Getting the Most Out of Your Checks for Understanding

When we’re in the middle of a lesson, it can be hard to tell if everyone is ‘getting it.’ Can we really trust a thumbs-up to mean they understand? And what about during discussions or complex tasks when it’s not easy to assess with a quick question or two. Checks for understanding (CFU’s) can be hard to do well.
In order to check more strategically, consider this: Checks for understanding can either assess everyone or push everyone. They rarely do both and that’s okay. You just have to go in knowing that and planning for one or the other. Here are some strategies for both:
Checks for understanding that ASSESS everyone:

  • Using mini white boards to have all students show their answers at the same time can quickly let you know who needs extra help and who is ready to move on. There are also electronic ‘student response systems’ that allow students to use clickers to share answers in the moment.
  • Circulating during work time to spot check every student’s paper and tallying who ‘gets it’ and who doesn’t. Many teachers print out class lists and keep them on a clipboard to do this efficiently.
  • Self-assessments can be an empowering CFU as students analyze and own their understanding by assessing themselves on a rubric or checklist or giving you a visual self-assessment like fist-to-five or thumbs-up. Be careful with these, though. If students aren’t invested, they’ll throw up a half-hearted thumbs-up or check off the skills carelessly, resulting only in misinformation and wasted time.
  • Exit tickets at the end of class are the classic example. Students complete and turn in a short assignment that assesses every student’s level of mastery, letting you know whether you need to reteach the objective the next day or the specific students who need extra support.

Checks for understanding that PUSH everyone:

  • Not all skills can easily be assessed using white boards or 2-minute exit tickets and that’s okay. For example, literary analysis and complex problem-solving tasks. In these situations, design your CFU’s with the intention of pushing all students knowing that you’ll only be able to assess a few in a given class period. A typical CFU scenario in this case might be:
    • Pose a rigorous question, problem, or task.
    • Students grapple alone for a bit, writing out their ideas and answers. Teacher circulates, checking in as necessary.
    • Grapple in groups for a bit. Teacher circulates, listening and asking questions.
    • Cold call a few to share out.
    • Reflect in groups. Teacher circulates, listening and asking questions.
    • Students write on their own, correcting or expanding on their original ideas.
  • In the above situation, you probably won’t hear from all students to know if they definitively ‘got it’ or not. What you will definitely know, though, is that all students spent substantial time processing, problem-solving, listening to each other’s ideas, and deepening their understanding.
  • As you circulate, you can take notes on how individual students fared during the activity – did they talk a lot, write very little, look confused or uncomfortable, stay quiet but write fluently about their ideas? Learning how your students work through rigorous tasks will help you become more adept at informally assessing their progress when quick assessments aren’t possible.

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