Checking for Understanding / by Tyler Wood

I teach fourth graders ESL, so my situation calls for frequent checks naturally to make sure the students are understanding what I am saying since it’s a second language for them. My top five methods for frequently checking for understanding are pretty simple and straight forward. 

1. Observation - “By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students’ levels of understanding in just a few moments” (Finley, 2014). I don’t use an observation form, but I do take notes on my schedule everyday as I see the students working, especially in groups. I am always moving around the classroom checking their work as I pass. When I find a mistake I want to address (I usually let spelling and minor grammar mistakes go when the focus is not spelling or grammar so they can have uninterrupted writing time) I will use my second method of checking for understanding.

2. Private talks - If and when I see something that should be addressed to guide learning I will stop and talk to the student about their work and help them address the concern. This allows for a student that may have been too shy to speak or a student who doesn’t even know they are having trouble get some guidance without having to ask. It also keeps the rest of the class in the dark because I’m not addressing it openly so they don’t have to feel embarrassed. 

3. Ask - The most direct and simple method I use is to just ask. I try and make my classroom as comfortable as possible for the students to make sure they feel comfortable asking questions without feeling like they will be made fun of or get rejected or turned down by me if they are ‘wrong’. “According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts: How much time and effort did you put into this? What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment” (Finley, 2014)? I also like to ask students when they are about to turn in work if they are happy with their work. If someone were to see this would you feel comfortable with that? I have many students really think about it and sit down to double check their work and make sure they did their best on it. I don’t do this to make them feel like they need to do more, but to make them take some responsibility for their effort. I want them to be able to say to themselves, this is my best work and I’m happy to turn it in. 

4. Homework and assignments - I always look over the homework and assignments to see how well the students are showing they understand the content and/or skills presented in class. I have had homework a few times come back and I was surprised because I thought the kids understood because of their responses in class only to find their homework was lacking. This helps me differentiate the class and re-teach lessons or concepts to make sure the students understand. I will continue to re-teach until they can show me evidence that they understand.

5. Exit slips - “Exit slips allow the teacher to collect students’ responses and plan accordingly for the next class session, differentiating for the abilities and understanding of different students. This strategy is extremely useful in the classroom because it takes just a few minutes to do, and gives teachers an informal measure of the students’ understanding of a new lesson or concept” (Simon & Striegel, n.d.). I have just recently started using this method of checking for understanding and it has worked well so far. 

When all of the students do not understand it seems pretty obvious that the technique I used just was not effective, so I re-teach the lesson in a different way. If I get good feedback on what exactly they are having trouble with, then I can focus on something they are missing to get the ball rolling. Otherwise, I will redesign the lesson and add much more frequent checks for understanding that involves less active responses from the students. I will be more proactive with my checking to make sure they are understanding the second time. 

When most of the students do not understand I would do almost the same thing as if all the students did not understand, except I would take advantage of the few students who did understand and have them lead small groups as well. That way I can move from group to group and do mini-lessons for more focused learning and the other groups won’t be sitting there confused until I show up to help them. 

When a few of the students do not understand I will also use small groups, but this time in the reverse way as before. This time I will separate the students having trouble into separate groups in order to get help from their teammates, and I will not re-teach the whole lesson. I would design a lesson where the product would entail using the skills or concepts and have the group help the students that don’t understand with the ideas in the process. I would also be moving from group to group focusing on those students with mini-lessons to help them keep pace with the other students in the group.

When only one student does not understand I would offer them special tutoring time to focus my attention on them catching up. It could be while the rest of class is working on something else, or after class during my free classes. This way I will not have to stop the class when everyone else is understanding, but I’m not leaving the child to sink farther into trouble as they pile on more content or skills when they have not mastered the last one yet. 

Click below for an analysis of the student data collected in class. 

Student Performance Data Analysis


Finley, T. (2014, July). Dipsticks: efficient ways to check for understanding. Edutopia. Retrieved from

Simon, C.A. & Streigel, P. (n.d.). Strategy guide: exit slips. Read Write Think. NCTE. Retreived from

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