Do You Check for Understanding Often Enough with Students? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A few months ago, I wrote for about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress -- they need to know what they're trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher's role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It's essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it's absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn't easy. In fact, there's nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

  • How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • How well did they learn the objective?
  • Who mastered it and who didn't?
  • Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don't answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

  • Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals
  • Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing
  • Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson
  • An "exit ticket," which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two
  • Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said "who," another said "when," and the last said "where."

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as "sheep," and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don't plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don't get the most accurate data. This doesn't mean that I don't throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I'll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

Comments (69)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Emily Snipes's picture

These are great ideas! I know I am constantly "checking for understanding with my students. I already have some of your ideas in use (whiteboards, hand signals, cooperative learning activities) but I love the idea of an "exit ticket". I can see myself easily integrating that into my classroom. I will probably add a parent signature and discussion spot so I know that what is being learned at school is being communicated at home! Thanks for the inspiration : )

Laura Mathews's picture
Laura Mathews
Elementary Literacy Coach

Thank you! The A,B,C, D cards are an easy check for multiple choice format quick checks. I give my students 4 cards. In large writing with a marker, students write one letter on each card. I have them read or listen to a multiple choice question and hold the card to their chest, so no one can see. When I count to 3 they all show me. Instantly I can tell who needs reteaching and which students understand. I hope you find the strategy useful!
Laura Mathews

vanessa caldwell's picture

Your "Hindu god" with a dozen arms is a very acurate comparison. I feel as though I am running in several different directions all at once. However, you may want to take another look at formative assessment. You can get a true look at what the student is doing. You can put it back on the student and allow an opportunity for the studnet to steer their learning. Good post. You have given me a lot to think about for next year.

Bryan's picture

Thank your for the tips. I enjoyed how you gave an example of formative assessment that occurs at the same time the students are actively engaged in a learning activity. It is good to remember that assessment does not always have to be at a transitional point within the class period.

Gordon's picture

Near the beginning you stressed the importance of the students knowing where they are in relation to the goal set forth. As a student and a teacher I value the importance of setting goals and objectives to gauge my progress and understanding. I know that I have had several teachers using the mindset of "students who want to learn will", when it is in fact the inability of the teacher that limits our understanding. I have used the technique of entry slips with a question written on the board to grab their attention and an exit slip to assess their understanding after my lesson and I find that helps me feel where everyone is on days when I can't hear everyone twice. IE: lab days.

Theresa's picture

I found this blog posting to be the redirection I need to get back on track. So often I find myself using the same formative assessment techniques over and over again--if at all! I think I will follow your lead, Elena, by including the kind of assessment piece in my planning for each activity and lesson. Hopefully this will allow me to gather more authentic data from my students via multiple strategies and thus reaching more of my students.

However, one of the big challenges I have is adapting some of the formative assessment pieces to fit the needs and abilities in my multiage elementary classroom. Most of the time I rely on verbal feedback since the reading and writing skills of my 6-8 year-old students varies. I liked the ABCD notecard response idea, but worry that this may be too complex--asking students to remember so many options and then decipher the correct one? This may be appropriate for some students in my class, but I can easily picture others getting lost and frustrated and thus becoming disengaged in the learning experience. Can anyone offer me some advice on the formative assessment pieces you have found most successful in your elementary classrooms?


K Teacher's picture

Thank you for these great ideas. Although I teach Kindergarten and some of these ideas might not be applicable to the younger students, I did find that I can use most of these ideas and revise others. I have had 20 students for the past 10 years, but this year due to all of the budget cuts, our district is giving us 25 students so I have been wondering how I am going to keep up with all of the assessments since most of them are given one to one. Your ideas will definitely be helpful in keeping quick records of my students' progress on a daily basis.

Kathy Tirrell's picture


I enjoyed reading your blog posting. I agree with your statement that it is important to use formative assessments every day to make sure students mastered the objective. I use small whiteboards, think-pair-share, cooperative learning, questioning techniques, and exit slips to gauge my students' learning. Even though I use these techniques, I do find that a student may understand the concept then, but not understand it when he or she takes the summative assessment. My colleagues and I are going to try using entrance slips with one or two essential concepts from previous lessons. If a student does not retain the information, we will know that we need to give him or her more support. We are going to provide this support by making Quick Time videos illustrating the essential concepts. We believe this will engage students. Eventually, we would like to have students create the videos.

Thank you for sharing your favorite book on formative assessments and the tip on writing the formative assessment strategy you plan on using next to the activity. These suggestions are helpful because I want to increase my repertoire of formative assessment strategies to strengthen my differentiation practice. I believe it is possible for all students to be successful with the right support.

Katherine's picture


Your blog post is a refreshing reminder to us teachers who find themselves using the same assessment strategies too much. I will try to incorporate more strategies you suggest in the coming weeks. The book also seems like a wonderful resource. I'm always looking for something that is easy and quick to read to enhance my teaching and students' learning.

At our school we have moved more towards formative assessments, such as exit slips in math instead of chapter tests, and then we are giving quarterly summative assessments. The summative cover all of our essential grade level expectations (GLEs) for the quarter. I am afraid that we will see the kids do fine on the exit slips, but after a few months will fail to remember the content for a summative. Hopefully this method will work, but I am skeptical still. I am trying to bring out a question or two that relate to earlier lessons to spiral my teaching, so hopefully this will help.

Autumn's picture

I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for all of the helpful tips. I also use an assessment strategy, similar to the "exit ticket" you mentioned. I call it the "Ticket out the Door" in which students must answer two questions about the lesson in class before they are allowed to leave. This helps me check for understanding.

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