Checking understanding is a critical ongoing aspect of instructional guidance. Teachers ask questions of students to discover both what they know and what they have yet to learn. They also use guiding questions to determine if prior knowledge is being used to link to new knowledge, and to scaffold continuing instruction.
Providing learning without well-crafted questions is like offering food to someone who is full—they won’t accept it if they aren’t hungry. Powerful questioning techniques will stimulate the appetite for learning, and make checking understanding a much more beneficial and informative teaching practice.
It’s the quality of the questions that matters most when checking understanding. What makes this challenging is that it has to happen quite quickly in a classroom. The instructor must assess where the student is and formulate a plan for getting them where they need to be, and often all in a few moments.
In the book Guided Instruction, authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey remind us of this.
” … as teachers we tend to be more comfortable with assessing the rightness or wrongness of an answer … Embracing an assumption of partial understanding is more difficult, especially because it demands rapid analysis, formulation of a hypothesis, and then creation of a plan for instructional response. In guided instruction, these decisions must occur in seconds in order to provide a prompt or cue.”
How do we ask the right questions to bring the best out of our learners? Additionally, what are some types of questions that can help teachers expedite the process of checking understanding?
Checking Understanding: Questions For Success
There are basically two types of questions we’ll talk about briefly: open and closed questions. Both play a role in checking understanding.
- Closed questions require either a single word or a short phrase to be answered (ex: yes/no, multiple choice).
- Open questions require thought and reflection, as well as a statement of opinions or feelings (ex: essential questions, essay questions).
Closed questions are good when you need to open a dialogue by ascertaining facts. They’re easy to answer and easy to understand. For the most part they can often sufficiently indicate the student’s place in the learning journey all on their own. Here are a few common examples used in pretty much every classroom:
- Have you finished the assignment?
- Do you have any questions?
- Do you understand this concept?
- Does this make sense to you?
- Are you doing okay with this?
- Would you be willing to help some other people who are struggling with this?
This last question is an empowering one for a few reasons. It’s useful primarily because one of the best ways for checking understanding is to have the student instruct others in the lesson material. This is a sure-fire way to know if the student truly “gets” the concepts you’re teaching.
Another reason is that it gives the student a sense of pride in ownership of their learning. A third reason is the feeling of altruism it provides by giving them a chance to help one or more of their peers. Most of all, it’s a way to build connection and community in the classroom environment.
Digging Deeper Into Understanding
When checking understanding or doing assessments, there are 4 things we need to keep in mind:
- What do we want students to learn?
- How will we know if they have learned?
- How will we respond when they don’t learn?
- How will we respond when they do learn?
The open questions are what we use in tandem with closed questions to get conversations about learning going. The answers allow us to determine the needs of our students. Where are they now, and how are they doing at this stage? Where do they need to be? How can we get them there?
Asking open questions shows that we have an investment in our students’ learning, and that we’re trying to achieve the same from them. They more they think critically, the more they connect to learning concepts and turn them into useful information. Strategically-designed open questions lead the way. Consider this example:
Have you finished the assignment? Yes.
- Do you have any questions about it?
- How can you apply what you’ve learned?
- What are we going to move onto next?
Have you finished the assignment? No.
- What did you struggle with?
- Is there something you need help with?
- What would help you to complete it?
- What were the barriers you faced?
This is an example of the direction you can steer a simple closed question. For example, rather than saying “Why didn’t you finish?” (which can make a student feel uncomfortable and even threatened), we can shift to a state of further inquiry.
We can discover deeper reasons as to why an assignment wasn’t completed, and bypass excuses to get to the true heart of the matter. Conversely, we can also encourage further investment in learning by giving some control of the direction to the student. So instead of saying “You finished, well done,” we can nudge them towards further reflection and initiative taking.