checkmanChecking 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. In this case, it’s the quality of the questions that matters most when checking understanding.

In a classroom situation, checking understanding has to happen quite quickly. The instructor must assess where the student is and formulate a plan for getting them where they need to be—often all in a few moments. In the book Guided Instruction, authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey remind us of this.

“A core assumption is that the things a learner says and does make perfect sense to the learner, based on what she knows and doesn’t know at that moment in time. This is a big assumption, because 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.” (Checking Understanding, 2010)

So what are some types of questions that can help teachers expedite the process of checking understanding? How do we ask the right questions to bring the best out of our learners?

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. They can often sufficiently indicate the student’s place in the learning journey for making further scaffolding decisions.

  • 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. Primarily, it’s useful 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. 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:

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they have learned?
  3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
  4. 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.

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?

The above are examples of directions you can take 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.

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