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How to Check for Deeper Understanding and Engage All Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Consider the following two scenarios, though fictitious. Two different teachers teaching the same learning objectives using checking for deeper understanding as their main method and strategy.

Classroom X: Understanding Gone Wrong

"What do plants eat?"

Some students raise their hands, most just look at their teacher. The teacher then asks one of the boys frantically waving his hand in the front of the room. "Charles, you look like you know the answer."

"They eat dirt!"

"Well, that is not precisely the right answer. Does anyone else have another idea of what plants eat?"

"Plants eat people!" one boy answers," I saw it in a movie!"

After getting the class to stop laughing, teacher X persists. "Yes there are carnivorous plants, but none large enough to eat people."

"But if people are buried, and plants grow on top of them, don't they eat people then?" one student conjectures. Now the teacher is sorry that he compared animals eating to plants eating!

"Yes, you have a point there. But who can tell me how plants get their energy?"

"No one else? What about you Joe, what do you think?"

" I don't know, sir."

"How about you Sally? Where do plants get their food?"

"Oh, I get it! They get it from fertilizer! That is why we have plant food!"

"Well, yes we do buy fertilizer for plants and some times we call that 'plant food.'" X tries another tact, "But do any of you have plants inside your house?"

A few hands are raised tentatively.

"Ok, what happens to the plants when you leave on vacation?

"They dry up and wilt. That's it isn't it! They get their food from the water!"

"No, the water is not their food. All right, let me just tell you. Plants get their food from the sun," the teacher tells the students resignedly.

Now some of the students looking strangely at their teacher. A hand goes up, "What does the sun have to do with feeding plants?

"Because plants are green, plants can use a process called photosynthesis to convert energy from the sun's light to sugar! Do you want to know how that works?"

"Plants eat light?"

"Oh let's move on. Here is the worksheet."

Classroom Y: A Better Questioning Model

"What do plants eat?"

Some students raise their hands, most just look at their teacher. Teacher Y asks one of the boys frantically waving his hand in the front of the room. "Charles, you look like you know the answer."

"They eat dirt!"

"Well, that is not precisely the right answer. But how could we find out what plants eat if they eat at all?"

"We could perform an experiment," a girl conjectures.

"Great idea! Let's all go outside to do an experiment, but first I have to prepare you for the experiment. You are all going to pretend to be plants. Your faces will be the leaves of your plant. No, we will not paint your faces green, but you have to imagine that they are full of chloroplasts -- the organelles within plant cells that make the leaves look green. Next you will need to bring your field notebook and a pencil. Ready? Ok, let's go to the field."

Teacher Y gives instructions, "Everyone sit on the grass please. Ok, close your eyes. Your faces are the leaves of the plants. What do you all feel on your face? Just say it out loud, all at once."

"The wind," say some, others say, "Coldness."

"Yes, there is a slight wind. What else do you feel?"

The students do not respond for a moment.

"OK, here comes the experiment. Raise your field notebooks above your head to shade your face. Now what do you feel?"

All the students respond in general, "It feels cooler."

"Everyone tell your neighbor why you think it feels cooler?"

The general consensus with the students was the notebook blocked the sun.

Teacher Y notes that he needs to correct some thinking, "The notebook would burn up if it blocked the sun. Everyone, what was it really that notebook blocks?"

"Ahhhh! Light from the sun."

"Now lower the notebooks. Ask your partners, 'Now, what do all of you feel?"

In general the students agree, "I feel heat from the sun."

"Describe to your partner what heat is."

Teacher Y then asks the students to make a judgment, "If you think that heat is a form of energy, raise your notebooks in the air."

All notebooks rise.

"If you think dirt is a form of energy, raise your notebooks in the air."

No notebooks are lifted.

"Class, how do animals get their energy to survive?"

In chorus, the students respond, "They eat living things."

"Wonderful! You remember the food cycle. If eating is the way animals get their energy, how do plants get their energy?

"The sun."

Teacher Y feels he needs to get the students to be precise, "Remember, the sun would burn them up. How do plants get their energy from the sun?"

"They soak up light from the sun."

"Back to my first question. Class, what do plants eat?"

All the students respond, "They eat light from the sun."

"Do plants eat?"

"No, they soak up light from the sun!"

"What do plants eat?"

"They don't eat. They soak up light from the sun."

"That is correct. Take a minute to write down in your field notebook how we learned that plants get energy from the sun's light. When we go inside again, we will learn how the green chloroplasts in plant leaves turn the sun's light energy into food using adenosine triphosphate, or ATP."


Both teachers asked good questions. One teacher made them effective using a strategy that aligned them with getting the student's attention, engaged more than one student at a time, and was scientifically sound. Teacher X's failure was class discussion, one student at a time. Teacher Y's success was engaging all students. How do you engage all of your students by checking for deeper understanding?

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tammy Stephens's picture
Tammy Stephens
President eClass4learning

I think another dynamic that makes the second scenario more engaging than the first is the communication patterns the teachers used. The questions in the first scenario were not very engaging because they were premised on known answers the teacher was seeking. Even in the second scenario the communication patterns are still fairly hierarchical and teacher driven with minimal interactivity between students.

I think one way the second scenario could have been bumped up another notch in improving student engagement would be after the student suggested they could perform an experiment would be to take student input on how to design an experiment that would help them answer the question of whether or not plants eat.

As you noted this would require that the teacher have sound scientific knowledge about photosynthesis. The role of the teacher would be to help guide and challenge students in their thinking and would not be scripted or teacher driven. This requires very different communication patterns and questioning strategies than the teacher in the first scenario used.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thanks for the great insights. I totally agree. The best method would have been to let the students figure out a way to really find out if plants eat or not.

I obviously chose a middle ground to showcase the idea that teachers need to do more than engage students in discussion. Taking students outside to experience the energy source for plants is something regular teachers could do with little investment in preparation. My message was simply that I would like to see teachers bump it up a notch to get their students to use more of their senses.

Then, little by little, the students would thus be ready to design their own experiment, rather than participate in one the teacher dreamt up.

Thanks for the assist!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thanks so much in sharing this resource. There are a few other things that I would add to the presentation, but for two minutes and thirty seconds (is that the approximate attention span of teachers? [GRIN]) I think it was great. I suppose that this sparked a great conversation and discussion on how to engage all students in the classroom! Well done!

{Oh, the other things I would add would be Total Physical Response, Personal White Boards, Electronic Clickers, and Choral Answers.}

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I fully agree in the importance of considering ways to engage all students rather than settling for one-student-at-a-time, teacher-to-student discussions. In an effort to increase engagement for all students, I shared this presentation with the teachers at our school. This video features several student response strategies:[/quote]

Tim E Howard's picture
Tim E Howard
Adjunct Instructor/ American Governemnt

I can easily relate to Teacher X and the lack of reasonable answers, or any answer for that matter. Even though I am new to teaching, it did not take long to see that getting students to actively participate in the lesson is not easy. I am teaching college students and many of them are as distracted as I imagine elementary students are.
In the example of Teacher X, I saw a mistake I have made myself: asking a question that was too open-ended and expecting the students to respond as it were a more focused question. I soon realized that even though I am very aware of the subtleties contained in my field of study, the students are not. That is not a mark against them but against me for failing to consider this first.
Teacher Y had a much more thought out system which drew the students in. She also got them to interact together which strengthens the learning experience for all.

Luis's picture

As a math teacher, at times I feel the same way that teacher X feels. I have had moments in the class where students do not respond or do not have the right answer. I pick up after I ask the question that my questions are unclear or they are too open-ended. Over the past few months I have been able to improve my questioning to get my students engaged in the lesson.

Teachers Report's picture

Engaging all students is not a easy task for a teacher. But this model will help teachers a lot. Thank you.

L Chase Lawrence's picture

I use small white boards in my math class. It allows the eager beavers to answer immediately while at the same time giving more think time to those who need it. It keeps all learners engaged and I get instant feedback from all students as they hold up their boards. Even shy students will engage as it is less threatening to silently hold up a board that only I can see. I can then move around the room to help those that need it or ask partners to help each other. It usually helps get students talking to each other, too instead of me being the sole source of information and correct answers.

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