Check For Understanding


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Knowing what your students have learned is difficult, but it's also critical.

Ask Open-ended Questions

If you ask a simple “do you understand?” students are likely to nod “yes” in response, even when they have no clue what you just said. Asking “are there any questions?” is an improvement, but often students simply won’t ask. Instead, ask questions that require students to apply information they’ve learned. Asking open-ended rather than yes/no questions will encourage students to interact with and respond to you. If you do get a short answer in response, try to draw out more information.1

Be able to ask "good" questions. Make sure your questions are clearly-worded and have a specific focus. Some types of questions include:

  • Questions asking for more evidence – how do you know that? What data is that claim based on?
  • Questions asking for clarification – what’s a good example of what we’re talking about? Can you put that another way?
  • Linking or extension questions – how does your comment fit in with Student X’s earlier comment?
  • Hypothetical questions – how might World War II have turned out if Hitler had not attacked the Soviet Union in 1941?
  • Cause-and-effect questions – what would happen if the pressure was removed?
  • Summary and synthesis questions – what are the main important ideas that emerged from today’s discussion?

Remember that silence is not always a bad thing. You propose a question to your class, but you’re met with nothing but crickets chirping in the background. Don’t panic. It’s okay to give your students time to think (yes, they may actually be thinking during silence). In general, people don’t like silence – so waiting for 10-15 seconds may actually encourage someone to respond when they otherwise might not have. If no one responds after 15 seconds or so, try rephrasing the question.

Have them write it down. To ensure everyone has a chance to think about their responses (especially helpful if you have one or two students who are always quick to answer), have all students write their answers on a piece of paper. They don’t all have to share their answers, but it allows students time to consider your question.

Try the Direct Approach

You can always try the direct approach of “raise your hand if you feel like you completely, 100% understood the reading/lecture” or “on a scale of 1-10, how hard was that concept from lecture?”

Do Your Own Mini-Evaluation

Rather than waiting for the end-of-semester evaluations to find out if you were getting through to your students, make up your own anonymous mini-evaluation. You’ll get to find out how you’re doing in time to make some changes for that semester instead of the next one, and you’re likely to get some great new ideas from your students.

Click to see one TA's Mini-Evaluation.

Other Helpful Links and Resources

UC Santa Barbara's TA Development Program - handout on "Checking for Understanding".

University of New Mexico's School of Medicine - "Using Questions Effectively: How to Ask Questions and Respond to Answers".

Monmouth University - "Asking Difficult Questions: The Value of Inquiry in the American Classroom".

Brookfield and Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2005.

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