The Importance of Checking for Student Understanding

How do you know if your students are actually learning? Nothing is as important, but it’s still hard to tell, explains Elizabeth Barkley in this month’s Expert Series interview.

“Sometimes we forget that students need clear feedback on how they are learning,” says Barkley, a professor of music at Foothill College, a subject matter expert for ACUE’s Course, and coauthor of Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. “If we lose sight of this, their efforts to learn are haphazard and can be extremely inefficient, ineffective, and very frustrating.”

Essential to checking for student understanding is effective questioning, and Barkley shares how she designs questions to quickly assess which students are understanding the lesson. Read the interview, and share your thoughts or questions in the comments!

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In Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, you write that the ability to provide evidence of what and how students are learning is increasingly important to stakeholders both inside and outside of the classroom. What do you mean by that?

EB: One of the biggest challenges for teachers is that they haven’t been trained to gather, analyze, and report on the kind of evidence required to document student learning or their own effectiveness in ways that are critical to different stakeholders. So we wrote this book to help faculty—including ourselves—understand how to design an assessment process that is efficient, effective, and seamlessly integrated with their teaching.

Perhaps the number one stakeholder is the student. Sometimes we forget that students need clear feedback on how they are learning. If we lose sight of this, their efforts to learn are haphazard and can be extremely inefficient, ineffective, and very frustrating.

Finally, as educators at the college and university level, we’re part of larger systems with other stakeholders who are interested in knowing how well students are progressing toward learning goals. For example, we can use the information we collect to provide evidence in our professional dossiers, to our institution’s assessment efforts, to external accrediting agencies, and even to the scholarship of teaching and learning. If we can share this information and build upon each others’ experience and knowledge, I find it can be much more productive than attempting to solve these problems alone.

What checking-for-understanding techniques do you prefer to use in your teaching?

EB: I’m a great fan of what we call snapshots. A snapshot is our term for when the instructor presents questions and possible answers during class, and students choose the answer that they believe is correct. As a teacher, you can make a quick visual assessment of class results and then modify accordingly.

Many of us think that we need clickers for this kind of technique, but you can also do it very effectively without technology. I’ve seen instructors have students point to different corners of the room to indicate their opinions and perspectives on a discussion topic. It provides great visual feedback in the moment, and it allows the instructor and the students to adjust course within the moment.

Video: Asking questions the right way is key to checking for student understanding

What is one learning assessment technique that you implement with your students?

EB: One of my favorites is to have students keep a “contemporary issues” journal. In that kind of an activity, students look for recent real-world events that are related to their coursework. Sometimes, it can be difficult for students to see the relevance of what they are learning in our classrooms, and this is a great way to challenge them to connect what they are doing in my course to the world around them.

What practices have you used to check for understanding? Let us know in the comments!

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