Check for understanding for responsive teaching in science

John Hattie speaks brilliantly about the importance of “knowing thy impact” and how feedback should work two ways; from teacher to student and from student to teacher. For us to know our impact, we must constantly get feedback from our students as to whether learning has or hasn’t happened so that we can respond appropriately.

But, learning is something that happens inside someones’ head – it’s invisible – and so we must rely on indirect measures to report on progress. None of these measures, or signals, are full proof, but if different methods yield the same answer, we can have some confidence in what they are telling us.

So, how can we measure our impact in science lessons? The starting point is to know what you want your students to know and do by the end of the lesson. Once learning intentions are clear, we can then use a range of strategies to check for understanding (CFU) against these objectives, respond and try again.

Mini whiteboards are a useful tool as they give a quick, whole class approach to CFU. Train students in how to use them and create time for feedback afterwards – what are the next steps if students don’t understand? It’s also important that we think carefully about the questions we ask and be sceptical of what the answers are telling us. A student that can write the word equation for photosynthesis does not necessarily understand the process e.g. they may not know CO2 is carbon dioxide or that this is the process by which plants make their own food.

Check for understanding in scienceMini whiteboards on the desk.  So many concepts in science can be understood quicker (and sometimes better!) through pictures or diagrams. Words aren’t always that useful. For example, I could ask students to write a paragraph explaining what active transport is or, I could ask them to draw an annotated picture of active transport on their mini whiteboards. The picture will allow much more rapid CFU and feedback.

Walk and watch. Watch what your students are doing when you ask them to complete a task. Don’t just look to see that work is completed, have a look at what students are actually writing or doing. By looking at student outputs we can very quickly assemble a picture as to whether our students do or do not understand. Marking some answers as you move around the classroom can be a real motivator and also acts as a check to make sure that we are looking at the details of the work and not just completion.

Can students apply?  So often CFU is viewed as being a separate activity e.g. confidence lines, mini whiteboards and thumbs up thumbs down. But a well designed task that challenges students to apply their knowledge is an incredibly rich opportunity for providing diagnostic feedback, to both teacher and student. I think if you can apply something you probably understand it. For example, we could get students to build and use a model of an ionic lattice to explain different properties– a perfect way to make thinking visible and find out if students do understand.

Teaching the class. Getting a student to come to the front of the class and use the teacher’s whiteboard to explain a concept is an incredibly powerful way to gauge class understanding. Yes, it is only one student, but many students think alike and if you choose the right student they can be an important barometer for class understanding.

Questioning  – probe and probe again. If we want to find out if a student has understood photosynthesis, we could ask them to write the equation, an important first step but we mustn’t stop there. What does the arrow represent? It may seem obvious but arrows represent different things in science: forces, food chains, movement of electrons.  If we re-write the equation with water first, is this still correct? And if we swap the direction of the arrow what reaction is it now? And most importantly, why does a plant photosynthesise and yet my dog doesn’t?! It’s only by probing down in this way that we can begin to get a handle on what our students understand.

Exit tickets. Writing the exit ticket (and expected answers) helps us articulate the key learning of the lesson and can be an invaluable tool in finding out whether students did or did not learn these ideas. Yes, this learning could be forgotten by the next lesson and it is late feedback, but the feedback does allow you to gauge the starting point of the next lesson.

Marking (the right work). If we want to use marking to give and capture feedback, we have to set the right task. Open pieces of writing, where students have the opportunity to display their thinking and misconceptions, can be especially valuable. For example, the story of the green child has given we a wealth of feedback over the years into student thinking about photosynthesis. I think the best written feedback diagnoses strengths and errors in the work; standalone stretch questions are, I suspect, mostly a waste of time. And don’t forget that marking should really be about informing the next lesson – this is where the richest, and most sustainable feedback can take place.

Further reading
  1. Planning lessons: the EPIBA approach
  2. Clearly defined lesson objectives
  3. The Do Now
  4. Activate prior knowledge
  5. Challenge your students
  6. Use a context
  7. Challenge all students appropriately 
  8. Use direct instruction to provide clear explanations
  9. Model abstract ideas in concrete ways
  10. Use questioning to probe understanding
  11. Check for understanding – give and get feedback
  12. Troubleshooting – why did it go wrong?