How Do I Effectively Check for Understanding?

By Elliott Witney, Former KIPP School Leader, Current KIPP Instructional Coach and Spring Branch Independent School District Executive Director

In early November of 1997 I was teaching fifth grade Math in Houston, TX. As I often did on Sunday nights, I called my mentor Harriett Ball panicked about the week to come and looking for advice about my lesson plans.

“Listen to me…Calm down,” Harriett said in a soothing but serious tone. “Ask ‘em. Ask your kids. Ask them. They’ll tell you if they get it, and they’ll tell you if they don’t. And if they don’t, change what you’re doing. Your job is to make sure they get it.

The next day, for the first time in my short teaching career, I pulled aside Lilia and Brenda – two kids acing my class – and asked them immediately after my lesson: “Tell me something…did you understand that lesson?” As politely as she could muster, Lilia responded, “Yes, Mr. Witney. Mr. Cruz taught us this last year.” “Really?” The look on my face must have expressed my genuine shock and growing embarrassment. “He taught you this last year?” “Yes. He taught us everything you’ve taught us this year.”

To this day, I’m not sure if that stung or just echoed through the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Calculating in my brain the number of hours I’d spent planning, teaching, grading, getting frustrated that some kids didn’t seem to get it while others always did, asking others how they’d teach the same concept, and re-teaching. All the while not knowing that at least a couple of kids in my class already knew absolutely everything I’d been trying to teach all along.

My job, which Harriett made very clear, was to make sure kids got it. But I realized in a single moment that I had no clue which students did and which didn’t…and I hadn’t even checked.

Along with my role as an Executive Director at Spring Branch ISD, I am also a KIPP instructional coach. I visit classrooms throughout the KIPP network with the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (KFET) under my arm. I see teachers navigating through thoughtful, often thorough lesson plans. With a decent ratio of teacher talk to student talk. With kids doing some heavy cognitive lifting. Thoughtful AIM’s on the board that are – for the most part – aligned to an Exit Ticket that measures mastery of that day’s objective. But then a few days later, inevitably some of those exact same teachers tell me their data confounds them. “I don’t know why my kids didn’t do better on this quiz, test, or assessment. What am I doing wrong?”

In many coaching relationships around the KIPP network, instructional coaches work with teachers to answer this exact same question: If we picked a single KFET behavior that would improve student learning if the behavior improved what would it be? My answer?

“[Teacher] uses a variety of individual and whole group methods daily, weekly, and beyond to check for understanding (CFUs).” Teaching Cycle Behavior from the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching



So many training organizations have prioritized teaching teachers how to check for understanding and teachers all over the country use similar techniques. Turn and talk. Say something. Thumbs up if you get it/Thumbs down if you don’t. Are those true checks for understanding?

The CFU KFET behavior reads this way: “Uses a variety of individual and whole group methods daily, weekly, and beyond to check for understanding.” Research for Better Teaching (RBT), a respected school improvement organization, defines CFU’s this way: “Checks often and well during instruction to compile data on who is having trouble and what they are struggling with.”

What we have found in trainings with different KIPP leadership cohorts is that neither of these descriptions is specific enough, though.

A teacher sitting at a coffee shop visualizing the flow of a lesson, considering how best to check for student understanding – in order to gather data; in order to avoid Lilia’s comment – regularly gets stuck here. How much variety is varied enough? How frequently is “often?” How would I know as a teacher that I’m checking “well?”

To help teachers understand and improve their CFUs, the cohort of educators working on KFET identified three factors to consider while lesson planning:

1. Frequency: Check for understanding at least three times a lesson. Minimum. Teachers should check for understanding at least three times per lesson – after Introduction to New Material (INM), Guided Practice (GP), and at the conclusion of a lesson. Far too often teachers motor through INM right into GP without checking the class’s level of understanding. Or doing little more than “Any questions?” 12 minutes into a 60-minute class, 17% of the class might be confused but the teacher doesn’t know.

2. Variety: Teachers should use enough different individual and whole group techniques to check understanding that they accurately know what all children know. More than likely, this means during a single class the same technique should not be repeated.

3. Usefulness: The litmus test on a quality CFU is whether or not the teacher can adjust course or continue as planned based on the information received in the check. Do you need to stop and start over? Pull seven kids aside for three minutes to re-teach? Or move on?



Is Turn and Talk (T&T) a CFU?

We see this technique everywhere, used all the time. The answer is that it is…and it isn’t. T&T can be used frequently. When a teacher stops her INM, it’s easy to slip a quick T&T into the class. Using this alone doesn’t ensure variety, but T&T can be sprinkled into a lesson to increase variety.

Where it usually falls short as a technique, though, is on the accuracy and usefulness. Unless a teacher possesses the omniscient superpower of being able to hear absolutely every conversation simultaneously (or if the teacher scrambles around the room furiously listening in on bits and pieces of each conversation, probably freaking the kids out!), teachers simply can’t accurately gauge the entire class’s understanding. As a result, T&T simply isn’t useful enough.

So should teachers stop using T&T in the classroom? No. It can be massively useful…just not as one of the three ways you check for understanding reliably during class. It helps you increase ratio of teacher talk to student talk. It allows kids to process and digest a certain amount of new material. It gives you a moment to gather your thoughts so the next piece of new material you teach is concise and sticky. It gives English Language Learners more of a chance to practice speaking. If a teacher relies on this to accurately gauge understanding, though, it falls short.

What about dipsticking? Does that count as a CFU?
When I ask KIPP teachers all over the country to explain how they intend to check for understanding, I often hear “dipsticking” before anything else. Just as a car owner quickly checks her oil, teachers think they’re checking understanding quickly with a variety of techniques that are simple to execute in a classroom.

In class, they might say: “If you understand what I’ve taught, stand up. If you don’t, stay seated.” They might ask students to stick a thumb up if they get it, down if they don’t, and to the side if they’re kind of confused. So is dipsticking a reliable way to check for understanding?

It’s easy to think it is. Dipsticking is taught side-by-side with CFUs in teacher prep courses; it’s categorized as a CFU in most educational research; and, some of the most acclaimed educators in our nation’s history –Madeline Hunter (who coined the term dipsticking) and Jon Saphier being just two – have long taught teachers to sprinkle this technique into the classroom to check whether or not students get it.

Yet many of the teachers who regularly dipstick still find themselves puzzled at the end of the class about why more kids didn’t understand the lesson.

KFET helps clarify why, but you have to poke around a bit. CFUs are listed under the competency “Assessment.” Assessment encompasses far more than Quiz Day on Fridays; assessing student understanding is something teachers absolutely have to do far more regularly than once a week. But if you flip to an earlier section of KFET, you will find the competency Lesson Planning. Categorized as part of planning, an excellent teacher “Establishes checkpoints” in a lesson.

Checkpoints, another analogy, reference the practice of passing through airport security checkpoint. You stop. You hand over your driver’s license. You say your name. You move your luggage through a security machine. Nobody gets through without this fairly extensive, though brief, check. When teachers plan, they build analogous moments into their lessons – times when they will do a thorough, though brief, check. When assessing during the actual lesson being taught, that act of assessing is a CFU.

Though teachers create opportunities to dipstick throughout a lesson while planning, it’s rare that dipsticking in execution is thorough enough and often is misleading. When teachers initiate the Thumbs Up/Down/Side technique, usually it comes with vague instructions like “If you get it, put your thumb up.” Without the ability to read minds, how does a teacher know each student is confirming exactly what the teacher thinks they are? Most students who get 85% of what the teacher wants put up a thumb. But what if the 15% they didn’t get was the most essential 15%? And then they miss the next 15%? And then the next 15%? Each time kids are raising a thumb, their confusion is compounded.

Teachers who find dipsticking to be a reliable check for understanding plan it carefully; they don’t dipstick capriciously. They think about exactly what they want to ask and often even have it written down to reference. Rather than “Thumbs up if you’re confused,” a math teacher checking to see if kids are ready to learn the third step of a math problem might say something like this: “If you understand why I wrote what I wrote in step two, thumbs up. If you don’t understand why I wrote what I wrote in step two, thumbs down.”



Which of the following are effective ways to check for understanding?

– Turn & Talk
– Thumbs up, thumbs down
– Making rounds around the room
– Note Card Quizzes

If you answered by saying: “All of them, as long as you use a variety of them at least three times throughout the lesson and can alter your course based on the results.” we can move on!

What’s critical in planning as well as execution, though – as Harriett warned me every Sunday years ago – is that we design these checks to figure out who did and didn’t get it. As teachers, if we conduct these checks frequently enough that we know accurately, with enough variety that we get a thorough picture and our kids don’t get bored, and if we use techniques that give us useful information, we won’t find ourselves confused or frustrated days (or months!) later.


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