Acquiring and Responding to Evidence of Understanding
In most classrooms in high-performing urban schools, student voices are heard more frequently than teacher voices. Teachers spend less time presenting. They spend more time trying to determine what students understand. Teachers present new information but then check almost immediately to determine if students heard, processed, and internalized the information accurately. Continually and persistently, teachers in high-performing schools check: Did this student understand? Does this make sense to her? Can he relate to this? Can she explain this in her own words?
In typical classrooms, teachers might lecture for ten, twenty, thirty minutes or longer before asking students questions. In contrast, in high-performing urban schools, teachers are asking questions every few minutes and in some cases, every few seconds. A teacher at William Dandy Middle School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Broward County Public Schools), offered her rationale for her frequent questioning by explaining, “I am assessing all the time. I need to know if my students are with me or not. I don’t let them fall behind, not even for a minute.”
Often teachers develop systems that allow them to check every student’s level of understanding efficiently. For instance, some teachers give students individual whiteboards and markers and expect them to write responses to a question simultaneously. For example, a teacher might say, “Write on your whiteboard a mathematical sentence that illustrates this story. Don’t show your answer until I ask you to do so.” Then, at the teacher’s signal, everyone raises their whiteboard and shows their work. The teacher can quickly look at every response and determine if all, most, a few, or no students answered correctly. This type of approach challenges all students to respond and allows the teacher to gauge the progress of students who have varying academic strengths and needs.
I am assessing all the time. I need to know if my students are with me or not. I don’t let them fall behind, not even for a minute.
In some classrooms, teachers acquire evidence of understanding by asking students to respond in unison. In these situations, teachers ask a question and then listen closely for variations in answers. We have also observed teachers listening carefully and noticing which student or students did not respond simultaneously with the group. For example, when the kindergarten teacher at C.E. Rose Elementary in Tucson, Arizona, did not hear every student answer her call for a group response, she said, “I didn’t hear Alejandro’s row,” in a manner that prompted those students to participate fully.
Frequently, teachers will follow up by calling upon students who were slow to answer and asking them to respond individually. Thus, the unison response should be more than a rote drill or a meaningless script. In high-performing urban schools, teachers use unison responses efficiently and effectively to determine that all students understand the information presented.
At Ira Harbison Elementary in San Diego, California (National School District), teachers use electronic clickers as a way of getting quick feedback about students’ levels of understanding. Students frequently use their clickers to “vote” for answers that appear on the electronic Smart Board. The technology allows teachers to determine which students answered correctly or incorrectly and adapt their instruction accordingly.
In many classrooms, teachers check for understanding by asking students to write short responses. As students write sentences or paragraphs, teachers rapidly circulate throughout the classroom observing what students are writing. Teachers watch students as they perform, allowing them to immediately see errors in thinking. Often, teachers quickly determine which students understand and which students need additional support.
In high-performing elementary, middle, and high schools, we observed teachers checking for understanding by engaging students in group discussions focused upon the lesson objective. Teachers stimulated discussion with thought-provoking, sometimes controversial, questions and then carefully monitored the discussion that followed. If discussion occurred in small groups, teachers rotated from group to group and listened to determine if students understood the key concepts associated with the lesson objective.
At R. N. Harris Integrated Arts/Core Knowledge School in Durham, North Carolina, a second-grade teacher used games that required students to work in teams in order to answer questions about the history and geography of China. While all students participated in deliberations about the answers to the questions, students took turns writing and reporting their group’s answers. As a result, all students were held accountable for demonstrating their learning.
Although teachers in high-performing urban schools use a variety of teaching strategies to acquire evidence of student understanding, the most common method seems to be frequent questioning targeted to individual students. Through their questioning, teachers create a climate in which students know that they must be attentive because there is a high likelihood that in the next moment, the teacher will pose a question that they will be expected to answer.
It is important to note that in high-performing urban schools, teachers do not accept silence as evidence of understanding. Rarely (if ever) in high-performing urban schools did we hear teachers check student understanding by asking, “Any questions?” Instead, teachers asked students to explain what they understood, discuss it, teach it to the student sitting next to them, write a letter to explain the procedure to a friend, draw a diagram, or engage in some other activity that would give the teacher a clear indication of what students understood and what unanswered questions remained.
What It Is
Checking to determine students’ level of understanding frequently.
Example: As the teacher tries to help students understand the relationship between the earth’s revolution around the sun and the four seasons, the teacher presents one PowerPoint slide that illustrates the tilt of the earth’s axis toward the sun during summer and then asks students a series of questions: Where is it going to be summer in this picture? Why? Where is it going to be winter in this picture? Why? Will the days be longer or shorter in the Northern Hemisphere? Why? Then, the teacher asks one student to stand and act the role of the sun and asks another to hold a Styrofoam model of the earth with a pencil axis. The teacher asks the students to model summer. Then the teacher asks other students the same series of questions. After asking at least a dozen questions, the teacher progresses to the next PowerPoint slide that illustrates the tilt of the earth’s axis away from the sun during winter. Then, the teacher poses a similar set of questions.
What It Isn’t
Infrequently checking to gauge students’ understanding.
Example: The teacher shows a PowerPoint presentation intended to explain the relationship between the earth’s revolution around the sun and the four seasons. With each PowerPoint slide, the teacher offers a three-minute lecture that discusses issues related to the tilt of the earth’s axis, the earth’s distance from the sun, and the differential impact on the hemispheres, the equator, and the poles. At the conclusion of the lecture, the teacher asks students to answer questions about the seasons.