You’ve just presented a new concept, explained a new understanding or demonstrated a new strategy to your class. And then you hear yourself utter those four useless words … ‘Are there any questions?’ or the similarly ineffective, ‘Does that make sense?’
This phrase is heard in classrooms all over the world and is generally met with complete silence or the equally hollow: “I just don’t get it.”
The question we’re really asking is “Have I done my job? Do my students understand or is there more I need to do?”
But your students may not be able to articulate their gaps in understanding or explain their misconceptions without support and guidance from you.
This moment is pivotal in concreting student understanding, so make the most of this opportunity by using one of the following tools:
Show me what you know
Use low-stakes practice and checking to see what students have understood. Mini whiteboards or tablets are perfect for this as they allow students to work independently or collaboratively and their work is quickly visible to the teacher. Mistakes can be quickly amended and students can easily see each other’s responses to guide thinking and generate peer feedback.
Verbalisation in a safe environment is a critical step in understanding. But so often, it’s the students who have understood who contribute to discussions and verbal questions. Engage every student in verbalisation using the think-pair-share approach. This encourages students to talk to a partner before they share their ideas with the whole class.
When the people voted on the fate of the Roman gladiators, they used thumbs up and thumbs down to show their decision (interestingly in the opposite meaning to our modern-day interpretation). At various points throughout a lesson, ask the students to show how well they understand the skills or content using thumbs up (“I’ve got it!”), thumbs down (“I’m not following this.”) and everything in between. Use this information as a prompt to ask more questions and find out exactly where the gaps are.
Play a game
Applying new learning to a game situation is a great way to see the level of each student’s understanding. Try to use games that encourage talking so that students can continue to learn from each other and you as the teacher can listen for misconceptions and gaps in understanding. Look for games that provide support and scaffolds for students who you anticipate may struggle. Adding a dimension of ‘chance’ can help shift the focus onto the game strategy rather than relying entirely on student understanding.
Model it or act it out
You’re never too old to make models to show thinking. Presenting a skill or strategy using real life objects helps with transferring knowledge and concreting understanding, especially in mathematics. Acting it out can also be helpful for literacy knowledge, demonstrating comprehension or showing understanding of a problem. Make sure your classroom is stocked with manipulatives and props to help make this happen quickly and easily.
Draw it differently
Have students draw an alternative representation of the concept. This works well with mathematical strands but drawing is also a great way to show literacy understanding. Be sure to include drawing whenever you can to help make flexible representation part of your teaching and learning.
Celebrate a mistake
Mistakes are often the best way to show how a misconception can impact learning. Create a classroom environment where mistakes and myth-busting are celebrated. Encourage the courage of students who are willing to show how their mistake led to better understanding.
Teach a peer
We all know that additional expertise is required to teach a concept to someone else. Create opportunities for your students to teach each other. For students who are struggling, try to arrange for them to teach someone in a younger class. It is empowering and encouraging for students to feel like an expert.
Use an exit ticket or slip
For a more anonymous check up at the end of a lesson, provide an exit ticket. This can be one or more quick questions on a piece of paper, a prompt for guided reflection or even a sticky note with an emoji to show success.
Gradual release of responsibility strategy
Slow down the movement from teacher presenting to independent practice using the gradual release model. When introducing a new skill or concept, provide a clear lesson focus, allow for guided instruction and collaborative exploration before finally moving to independent practice. Use the steps to be proactive in checking understanding and rephrase, remodel or reteach as needed.