Checking for whole-class understanding

Responsive teaching is something that we all aspire to be doing in our lessons, acting upon the information we are gathering from our students to ensure that the content that is taught is understood and able to be applied (learnt) and thus the teaching:learning gap is as small as possible. However, it is important to recognise that there will always be a gap between what is taught by experts and learnt by students. The goal is ensuring that gap is as small as possible, and that the attainment gap within the class isn’t widened through the process.

One of the most important things a teacher can do to be responsive is to check whole-class understanding through asking questions. Indeed, in Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction‘ one of the principles is to ‘ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students’. Tom Sherrington in his researchED National Conference presentation supported the need to check for whole-class understanding through reminding us that it is ‘impossible to know what all students are thinking‘ and therefore through posing questions it can provide a window to that thinking. When you are asking a student a question, it requires them to think. When students are giving their answer, they are having to showcase their understanding and ability to recall the information and apply it in the correct format. Student answers give the teacher immediate feedback on what students know and understand, and what they don’t. Being responsive, a teacher is then able to take student answers and act upon them with praise, probing for further understanding or providing cues to encourage students that aren’t as confident, so that the content is clearly understood before moving on. Asking questions is a vital part of responsive teaching practice. Strategically planning the questions in advance, so that they tease out the understanding at key points within lessons, and more importantly the curriculum is vital to ensure that whole-class understanding is sufficient in order to move on within a sequential curriculum.

However, how do you ensure that all students are thinking when you ask questions? One effective questioning approach is through using the ‘Cold Call’ strategy, which ensures that through using a student’s name at the end of the question, after a pause, you are making all students think about the question as they don’t know who will be chosen by the teacher. Whilst this strategy is incredibly useful at getting students to think hard and to remain cognitively active in lessons, I do think it can have some drawbacks with checking for whole-class understanding. When you ask questions, some students will only think of partial answers, and some will not think of any answers at all. Through using ‘Cold Call’ to check understanding, it is worthwhile thinking about the percentage of the students in the class that have been checked? If students aren’t ‘Cold Called’ then you wouldn’t find out their level of understanding until a later point, a point that perhaps is too late and that a misconception has been cemented. A point that perhaps meant that the teaching:learning gap is now wider than it should be. By checking others’ answers through using phrases such as ‘Who also got that correct?’ the teacher is relying on students providing them with factual information. Without checking, how does the teacher know this to be correct?

As Dan Willingham has stated, ‘Memory is the residue of thought‘ it is therefore imperative to check what all students are thinking so that what is thought about is correct. We don’t want misconceptions to be committed to memory. How can we therefore check the thinking of the whole class at the same time, to check understanding, whether that be full answers, partial answers, educated guesses, or no answer at all, and know how to respond to the information received from all students, knowing when is the right time to move on. For me, the best bang for your buck when it comes to whole class understanding, and to do the very job intended above, is to use mini-whiteboards. Getting all students to write down an answer to a question is incredibly powerful, and Bruce Robertson sums this up perfectly below:

‘Students don’t have to write down much – just a few words – but doing so gets them to think about their answer. It minimises the chance of students disengaging to think about something they watched on YouTube last night while they rely on a few of their keener peers to do the thinking instead. It also makes them commit to their answer – what they have written down will be what they were thinking. Putting it in writing removes the ambiguity – they’ve committed to what they wanted to say. Powerfully, it also lets you, as their teacher, check that they had thought of an answer, including whether or not it was the correct one. ‘I don’t know’ would be an appropriate answer, because this gives you information about what they do or don’t know.’ – Bruce Robertson

Using mini-whiteboards therefore is a solution to checking for whole-class understanding, but using them in lessons often frightens teachers with the potential for off-task behaviour, the disruption of the flow of the lesson and therefore it is pivotal that routines around mini-whiteboard use are explicitly taught to students and practised until perfected. This will allow mini-whiteboard questioning to add real value to your checking for whole-class understanding in lessons, without causing disruption and allow you to be more responsive in lessons. To get the best out of using them I would think about the following routines:

  1. How and when do mini-whiteboards, pens and rubbers get handed out so not to lose learning time? (Do students have a planner with one built in? Does the teacher have individual packs with a whiteboard, pen and rubber?
  2. How do you ensure that students don’t copy each other’s answers?
  3. How do you ensure that all students reveal their answers at the same time so you see their thinking and not someone else’s that they have followed or copied?
  4. Have a routine to ensure that all students answer, even if they are unsure.

With regards to these routines:

  1. If you aren’t able to have individual packs, handing out whiteboard pens and rubbers at the door as part of our Strong Start routine works well. This works as our students have a mini-whiteboard at the back of their planner.
  2. Always ask students to write their answers and turn the mini-whiteboard straight over to stop any wandering eyes
  3. Ask for all students to reveal their answers with a simple, 3, 2, 1 and ‘Show Me’.
  4. To encourage students to showcase what they’re thinking, explaining the need to state whether the answer is a guess (adding a ‘G’ in brackets after the answer) or whether they haven’t a clue (adding a ? on the mini-whiteboard) allows students to see that providing honesty allows the teacher to respond to what they do and don’t know and support and guide them further.

With any routine in the classroom, these take practice, reflection and further refinement, but once mastered they enable mini-whiteboards to be used frequently without any disruption to the flow of questioning in lessons, whilst more importantly providing the immediate feedback on how ALL students are grasping the content. If you have Teach Like a Champion 3.0, do check out the clip that shows Dani Quinn using mini-whiteboards as a strong exemplar.

Another benefit of using mini-whiteboards to get all students to answer questions is that the writing of the answer can normally take between 5 to 10 seconds, providing thinking time or ‘wait time’. In Kathleen Cotton’s paper on ‘Classroom Questioning‘ the average ‘wait time’ for teachers when asking questions is on average, one second or less. When checking for whole-class understanding it is key for us as teachers to provide time for students to be able to show us just that, what they know.

For further blogs written by teachers on using mini-whiteboards in lessons to check whole-class understanding you’d do well to start with these three:


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