The importance of Checking for Understanding and Explaining: part one

Teachers are always seeking feedback from their students.  Those teachers who don’t seek feedback don’t seem to last very long in the profession.  Teachers who seek feedback often do it without even thinking.  We have to check that our students understand what has been taught.  Any good communicator checks with their audience to make sure they understand the message.  The ways we seek feedback can be as many and varied as the purposes of our search.  Failing to check for understanding can lead to mixed messages, misconceptions of fundamental concepts and frustration.  Whether you are in the world of education or not, a misunderstanding can lead to a terrible mess.

dr lift on three

A colleague of mine was complaining to me a few weeks ago, as she was frustrated with her extension class.   Some might be wondering why a teacher might be having difficulty with the top students but it doesn’t seem to matter where we ‘stream’ kids, they will always present a challenge or two for the teacher.

“I can’t fault their behaviour,” she said to me, “they do their homework and attempt all the classwork.”  She sighed.  “But, I get nothing back, they just sit and stare at me!”

This particular teacher had considerable experience with students who displayed — let’s call them– problem behaviours and often struggled with grade level work.  Deliberately seeking feedback from her students was unnecessary because if they didn’t understand they would act out.  They would get bored, as the information was too hard for them.  They would yell out, “I don’t get it,”  or “I hate this stuff.”  They would start throwing objects or vandalising school equipment.   If it was too easy, they would tell her so.  There were rarely any grey areas with these kids.

“I don’t know if they really understand what I’m teaching them,”  she continued.  “I show them what to do and I give them exercises from the text book and sometimes they seem to know what to do and sometimes they don’t.  I can’t read them like my other classes.”


This is where I stepped in.  “How do you get feedback from the class?” I asked.  This was met by my colleague with, “I ask them if they get it, they say yes, but when we get into the work some of them seem lost.”  Seeking feedback from the class and checking for understanding is the way to go here.  It takes lots of practice too.  Asking students if the “get it” before they have had a chance to “have a go” isn’t always effective.  Learners often need to try the process before they can tell which steps or parts are causing the confusion.  I suggested a few ways that this teacher could actively (and quickly) seek feedback from the students, at regular intervals during the lesson.  She went away with a plan.


Ready? it is important to know what your ‘colleagues’ are ready for when you coach them.  Sometimes they just need to vent and that is an important part of the process towards solving a problem.  Sometimes they will want some suggestions.

Set? It is always important for you to ask questions in order to guide them towards reflecting on their own practice and find a solution that works for them (I have a set of questions that I choose from when discussing issues).  I don’t tell my colleagues what to do, I ask questions, offer suggestions and guide them towards a next step.

Go! Often your colleague should walk away with a plan (a strategy to try, or a resource to use, or both).

Your real question: What did I suggest?

One feedback seeking technique that I LOVE is the traffic light indicator.  Many teachers have taken this idea and modified it to work for their classroom context.  But the idea is fairly simple: students use a traffic light colour to indicate how well they understand the concept being taught or the activity they are working on.  Green:  I get it and I’m working okay.  Yellow: I think I understand, but I need to check something with you.  Red: I don’t get it, I’m stuck, I can’t go on without your help.

traffic light assessmentplate flip book

I use coloured plastic plates that are fastened together using plastic curtain rings (pictured right, click here to read a different blog post describing use in the classroom).  I know other teachers who use plastic cups.  You can see some more examples of this ‘feedback seeker’ below.  My colleague decided to use coloured card and simply hand out one of each colour for students to use during the lesson.  The beauty of this one is that they have control of the cups/ cards/ plates and they can change them at any time during the lesson according to how they think they understand the concept.  It is also visual and easy for the teacher to monitor from any point in the room, but not really obvious to the rest of the class.

card flip book need help flip chart

ticket out the door

Other teachers use quiz questions, voting or hand signals (thumbs up if you get it, thumbs down if you don’t, hand flat if you are somewhere in between).   You can use individual whiteboards, ask a question of the class and get all the students to hold up their whiteboard with their answer.  You might ask students to think-pair-share or complete an exit slip at the end of the lesson.

hand signal feedback seeker

Essentially feedback is formative assessment; feedback tells us what the student can do and what they have learned.  It is essential to inform the teacher if the lesson objectives have been reached.  It helps the teacher plan the next move.  If my colleague had wanted other suggestions for formative assessment tools I would have emailed her the following links.

1. Teach Thought: 10 Assessments you can perform in 90 seconds

2. Teach 21 Strategy Bank: Examples of Formative Assessment

3. Dare to Differentiate: Formative Assessment Strategies

Whether you are a teacher or a coach, I hope you have found something useful to help you.  I wouldn’t be a very good coach, teacher or blogger if I didn’t seek your feedback!  Please click the like button, share this post or leave a comment below.  I would especially like to read about your methods for seeking feedback from your students.

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3 thoughts on “The importance of Checking for Understanding and Explaining: part one

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Explaining and Checking for Understanding- part two | Mel the Literacy Coach

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