Are you interested in boosting student success? Of course you are!  One sure way to improve learning is to check for understanding. That means to monitor your students’ understanding of whatever you’re teaching, and to use what you learn to adjust instruction so that all students reach your lesson plan objectives. 

I’ve baked a lot of checking for understanding into the quizzes and flashcards on Learn-Biology.com. Those techniques are software versions of things I’ve been doing as a flesh-and-blood teacher for decades. If you want your students to learn lots of biology, then you have to bring monitoring understanding and adjusting instruction into the classroom. How?  By asking questions, but in a very structured, intentional way.

The big idea is for you to be a skeptic about your own effectiveness as an instructor. You’re not going to believe that you’ve achieved your goals until you’ve adequately sampled enough students’ responses to convince yourself that you’ve done a good job.

Asking questions is good, but you have to do it in the right way

A typical teacher questioning technique is to ask a question, and to call on students who raise their hands to respond. That’s not checking for understanding. It’s allowing students who know the answer to show what they know. It doesn’t tell you anything about what the other students in the class know (or don’t know).

To check for understanding, you have to adjust your questioning technique so that it allows you to sample student understanding. So the first step is to eliminate the question/hand raising sequence. Instead, you’re going to ask questions, and then randomly call on students to answer. But to do this, you have to set an emotional tone so that your questions don’t cause shame in students who don’t know the answer. You have to let your students know that your goal is to see how effective you’ve been at teaching the material. In other words, let your students know that your questions are just as much about you as they are about your students. If your students don’t know, it means that you haven’t been achieving the results that you set out to achieve.

Let your students know that before you start checking for understanding. Then proceed with the techniques below.

8+ Ways to Check for Understanding

1. Cold Call after Wait time

This is the most basic interaction.

  1. Ask a question, but make sure that it’s not directed at any particular student.
  2. Use 5 seconds of wait time, during which time you want all of your students to be thinking about the question, and mentally preparing to respond.
  3. Randomly call on a student.

Here’s an example of what this looks like and sounds like.

  1. You: “Okay. Now everybody think about this. What are the two most important things that happen during meiosis?
  2. Wait 5 seconds. While you’re waiting, look around the room in a such a way that every student thinks that they might be the one who will be called on.
  3. Randomly call on a student. Here are a few ways to randomize.
    • A lot of teachers have all of their students’ names on popsicle sticks. You randomly draw a stick, and read the name.
    • Call on a student, and ask them to pick a number from one to ten. Count 10 students in any direction away from the student you initially called on.
    • Start with a random student, and pay “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, Catch a tiger by the toe,” counting out one student per syllable.
    • Start with a random student, and spell out B-I-O-L-O-G-Y.
  4. After the selected student answers, you have a lot of options. One is to nod impassively and say “I’m just sampling the class right now, so I don’t want to say if your answer is correct or not. Instead, I’m going to pick another students, and ask that student to agree or disagree, and to explain why. Everybody ready?”
  5. In response to this, you’ll probably have a bunch of students say “What did they say?” That’s a good opportunity for you to reinforce the importance of students not only listening to you, but listening to one another.
  6. You can also ask another student to respond to the same question, but in their own words.

Note that if you follow steps 4, 5, and 6 above, you actually get to sample 2 (or even three or more) students’ understanding from one question.

2. Cold Call after Wait Time, after a Partner Share

This (like most of the examples that follow) is a variation on “Cold call.” You’re always going to randomly sample (and not call on hand raisers). Here’s how this works.

  1. Ask your question (directed at the entire class).
  2. Use 5 minutes of wait time, during which time each student thinks of their answer.
  3. Have students turn to a table partner and talk through their answer
  4. Randomly call on a student, and follow through as in the cold call sequence above.

3. Cold Call after Wait Time, after a written response

This is the same as above, except instead of a partner share, you have students write down their response.

  1. Ask your question (directed at the entire class).
  2. Use 5 minutes of wait time, during which time each student thinks of their answer.
  3. Have students write their answer down.
  4. Randomly call on a student, and follow through as in the cold call sequence above.

4. Cold Call after Wait Time, a written response, and partner evaluation

Take the sequence above. After students write down their response, they share their response with their table partner. Then ask everyone who thinks that their partner wrote a great response to stand up. Right there, you have some very valuable data. Now go ahead and have some randomly selected students read their partner’s response aloud. There’s some more data. Now you’re getting a real sense of how well your students are understanding what you’ve taught.

5. Zoom waterfall

I picked this up during the Pandemic. It worked great in an online context, but my plan is for time to time, during lecture or discussion, to have my students respond to a question by typing in their response to the chat in Zoom. KEY POINT: Everyone types in their response, but no one sends it in until you tell them to. When students send their messages, you get to check understanding to a fantastic degree.

Sometimes, to make responding feel very safe, you might have students direct message you. That’s kind of like doing an anonymous poll. But other times, you’ll want students to respond publicly. Then you have students read one another’s responses, and identify exemplary responses.

6. Finger Biology

Biology is a very visual discipline, and it’s important for students to be able to understand visual representations. A key step toward doing that is to be able to identify the parts of a diagram, and/or to explain that part’s function. So if you were teaching your students about membrane transport and you had a diagram like this…

…you could check for understanding by playing “Finger Biology.”

Here are the rules

  1. No one talks. Emphasize that it’s essential to the activity for students to remain silent after the question.
  2. You ask the question such as “Which process requires ATP?”
  3. You wait five seconds
  4. Holding their fingers as close to their chests as possible (so that no one else can see), students flash you 1, 2 or 3 fingers.
  5. You scan the room, checking for understanding.

As an extension, you can randomly call on students, and ask them to justify their answer. You can do this with students who have the right answer or the wrong answer.

7. Self-reflective checking

Have students engage in some cognitive task. You can ask your students, for example, to silently explain to themselves the difference between facilitated and simple diffusion. Or, they can write the answer down. Ask them to privately hold up 5 fingers if they understand the difference perfectly well, and 1 finger if they understand it poorly. Scan the room. Randomly call on students to say the answer. If you’re calling on students who raised 3 or fewer fingers, be clear to them that you want to see how you (the teacher) messed up in teaching the concept, and hearing from a student who doesn’t feel confident will help you to figure out how to explain it better.

8. Student white boards and markers

For this to work, you need at least a 1/2 class set of white boards and markers. Ask a question. Have students (individually or in partners) write down or sketch their response. After a set period of time, have students hold their white boards up so that you can check for understanding.

You can follow this up by having students explain what’s on their white board to the class.

There are so many ways to do this

Checking for understanding should be something that you do all the time.

  • If you want to go high tech, you can use a Student Response System.
  • At the end of class, you can have your students write exit tickets.
  • If your students are taking notes in a lecture, you can have them take notes in Cornell format. After a certain number of minutes of instruction, you can have the students annotate their notes. Then you randomly call on a student to list a key point or ask a question…and then randomly call on another student to explain it.

There’s no limit. The important thing is that you do it…all of the time.