Check for Understanding: What Are You Learning About Your Students During the Lesson?

Teachers often focus on what students will learn during a lesson. Rarely, do we stop and ask ourselves, “What will I learn about what my students know or can do during this lesson?” This is a critical question that teachers should ask themselves as they design the parts of their lesson. We need to build in mechanisms into our lessons to collect formative assessment data.

In my previous post, I focused on strategies teachers can use before a lesson to assess prior knowledge. In addition to determining where each student is starting in terms of their content knowledge or skills, teachers should collect data during the lesson to gauge what students know. That data allows us to make adjustments on the spot or guide the design of the next lesson or sequence of lessons.

Checking for understanding and collecting formative assessment data during a lesson can be tricky if the teacher is engaged with a small group or working one-on-one with students. I recommend leaning on technology whenever possible to streamline this process. Technology tools have the benefit of quickly collecting, surfacing, and storing data. Some technology tools, like polling or quiz tools, provide immediate results that can be used during the lesson. Other technology tools can capture and store information for teachers to reference after the lesson. Teachers can use this data to design subsequent lessons to ensure individual students get exactly what they need in terms of follow up instruction, coaching, scaffolds, and personalized practice.

Below are strategies I have used during my lessons to learn about what my students know or can do.

1. Poll the Class with Mentimeter

Polling is a quick way to assess what your students think about a topic, vocabulary word, or problem. I like Mentimeter’s polling feature, which updates in real-time as students select their answers. Simply type the question and options you want to appear on the Mentimeter slide and project it.

Students can use any device to select an option. The results change as students enter their responses creating a visually dynamic experience. You can use the results of the Mentimeter poll to guide the direction of the lesson.


Mentimeter does not allow teachers to view individual student selections, so this strategy works best to get a general picture of what the group thinks or knows.

2. Post a Picture on Padlet

When students are working offline, it’s useful to have them share a picture of their work so you can assess the quality and accuracy. I suggest teachers use a tool like Padlet to have students share a snapshot of their learning. That way all of the pictures are in one place for quick reference.

Math teachers can have students share photos of a math problem. Science teachers can ask students to share images from a lab or STEM challenge. English teachers can ask students to share an image of an annotated poem. These photos provide an overview of where the class is at, while also allowing you to see individual student work.

Another aspect of this strategy that I like is that learning can be shared and made public. Students can see what their peers have done or created. Teachers can design a follow-up activity in which students post comments to each other’s Padlet Wall images, videos, or explanations. This can be used to drive inquiry, reflection, or thoughtful critiques.

3. Quick Check with Google Forms or Schoology

I avoid the word “quiz” intentionally because it is a word the arouses anxiety. Plus, the students’ scores on a “quick check” are not something I would put into a grade book. This is a strategy I use to get a clear picture of what students know. I encourage teachers to explain that a quick check is a teaching tool, not an assessment tool. It is designed to gather information that can help the teacher to identify gaps in understanding and improve the lesson.

Teachers can use Google Forms and run the quick check like a quiz. If they use a combination of multiple-choice, true/false, and short answer questions, the Google Form will grade itself providing immediate data. Similarly, teachers using Schoology can create short quick checks using the assessment tool, which also allows them to include matching and sorting questions that can be graded automatically.

For a quick check, I design questions with one correct answer because I want the software to automatically grade the students’ responses and spit out immediate data I can use. Once I identify where the gaps are, I can pull individual students into a coaching session or design follow-up lessons to support students who need additional instruction, reteaching, and/or practice.

4. Video Check-in with FlipGrid

FlipGrid makes it possible for students to record themselves doing a variety of activities. These video recordings provide insight into what they know or can do. When I was coaching a second-grade teacher, we used FlipGrid to capture a sample of each student reading to assess their fluency. The students selected a passage, read it three times on their own, partnered up and took turns reading with their partner, then recorded themselves reading the passage on FlipGrid. This all happened at a station that was not the teacher-led station. FlipGrid made it possible for the teacher to collect reading samples from every student in a single class period.

Teachers can ask students to:

  • Explain how they solved a problem.
  • Describe the strategies they used to complete a task.
  • Summarize the main ideas from a chapter in a textbook.
  • Make predictions about what they expect to happen in a lab or in a novel.
  • Identify a new vocabulary word and explain it to their peers.
  • Reflect on what they understand as well as what is confusing about a topic, text, or task.

Instead of relying solely on written explanations to assess what students know or can do, video requires that students communicate verbally. For some students, this is easier and for others, it is more challenging. It’s important to mix it up, so that students who struggle to communicate their ideas verbally have opportunities to practice when the stakes are low. On the flip side, it gives students who excel at verbally articulating their thoughts the opportunity to surface their learning that way.

5. Observe and Capture Data with a One Skill Rubric

Observation is one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s toolbelt. Watching students navigate tasks or engage in conversation with peers can provide a clear picture of their content knowledge and skill set. The biggest challenge is capturing what a teacher sees in the moment, especially when working with a large class.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to use one skill rubrics to quickly capture data as they observe students at work. For example, teachers who are observing a Socratic seminar or a small group discussion can create a rubric aligned with a speaking and listening standard. In advance of the activity, the teacher must identify the standard they want to focus on, decide on a grading scale, and describe what the standard/skill “looks” like at each level. I use a four-point scale that breaks down the learning into 1–beginning, 2–developing, 3–proficient, and 4–mastery.

I suggest teachers make photocopies of these single skill rubrics, so they have a stack during class. As they observe students engaged in conversation, they simply circle the language that most closely aligns with what they are seeing. I encourage teachers to share this formative assessment data with students, so the students understand where they are in terms of their skills and what they need to do to develop.

Teachers can make single skill rubrics for any standard/skill they want to assess in a lesson. The most challenging part of this strategy is articulating what the learning looks like at each level. That said, the descriptions will save you time and help students understand what they need to do to progress to the next level.

6. Connect the Dots & Share Work in a Google Slide Deck

Give students a list of key concepts, dates, important people, and/or academic vocabulary from a chapter and ask them to “connect the dots” or concepts by creating a flowchart, timeline, or concept map (their choice) to show the connections between the various ideas.

This can be done individually, in pairs, or in a small group at a station. When students are done, ask them to take a photo of the visual they have created and insert it into a shared Google Slide deck. That way, it’s easy for you to reference the students’ work in a single location and the slide deck becomes a resource for the class.

If you have a favorite strategy you use to check understanding during a lesson, please post a comment and share it!

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Assessing Prior Knowledge: What Do Your Students Already Know?

Designing a one-size-fits-all lesson assumes that every student is starting from the same point. The reality is that students enter our classrooms with varied skillsets and prior knowledge. If teachers assess their students’ knowledge before diving into an explanation, lesson, or unit, they might be surprised by the wealth of experience and information that students bring into the classroom.

I had the pleasure of working with teachers in Texas this week. During the workshop, we explored strategies designed to assess prior knowledge (pre-lesson), check for understanding (during the lesson), and encourage students to reflect on their learning (post-lesson). I realized I had not written a blog about these strategies. I am dedicating the next three blog posts to discussing strategies teachers can use to collect informal data before, during, and after a lesson. The more teachers build mechanisms into their lessons to collect data, the more likely they are to adjust their lessons for learners at different levels.

Below are strategies I have used to gauge what students know prior to a lesson or unit. For any of these strategies to be effective, students must feel safe taking risks. Even though they may have some previous knowledge, they may not feel confident that they are “right.” I explain that these strategies will help me to understand what they know about a topic, so I can tailor the lesson or unit to their needs. Students need to know that they will not be graded or judged based on the accuracy of their answers.

1. Concept Map

Give students a concept map with a topic, problem, historical event, or person’s name. Then ask them to fill in as much information as possible using the structure of a concept map, like the one pictured below. Alternatively, students can create a free form concept map linking key ideas and information to a central topic.

2. Online Discussion

Unlike a class discussion in which only a handful of students get the opportunity to share their ideas, online discussions give everyone a voice. You can post a discussion question online using Google Classroom or Schoology and give students 5-10 minutes to describe what they know about a topic, concept, problem, historical event, or famous person. Ask them to describe where they learned this information–a conversation with a parent, a book or movie, another class, or from life experience. 

3. Carousel Brainstorm

Put posters with a word, concept, or problem in each of the four corners of the room. As students move around the room, the goal is to add their thoughts, ideas, and prior knowledge to the posters. If you use big pieces of poster paper, students can write the information directly on the poster. Alternatively, you can print the topics on computer paper and ask students to write information on post-it notes and stick them on the wall.

If you post math problems around the room, ask students to explain how they think they might solve each problem. What strategies would they use? Why?

4. Three Things…Word Association

Ask students to share the first three words that come to mind when they hear a topic, concept, problem, historical event, or famous person’s name. Asking students to share the first three words they associate with a topic can reveal a lot about what information or misconceptions they are bringing into the learning environment.

You can have them share these words offline with post-its or post them online using Mentimeter. Mentimeter will transform their responses into a real-time word cloud. Words that are entered by multiple students will appear larger in the cloud amplifying the common associations that students are making. Teachers using Mentimeter cannot view individual student’s contributions to the word cloud, so this activity works better to read the room in terms of prior knowledge.

5. Two Minute Talks

Pair students up and ask them to spend a minute each describing what they believe they know about a topic. Encourage them to explain where they learned that information. During these quick chats, you can circulate around the room observing and listening. It amazes me how much I learn by simply watching students and listening to their conversations. In just a couple of minutes, I get a clear sense of who has prior knowledge on a topic and who does not.

6. 90 Second Brain Dump

Teachers who enjoy quick writes can give students 90 seconds to write everything they know about a topic. I use a Google Form for these quick brain dumps so that the students’ responses are shuttled to a Google Sheet. That makes it easy to skim their responses or use Control+F to search for keywords to see how frequently they occur in the sheet. This provides insight into what the class knows about this topic, but I can also look at individual responses to gauge a specific student’s knowledge of the subject.

If you have a strategy you use for assessing prior knowledge, please post a comment and share it! I love hearing what works well for other educators.

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Icebreaker Idea: Fun with the Frayer Model

The Frayer Model is a graphic organizer that many teachers use to support vocabulary development. It can be easily adapted to facilitate fun icebreaker activities at the start of the school year.

I created the template below using Google Slides then added a quirky, fun question to each section of the graphic organizer. I use Google Slides for this activity because students can answer the questions a combination of text, images, and videos. I can share one slide with each student, or we can work collaboratively on a class slide deck so that every student can see their peers’ responses.

When I coach teachers, I encourage them to create an example to share with students. I share the example below so students can get to know me. I also hope it will serve as a model so that students include media in their responses. Although some students know how to navigate Google Slides, others may not realize they can insert images and videos or hyperlink to resources. This is a simple way to get them exploring the functionality of Google Slides.

There is a long list of icebreaker questions on the Museum Hack website that teachers can use to create their fun with Frayer icebreaker activities!

If you have icebreaker activities you use and love, please take a moment to post a comment and share them here! I’d love to hear about the strategies and activities that teachers are using to engage their students and break the ice in the first few weeks of school!

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