The Cure for “I Taught It, but My Students Didn’t Learn It”

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. and Cara Riggs

 (#5 in a series of blogs focused on Equity, Excellence in E-learning)

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“I can’t believe my students got this wrong! I know I taught this in detail! And, I know my students were paying attention. They were right in front of me, looking at me as the explanations came out of my mouth! They were smiling and nodding, showing me they understood! How could they have misunderstood this so completely?”

We’ve heard similar stories of disbelief and frustration from teachers across the nation. The “I taught it, but my students didn’t learn it” syndrome strikes regularly, and perhaps more frequently than ever now that so many teachers are engaged in distance learning. Nuthall (2005) explained that we tend to believe that telling and teaching are the same thing. Often, the evidence suggests otherwise. If I “tell it,” I can be relatively certain that I’ve learned it, but I have no certainty that anyone else has learned it. In contrast, when we visit classrooms in high-performing schools (either 

Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools Second Edition Book Cover

virtually or in-person), we find teachers who relentlessly seek evidence that their students are able to explain, exhibit, discuss, model, compare, analyze, justify, critique, and provide other demonstrations of their understanding of key lesson concepts. In high-performing schools, teachers frequently and meticulously check to ensure each student’s understanding, they provide students helpful feedback to reinforce and deepen understanding, and they are not afraid to adapt their teaching moves when teachers realize students are misunderstanding important concepts.

After observing an outstanding lesson in a high-performing school, we asked the teacher how she knew her students understood the concept she wanted the students to learn. She responded:

I asked my students to answer three questions on their whiteboards. Almost all of the kids answered each question correctly. Four did not, so I need to work with them more tomorrow. When the students answered correctly, I asked them to explain why their answers made sense. I called upon students randomly and their answers were right on target. Then, I asked different students to modify the problem and explain how the solution would change. I was pretty impressed that almost all of them could do so. I just need to spend more time tomorrow with my group of four who didn’t get it.

As Fisher and Frey (2007) suggested, this teacher used a variety of questioning techniques, writing tasks, and student performances to acquire information about what students understood, misunderstood, or had yet to understand. Johnson, Uline, and Perez (2019) provided the following descriptions of effective checking for understanding.

Checking Understanding, Providing Feedback, and Adapting




 Frequently asking questions throughout a lesson to ascertain what students understand and what they don’t understand.

Assuming students understand when they are silent when the teacher asks, “Any questions?”

Checking understanding of all students, especially students more likely to struggle with the concept/skill being taught.

Assuming no additional checking for understanding is necessary when one child answers correctly.

Asking questions that require deeper levels of understanding.

Asking questions that require only the recall of facts.

Providing feedback that advances student understanding.

Providing no feedback or feedback that reinforces students’ misconceptions.

Adapting teaching strategies when evidence suggests students don’t understand.

Persisting with teaching strategies even when evidence suggests students are not understanding.

As educators in high-performing schools pursue e-learning strategies, we find them utilizing a variety of e-learning strategies to check for understanding, provide feedback, and adapt instruction. For example, we find teachers:

  • Engaging in online teacher collaboration meetings where colleagues brainstorm ideas for asking students questions that require higher-order thinking
  • Frequently asking students to use the private chat feature in various programs to respond to teacher questions 
  • Using private chat to call upon students who do not respond to questions
  • Engaging students in organizing and leading Socratic seminars or similar approaches during which they engage in deep conversations about important academic concepts
  • Highlighting excellent student responses and asking students to describe why the student responses are excellent
  • Providing students opportunities to work in breakout groups to respond to teacher questions
  • Using short asynchronous lessons for student independent work and maximizing the use of synchronous lesson time for interactive discussions and similar opportunities to check for understanding
  • Using “exit tickets” at transition points within lessons (not just at the end of the lesson) to ensure that all students are understanding key concepts
  • Working with small groups of students (in breakout rooms) who demonstrated that they did not yet understand a key concept


E-learning can present great opportunities to address the “I taught it, but my students didn’t learn it” syndrome. Through e-learning, educators can help ensure that all their students develop solid understandings of key concepts.


 Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for Understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

 Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.

 Nuthall, G. (2005). The cultural myths and realities of classroom teaching and learning: A personal journey. Teachers College Record, 107(5), 895-934. 

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