The Importance of Ongoing Checks for Understanding
Picture this classroom scenario. After 5 days of lessons, Ms. Jones, a third grade teacher, administers an assessment over area and perimeter to her class. As she grades the assessments, she quickly realizes that over half of her class does not have a clear understanding of the distinction between area and perimeter. Even more discouraging, three-fourths of the class were not able to determine the area of a composite shape by breaking it into smaller pieces. She realizes she does not know when within the 5 days of lessons that her students got off track, so she will need to go back to the very first lesson and will have to spend at least 3 or 4 days reteaching this important content.
During lunch that afternoon, Ms. Jones expresses her dismay to a colleague who asks her, “How did your students do on your daily checks for understanding throughout this unit?” Not surprisingly, Ms. Jones admits she had not used any checking for understanding strategies. The more experienced colleague is quick to point out the importance of regular checks for understanding and offers to work with her after school as she maps out her reteaching plan, making suggestions for how she can incorporate appropriate checks for understanding this time around.
CHECKS FOR UNDERSTANDING
A check for understanding (CFU) is any method used to inform the teacher about the student’s current level of knowledge and understanding. An effective teacher does not just check for understanding at the conclusion of a lesson or unit of instruction. Instead, he/she recognizes that checks for understanding serve a multitude of purposes, depending on when they are implemented. When used before a lesson, CFU strategies activate and establish background knowledge. These CFUs also ensure that students have retained the prior knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the new lesson. CFUs should also be used throughout a lesson, at least twice in a typical lesson cycle. The purpose of these CFU strategies is to keep students accountable for creating and retaining new conceptual understandings and being able to communicate these to the teacher. These CFUs also inform the teacher about struggling students who may need additional guidance or intervention. And finally, CFU strategies can and should be used after a lesson to help the students and the teacher reflect on what was learned. More importantly, these CFUs provide valuable information about student mastery and how the teacher should spend future classroom time.
There are three types of CFU strategies: verbal, written, and demonstration. As you would expect, verbal strategies allow students to voice their responses to their peers or to the whole class, while written strategies allow students to reflect on a question and write their responses. Demonstration strategies allow students to complete activities, give examples, create models, or use manipulatives to represent their knowledge. Effective teachers use a combination of all three strategies. When teachers design specific CFU strategies, they have an expected response in mind that would demonstrate the level of content knowledge the student has. Expected responses can be either closed or open in nature. Closed responses are typically low rigor questions or tasks, and usually have brief answers and/or only one correct answer. Open responses are questions and tasks that are higher in rigor and require students to use higher order thinking skills such as evaluating and analyzing.
BEFORE THE LESSON
Let’s revisit the same third grade classroom once Ms. Jones has planned a new instructional strategy that incorporates regular checks for understanding. She will begin by reteaching perimeter. After talking with her colleague, she now understands that she should start by checking her students’ prior knowledge. In order to understand and calculate perimeter of a shape, students must first be able to measure length accurately. She decides to have students complete a brief “Enter Ticket” as their morning work. This “Enter Ticket” is a written strategy with a closed response because it consists of 5 lines drawn of varied length and students are to use a ruler to determine the length of each line to the nearest half inch. As students finish, she quickly checks each ticket for accuracy and records on a simple data tracker how many correct out of 5 each student scored. (See below to download a sample data tracker that can be adapted for any subject.) When she comes across one student who missed all 5, she decides to work with him on the spot to determine where his misconception about measurement lies. She asks him to show her how he solved the first one and she immediately realizes that he was lining the ruler up at the one-inch mark, instead of zero. She is able to quickly correct this by modeling, and then has him redo the Enter Ticket. This time, he gets all 5 correct. Based on the data from her first CFU activity, she feels confident in proceeding with her main lesson on perimeter.
DURING THE LESSON
Ms. Jones begins the new content by showing her students a video that introduces the concept of perimeter. After the video, she has planned a second CFU activity. This time she tells students to think about the definition of perimeter. She displays the following on her projector screen:
Which of the following statements best explains what perimeter is?
A. Perimeter is the amount of space inside a shape.
B. Perimeter is the distance around a shape.
C. Perimeter is the distance between two points on a line.
D. Perimeter is the length of time it takes to walk around a shape.
The Video Ms. Jones Had Her Students View on the Concept of Perimeter
She directs her students to record their answer choice on their individual whiteboards, and then show their boards at her signal. Using whiteboards is another type of written CFU strategy. Because they all show their answer at the same time, she is able to gather data with a quick glance, and she sees that all but 2 students chose B as the correct answer. She leads a brief class discussion about each answer choice, and why it is or is not correct. After the class discussion, she is confident that all students understand perimeter and they are ready to move on to the next part of the lesson.
She has pre-cut colored straws into different lengths, with each color being a different length. She passes out a variety of straws to each table group and challenges students within each group to find the length of each straw color. The groups measure each color and share their findings in a quick class discussion. Next, Ms. Jones models building a rectangle with 2 red straws (4 inches long) and 2 green straws (6 inches long). She has students do the same at their own desk. She continues modeling her thought process out loud as she determines the perimeter of the rectangle by adding up the length of each of the 4 straws. She shows students how she can sketch the rectangle in her math notebook, label each side with its length, and then add the sides together to find the perimeter. She asks students to create the same example in their math notebooks as well. After completing one more example as a class, she is ready to check each student’s individual understanding with a demonstration CFU activity. This time, she challenges students to build a 5- or 6-sided polygon of their choice using the precut straws. They are to sketch the shape in their notebook, label the length of each side, and determine the perimeter. She asks them to raise their hand when they are done so she can check their work. Because they work at different paces, and she is able to quickly ascertain their accuracy since she knows the lengths of each straw piece, no student is left waiting for long. As she checks each one, she uses a data tracker to indicate their mastery of the task. She then encourages each student to create at least two more examples and record them in their notebook, while she continues to move around the room, checking in with each student.
The final part of the lesson involves a worksheet for students on which various polygons are drawn. Students have to measure and record the length of each side, then find the perimeter of the polygon. She first models one example, then has students work as a table group to solve the next two, which the class then reviews together. Finally, students are ready to complete the rest of the problems independently. This worksheet will serve as another written CFU activity, but she will not be able to collect data from it until after class when she has time to score the assignment.
AFTER THE LESSON
As her final CFU activity for after the lesson, she has planned to use a verbal strategy called Hot Seat. Before class began, she taped an image of a polygon to the bottom of each students’ chair. The length of each side of the polygons are labeled so students do not have to measure, they simply need to add the sides together to determine the perimeter, and each problem is numbered. She asks students to find their “hot seat” problem, raise their hand when they have the answer in mind and she quickly calls on each student. They verbally tell her the number of their problem, as well as the perimeter they determined, and she records whether or not they are right on a data tracker based off of her answer key.
At the end of the day, she is able to sit down to grade the assignment she collected as they left, and record this on her data tracker as well. Now she can look at the big picture, and how well each student met the learning objective for the day. This data will inform her instructional plan for the following day.