Checking for Understanding on the surface level would seem to be a fairly easy concept.  Stopping a  lesson frequently to see what  students know or don’t know is not a difficult concept to understand or implement.  Simply deploying checks for understanding allows for reflection on the student which gives them the opportunity to think about what they have just learned.  Yet, this is only part of the power of checking for understanding.  Unless the teacher informs himself or herself of the moves they need to make as a result of the check for understanding, then it falls short of its full power.    This does not have to be a complicated process.  In fact, it is quite simple in nature.  Of course, 0nce a teacher gets good at the simplicity of this process, they then can become more creative with their approaches.

If there is any merit to using checking for understanding it is primacy recency. I remember when I was in middle school or high school, a new program came out that was titled “Where there is a Will, There is an A”.  I remember some of my teachers trying some of these approaches with me.  One in particular utilized primacy and recency.  We study in short bursts because we remember the first and the last things we see the best.  These times are where the most intense recollection of events are remembered.   This is where checks for understanding most fit in Teaching and Learning.  If any purpose for checking for understanding holds most importance it would be this.  But what do you do after you have checked for understanding?

If any process of the checking for understanding theory can get complicated, it is this step.  What to do after you have checked for understanding?  How do you inform which direction you take?  This is critical for the teacher.  An analogy I like to refer to was from Dylan Willam.  In a formative assessment interview, he compared not using checks for understanding (formative assessment) as similar to traveling.  If you are wanting to go to Scotland and just started flying for extended periods of time without ever actually checking to see if you are going the right direction would not make much sense.  How is this much different than teaching without ever checking to see if your students are thinking in the right direction.

This is where planning becomes critical.  Many teachers who keep plans in their head without ever writing them out to this extent may struggle to become good at checking for understanding.  We know the act of writing has been proven to be one of the most powerful tools to track, understand, and make sense of thinking.  If the field knows how powerful writing is, then why would we not utilize it in the planning stages?  Teachers who fail to write out plans may struggle to go deeper than simply deploying checks for understanding.  This is why schools must give teachers focused planning time during the work day. There are many external pressures put upon them by the national government, the state government, as well as local leadership.  Although this pressure for improvement is justified, teachers should be allowed to pursue their teaching style and be allotted ample time improve upon it it.   Regardless of how you teach, there are certain acts that can be utilized in any style of teaching.  These are universal moves that can be used in any classroom. Lecture alone can be enhanced with interactive lectures… Cooperative Learning can be highly structured for individual accountability…independent work can be broken into manageable chunks.  These moves are not new.  In fact, they are some of the oldest forms of thinking.  They are simple and effective.   Rather than trying something new, let us get really good at what we already do!

Simply deploying Checks for Understanding:

Below are two of the most simple forms of Checking for Understanding.  When used, they not only yield to the teacher what their students know, they also help the child in learning!  It is a win win scenario.

1.  Writing:

Do not underestimate what power writing has on the overall curriculum and what students learn.  Simply asking students to write what they think they understand is a form of  checking for understanding that allows depth of thought.  Depending on what you have students write on determines how far students can stretch.  Sometimes you want students to be tight in their writing, recording thinking that pertains only to the topic at hand, while other times you want students to expand upon the topic.  It can be in the form of a 10 minute write, a discussion thread or  a graphic organizer. It could take the form of text annotation. The writing can be approached through the answering of a quality deep question that forces students to reflect or asking students to summarize in their own words what they have learned.  Regardless of how you use writing, the act of writing down your thoughts aids in the learning process.  Pairing writing with discussion only strengthens the approach.  This allows the teacher to see what students are thinking.

2.  Discussion:

Discussion is best done in conjunction with writing but is not necessarily dependent on writing to be extremely beneficial.  The reason that writing is so critical is because it forces us to clarify our understanding using the only way we know how to communicate thought…through language.  Discussion deploys this same skill.  Allowing students time to talk about what they understand allows them to verbalize what they know.   As with writing, the extent of the discussion depends on what you are asking students to talk about.  Many times, it can take the form of quick Think Pair Shares or short conversations with groups of students.  It can be one on one with teacher or whole class.  They can ask students to summarize their learning in their own words or expand upon it.  However, this discussion could take the  form of more exhaustive tasks such as Socratic Seminar, and fishbowl discussions.  It could take the form of protocols that students follow that allow a structure to harness and deepen thinking.  Many of the protocols that are used in adult learning could easily be modified to fit learning at the student level.  Text rendering protocols such as Save the Last Word For Me,  The Four A’s , and The Final Word allow students to make meaning of what they are reading.  Protocols like the Consultancy Protocol could help students explore dilemmas they encounter in the content they are studying.  The following website holds several protocols for use with adults or students. This allows the teacher to hear what students are thinking.

Questioning  at the core of both:

At the very core of these two approaches are the use of questions.   Having high quality questions gives thinking direction and context.  It determines how deep and how shallow learning will go.  There are great tools out there in the form of question stems that can help teachers frame questions for students.  Questions however should not be the sole responsibility of the teacher.  Requiring and allowing students to question what they are encountering is and extremely profound way of owning learning.   As I argue consistently, if all teachers and Professional Learning Communities did was create great questions for the material they are teaching and plan structures to help students process these questions, this would increase student understanding considerably.

So after a teacher has done these two things…What do they do when they encounter student understanding or misunderstanding:

This perhaps is the most difficult area of checking for understanding without good lesson planning.  There are several simple ways to help students with misunderstanding and understanding.  No approach is fool proof and not one idea in education is 100% all the time.  These moves listed below are simple yet effective ways of addressing both.

Read writing as students are writing:

The simple act of reading what students are writing while they are writing should not be underutilized. You will not be able to get to all students every time, but the more frequent you have students write, the more opportunities you have to read different students writing.    You have the opportunity to quickly clear up any misunderstandings during learning.  It does not take a ton of planning time and you address any confusion in real time.

Read writing after students are done and create interventions:

This can be done in conjunction with the above but does not have to be.  Again, if a teacher does not map out their lessons, this step will be difficult to achieve.  Reading student writing and creating two to three categories of students…(get it…somewhat get it…do not get it) and designing different approaches for each tier of student is a simple place to start.  What enrichment will you do for the students who got it? Teach it to other students?  Allow them to deepen their understanding of the topic through questions?  What will you do for students who do not get it?  Allow them to partner with those that do? Allow them to reread the text or revisit the text asking different questions and different writing prompts.

If we did just these things well before, during, and after instruction, only then will we see the true power of formative assessment.  Checking for understanding does not have to be difficult.  It is at the core of a quality lesson plan.  Reading, Writing, and Discussing are the simplest forms of education and can be applied to any form of checking for understanding.  Checking for Understanding…put simply…is formative assessment.