do you think teachers should do if students are not understanding a subject? Would you recommend reteaching the subject in a different way?

  28. abubakar adams says:

    I am a teacher I teaching a students in primary skull. when I teaching the students some are under stand but some are not understand. so which way that views to understand my student all of them

  29. I’m not a teacher… but these tips are frickin awesome! I’m trying to implement these in my office but it’s turning out to be harder than expected, the hardest part is just remembering all of them because they’re all so good! I wish I could print out this blog post and make posters of it for around the office 🙂

  30. Deborah Lundy says:

    You have provided various ways to check students’ comprehension. Some of them I have used in the classroom. Great activities to implement and provide students with learning activities to increase their knowledge. Love your ideas and would like to know how I can get a copy of your article. Great Resource!!!

  31. Deborah Lundy says:

    My comment was submitted. I don’t know what else is needed.
    It says “Your comment is awaiting moderation”. What does that mean?

  32. Tijani Achamlal says:

    Thanks so much for this amazing article. Plz enlighten us !

  33. Clif St. Germain says:

    Dear Saga,

    I would like to cite this article in a book I am working on for middle school students.
    Please send me the appropriate citation in ABA format.
    Thank you,

  34. Well written, the points mentioned here are absolutely worth and helpful, we happen to use a kiosk solution that lets teachers which app can be accessed by students so that they can focus on learning without any interruption.

  35. Rimi Chy says:

    That was a really good writing Saga, I appreciate your article.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  36. A wonderful checklist you have here. Each point is very relevant in checking students level of learning. I will definitely use these tips in my school. Thanks for publishing this.

  37. Mariya says:

    Awesome tips, thnx for sharing

  38. lucy awa says:

    Really well written and helpful, we happen to use a kiosk solution that lets teachers which app can be accessed by students so that they can focus on learning without any interruption.

  39. Thanks so for this article the points mentioned here are absolutely worth and helpful see you again in the next post!

  40. Kim Powell says:

    These are great ideas for any teacher to use in the classroom!

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