How the timing of checks for understanding can impact what you learn about student comprehension.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Great teachers want to be sure their students understand content information on a daily basis. They don’t want their students to wrestle with misconceptions, misunderstandings, or mistakes in their thinking that might set them up to struggle as the content unfolds throughout a lesson or unit. As a result, many teachers use small, formative assessments at the beginning, midpoint, or end of a period so students have an opportunity to practice their content and skills, and teachers can assess their understanding at different stages of the learning process. In an effort to ensure that all students have the right answers and a clear understanding of the lesson, many teachers review the correct answers to the assessment before moving on to the next stage of the lesson.
In both examples, we see the teachers making choices that elevate student collaboration, ensuring students have the opportunity to correct misconceptions, connect with one another, and leverage grouping and discussion strategies to process content information. In both examples, the teacher is using a formative assessment — or a check for understanding — with the goal of assessing student comprehension. And in both examples, the check for understanding may be giving teachers more misinformation, than information.
Check for understanding
Well-developed instructional design includes multiple checkpoints to assess student comprehension in real time. Highly effective assessment structures may include between 1-3 checks for understanding in a class period, with each check being an opportunity for students to independently demonstrate their understanding and skills related to the lesson objective or learning target. When we jump from the check for understanding task to the review of direct responses, some unintended consequences may emerge.
One likely scenario is that students who had a misunderstanding or a misconception when working on their own will likely copy down the “right answer” during the discussion. But copying down the answer doesn’t necessarily correct their misconceptions. The unintended consequence is that it appears that all the students have the correct answer, even though some may have simply copied down the answer during the discussion. For teachers using formative assessment data to inform their instructional choices, there’s no evidence that helps them know which students had the correct answer at the time of the assessment, which students had an a-ha moment during the discussion, and which are copying down the correct information but are actually still confused.
Another unintended consequence is that students discover that the right answers get shared immediately, before their work is completed. It’s a lot easier to copy down the right answers later than it is to work through the hard problem in the moment. Some students may begin to opt out of the learning activity altogether and simply wait for the correct answers. This phenomenon may not be noticeable right away — a gradual disengagement happens slowly over time, and can start with students who appear slow to start, or students who are easily distracted. For teachers feeling the pressure of time, it can be tempting to skip to the right answers even if some students aren’t finished. The challenge is that over time, fewer and fewer students finish the task because everyone is waiting for the right answers to be shared.
Creating space for small changes
The good news is that there are a few small changes that can make a big difference.
Add a reflection. In addition to the discussion of the correct answers, ask students to write a reflection comparing their first response to the correct answer, and share if they made any changes to their thinking or had any a-ha moments in the process. Consider creating a chart on their task that includes space for their individual work, notes from the discussion, and reflection after the discussion. Not only will this provide more insight for you as the teacher, but the students’ metacognition will increase their self-awareness, which supports recall in the future.
Have students share & give feedback. The standard share out often includes time for students to work independently, followed by the teacher reviewing the correct answers. This practice can be modified to having students post their answers in small groups at the same time, and then visiting other groups' responses and leaving feedback or asking questions. By turning this process over to students, teachers can increase the responsibility and accountability for students to work with their groups and think critically if different groups have different responses.
Leverage differentiation strategies. Building in differentiation as a result of a check for understanding is an effective way of structuring the lesson. Teachers can plan to use hinge point questions, where students receive a specific task as a result of their answer on a check for understanding question, or Four Corners, where students move around the room in real time to show their thinking and discuss with their peers. Both of these strategies leverage real-time responses and interaction to notice misconceptions and work to address them in the moment.
Checks for understanding are a very valuable touchpoint. Getting in the moment information about what is and isn’t clear for students provides insight into differentiation, student grouping, and tweaks to the next day’s lesson. When we reveal the “right” answer before we can gather information on what students know and can do, we might go for weeks before we realize that students have not been learning what they need to be successful on high-stakes assessments like unit tests, projects, or major exams.
It’s true: it is important to correct misconceptions, and we don’t want students to sit in frustration if we’re withholding information that can help them learn. And also, when we jump to reviewing the right answers before we’ve had a moment to collect the data or reflect on how students are processing the information in the lesson, we miss valuable insights that help us plan and prepare the learning pathway for students’ success.
Replace antiquated advice with new norms that value your humanity.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Don’t smile until Christmas.
Never let them see you sweat!
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Advice to new and returning teachers about how to start the school year is as ancient as the Greek and Roman myths that start with Chaos and bring forth Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena. But these gods of lightning, storms, and war have little place in the 21st century classrooms. And many of these words of so-called wisdom are from a time when the culture valued a teacher-centered dominant force in the classroom.
But we know better now.
Now, we know that students learn best in an affirming environment that becomes rich with diversity, dialogue, and shared decision-making with students. Research shows that students become more engaged in their learning experiences when they can use their voice to cultivate their agency. This happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect and discover their opinions, share their perspectives with the people and structures in power, and when the system incorporates these new ideas to create change.
The major shifts that come from centering students — rather than centering teachers — change how we structure our classroom spaces and how we show up in that space together.
Teachers are culture creators and everything we do, especially at the beginning of the year, sets the tone, the mood, and the rhythms that eventually become the core of our learning community. How we show up has a major influence on whether that space is helpful or harmful. If we choose to let go of the ancient myths, we can replace them with new norms that help us invest in our students and in ourselves.
"Don't smile until Christmas"
Old myths focus on behavior and compliance, rather than ways we can leverage learning. Yes, we need students to follow common school structures, but good behavior doesn’t mean increased learning or engagement. If we can move away from compliance and refocus our energy on creating a culture of learning, we’ll get something better than compliance: collaboration and engagement. But what does that look like?
In his book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle breaks down the concept of “belonging cues.” These are the small verbal and nonverbal ways we interact with people to signal to them that they either belong, or that they don’t belong. These cues are powerful in peer group dynamics, but they’re even more dramatic in power dynamics such as classroom spaces. When the teacher leads interactions with signals of belonging, it makes students feel like they’re in a welcoming and affirming environment, which lessens anxiety, increases openness, and clears a pathway for connection and learning.
There isn’t a magic list of belonging cues, but a few easy to implement strategies can include:
"Never let them see you sweat"
The idea that the teacher is the sage on the stage and the holder of all knowledge is impossible to uphold — and presents a false notion that knowing everything is something to strive for, much less something that’s possible.
When students buy into the myth that their teacher knows everything, they can feel insecure because they know how much seems unknown. This dynamic creates a sense of helplessness and sets up a fixed mindset that positions knowledge and intelligence as something that someone is born with, rather than something they work hard for.
We can disrupt this myth by being our authentic selves, and by talking with our students about what we know, and what we don’t know yet — especially if they’re posing questions that we don’t really have the answers to! When we encounter something that’s beyond our knowledge base or skill set, rather than pretending to be cool and never letting them see you sweat, we can be honest with our students that learning is a process that never ends, and the smartest people know how to learn.
Then we can engage together on the journey to answer the open questions, explore a new line of inquiry, or use our resources to check our understanding and accuracy. We can say things like:
"Fake it 'til you make it"
Imposter syndrome is a well-documented phenomenon that can become overwhelming to anyone who’s learning on the job. At the beginning of the school year, or when starting a new role, this syndrome can hit hard. In the past, the remedy for imposter syndrome has been the myth fake it til you make it! While it’s important not to let our fears and insecurities paralyze us from moving forward in our work, it’s counterintuitive to think that the antidote to feeling self-conscious about our skills is to go it alone and not talk to anyone.
Everyone needs a network of support, and not just when we’re struggling. We can curate our networks with mentors who’ve walked the road before us, peers who are able to walk alongside us, and even with folks who are novices compared to us. This might be a formal network that meets regularly, or an informal list of people you reach out to. It’s easy to fall into the fixed mindset that we’re either good or bad at our job, but this is false, and frankly, toxic. Teaching is an art, a craft, a science, and practice — it’s not magic.
No one has it all together and the best teachers are the ones who ask for help, learn from others, and pay it forward.
There is a time and place to tell tall tales from the age of yore. But as we push into the third decade of the 21st century, let’s be clear that some of these myths aren’t just outdated, they represent a harmful and dysfunctional way of working. They distort the truth about the challenges of teaching, and they can perpetuate feelings of isolation and fears of failure for teachers and students.
These new norms for starting the school year are about making an investment in the humanity, validity, and inherent worth of each person because we learn better — and we teach better — when we can be our whole selves.
Prompt new perspectives for the year ahead using one simple sentence.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG, Instructional Design Specialist and SHERRISH HOLLOMAN, CRSP & Adult Learning Specialist
Any way you look at it, the last two years have been very different from anything most of us have experienced, upending the way we teach, the way we live, and the ways in which students learn. These years have revealed vulnerabilities, punctuated inequities, and surfaced extraordinary human resourcefulness and potential. Many of the decisions made within this time will have long-term consequences for the future of education, and we are likely years away from understanding the full social-emotional impact for teachers and students.
Before going any further, we have to give a huge shoutout to all the teachers, school leaders, parents, extended family members, and friends who continue to contribute time, patience, perseverance, and ingenuity as they help children learn.
We have been navigating uncharted territory for an extended period of time, and in the face of numerous challenges, you have continued, time and again, to step up in support of students.
Prompting new perspectives
As we come to the close of another school year, we’re at a natural checkpoint for reflection where we can consider the year’s successes and missteps, and think deeply about how our experiences this year can inform our actions in the next.
Whether or not you have been practicing regular reflection this year, it’s never too late to start!
One of our favorite ways to check in after a meaningful experience is to use the prompt: I used to think, but now. This exercise provides an opportunity to reflect back on where you started — whether that’s at the beginning of the school year, the semester, or any marker of time that’s relevant to you — and evaluate how your thinking has changed since that time.
Your responses might look something like this:
Because critical reflection is, well, critical, you can also use this sentence starter to reflect on work/life balance as you think through ways to find space for self-care, create time for outside interests, or unpack personal challenges.
I used to think, but now is powerful because it challenges us to identify a point in our lives where we’ve changed our minds or had new learning, but haven’t yet explored or processed this transformation. By spending even just a few minutes responding to this prompt, we can make our realizations concrete and explicit — and that will help us to internalize these life lessons for the future.
This is also a great strategy to share with other adults on teacher teams, or with students. Even young learners can follow along to reflect on what they’re learning and how their perceptions are changing throughout the year.
Take this practice one step further by asking yourself how your shifted understandings or beliefs will impact your practice in the coming year. What will you do differently in the future? (We call this one, “I used to think, but now…and so…?”)
Reflection is an ongoing process — we continue to learn lessons each year because we are different, our students are different, and the world around us is different. Finding moments to reflect on all we’ve learned and reset our expectations for the future is crucial in order to meet ourselves and our students in the current moment.
Tell us in the comments: how would you respond to I used to think, but now?
Why creating intentional groups can help match each student to intellectually engaging tasks.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Group work is important.
Group work is also hard. It can feel discouraging when we initiate group work and then it doesn’t go as planned, with some students opting out of the assignment while others carry the weight of the task for everyone.
Teachers know that when they have a wide range of students with different learning needs, they can differentiate their instruction. Differentiation often includes creating multiple entry points to content and skills through group work, and we often see differentiation strategies like heterogeneous or homogeneous grouping used to differentiate instruction. But how do we determine which method will help our students reach their learning goals? Which types of grouping are best for which instructional strategies?
The case for homogeneous grouping
Whether matching students in pairs or small groups, homogeneous grouping happens when teachers enlist students with similar learning traits to work together to complete a task (either individually or together). Homogeneous grouping should be informed by data, like students who earned similar scores on a diagnostic assessment, had similar responses in a class assessment, or who shared a misconception about a previous lesson. It's valuable to match similar students together to complete a task that is designed to meet their learning needs. Homogeneous grouping is ideal when the teacher has designed a unique task for each group, is providing a unique text for each group, or has differentiated the content so that groups are aligned with content information they need to examine more closely.
When students are in homogeneous groups, the tasks, topics, or texts they work with should be diverse. This becomes an effective practice because teachers are strategically matching similar students’ with a task that is designed specifically for them. When each group of students is working with a task or topic on their level, they’re able to increase their completion rate, feel confident about reaching their learning goal, and refine their thinking through discussion.
A math teacher realizes that their students had a wide range of responses to adding and subtracting fractions on a formative assessment. Some students are completing all of the addition and subtraction questions with fluency and accuracy. Other students are struggling with subtracting, but showed proficiency with addition, while others are still struggling with the concept of fractions as well as how to add and subtract.
With students performing within these three profiles, the teacher develops a lesson where students are grouped homogeneously and matched with a task that is specific to their learning needs:
By differentiating by student need in homogeneous groups, the teacher is able to match a task strategically to students in their zone of proximal development, which should increase their understanding of the content, create opportunities for success, and increase confidence.
The case for heterogeneous grouping
Homogeneous groups are an important strategy to use, but using them exclusively can be limiting to students. Not only is it important to develop community across a whole class, it’s also important for students to learn from one another and have opportunities to teach each other. Diversifying group structures to include mixed ability or heterogeneous groups gives students exposure to a wide range of voices, and keeps students connected to the class community.
Heterogeneous groups are best matched with complex tasks that have multiple components. Within the group work structure, students can self-select or be assigned roles based on their areas of interest, as well as their performance. Working in a heterogeneous group allows them to build on each others’ ideas, and develop a product as a team, which is effective, memorable, and can be personally rewarding. Group roles or independent tasks are highly effective in heterogeneous groups and teachers will want to design the task so that every group member can take on a component that they can complete successfully.
Jigsaw groups are a great structure to use for heterogeneous groupings.
Within a jigsaw group, the group task is divided into multiple components (one for each student representative), and then brought back together when students inform their team of what they’ve learned. These components might be content-specific (e.g. each student represents a different character from a book, or a different type of problem solving in math). They may also be leveled by text (students divide out leveled texts on the same topic and collaborate on their understanding after reading). The easiest way to organize jigsaw groups is to strategically match students using a grouping strategy.
If there are six groups, each student may be assigned a group number, and a letter which is matched with a task. Group 1 might have students matched with 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 1F (each letter representing a different task).
Students then move into their letter groups (Group A would consist of students 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, and 6A) and complete their task. Once they complete their task, students rejoin their number group to share what they’ve learned and complete the shared task or discussion.
In heterogeneous groups, every student is matched with a task that is at their instructional level, and they use what they’ve learned to complete the shared task.
While homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings are some of the most common types of groups, they aren’t the only way to develop strategic collaboration for students. We can also consider grouping based on areas of interest, social dynamics, or even special gifts and talents. What’s most important is that when asking students to work together to complete a task, we are thoughtful and strategic about who should work together, what goal we want them to accomplish, and how we match them to an intellectually engaging task to reach that goal.
A flexible path toward mastery that provides structured support for students at all levels.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
When I was growing up, my high school Social Studies teacher had a poster hanging on the wall that read, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The message was clear, even to teenagers -- the power to succeed or to reach a new goal is often inside of each of us. As educators, we know that our students’ mindsets play a major role in how hard they try, how much confidence they develop, and how committed they are to reaching their goals. But confidence alone doesn’t get them to a point of mastery. And desire alone won’t develop their skills, or increase their knowledge base, or level up their accuracy or precision. For those changes, our students need structured support!
This structured support often comes in the form of scaffolding. Like the large platforms that help construction workers reach the tall exterior of a building, scaffolding student learning creates platforms of support as teachers incorporate challenging texts, complex tasks, and abstract ideas into their instruction. Scaffolding is critical when holding high expectations and implementing a rigorous curriculum — but scaffolding alone doesn’t develop independent learners. Sometimes, scaffolding can become a crutch that teachers and students use, turning a support into a shackle. As educators, we often spend a lot of our planning time thinking about how to build scaffolds to break learning down into manageable components, but we can’t stop there. We must also consider the ways we gradually release scaffolding so that students can internalize and transfer their knowledge and skills to new tasks and topics.
A path toward mastery
Our Progressive Scaffolding Framework outlines a path for educators to consider when setting high expectations for students, helping them find that balance between necessary supports and structured enabling. Building on the ideas of Zone of Proximal Development and apprenticeship theories, the framework outlines a path toward mastery in four stages:
Stage 1: I do, you watch
When introducing new content or skills, we begin with the I do, you watch stage. We initiate this by introducing new concepts alongside prior knowledge, real world examples, or previous units of study. Our goal is to map new information onto our students’ activated schemas so that the new content or skills are contextualized and relevant.
At this stage of instruction, we can prepare and provide a model of the task, using a Think Aloud mini-lesson where we walk our students through an internal thinking process that illustrates how we navigate the task and make decisions. Alternatively, we can outline the explicit steps to complete the task, or provide a roundup of the important information students need to know before diving in.
The I do, you watch process can be presented to students working individually or in small groups. It’s important to remember that even at this stage, students shouldn’t be sitting silently. We always want students actively engaged, so we might add a note taking component, a reflection task, a meta-cognitive class discussion, or an element of inquiry so that students remain intellectually engaged in the process.
Stage 2: I do, you help
After laying the groundwork for the task in stage 1, we can move into stage 2, where students begin working with the content and task materials with support. Working in small groups, students might replicate the model with new information, restate or reword the essential steps in their own words, or engage in a small group discussion or group practice as a way to begin experimenting with and internalizing the skills.
Stage 3: You do, I help
In stage 3, the content and skills should be familiar to students after their initial explorations, and they should be ready to continue in pairs or small groups with more independence. Students are still in the development phase of their learning, so they may need additional support and will benefit from frequent check-ins, and suggested strategies — but here’s where we want to avoid returning to stage 1 supports. We’re looking for students to be engaged in a productive struggle.
Students may benefit from suggestions of “fix up” strategies or options for what to do if they get stuck. At this stage, we want to push students beyond replicating the model or the example by having them practice the skill or apply content with a new format, a new context, or by making connections to other topics within the discipline or beyond.
This is also a great stage to ask students to use one another as resources. While working in pairs and small groups is an excellent way to support students at their level and create opportunities for growth through collaboration, we want to ensure a high level of individual accountability so that some students don’t take on the burden for the group while others opt out of the learning process.
Stage 4: You do, I watch
In stage 4, students have been exposed to new content and skills, they’ve practiced working on a task informally with support, and they’ve begun making connections with other content information or demonstrating their learning through class activities and tasks. At this stage, it’s important to begin removing any unnecessary scaffolds to see what students can do independently.
In the You do, I watch phase, we recommend providing a short review of the process and previous work done up to this point in the learning experience. After the review, we can be clear with students that they’re ready to try it out on their own. Provide a clear task and an adequate amount of time to complete the task (3-4 times as long as it would take you to do it).
Students who are able to take on this challenge and demonstrate their skills individually prove that they’re meeting the expectations of the task and are ready to move forward to the next knowledge block or skill sets. Students who struggle at this stage help us to understand where and why they’re struggling, so that we can return to Stage 3 to provide targeted support.
How long does this take?
Like an accordion, this process can be expanded or compressed to meet the needs of your grade level and subject area. We might be able to move through the four stages within a single lesson, or it may be an expanded process that is organized across a week’s worth of lesson plans. Consider these two examples:
45-minute Lesson Plan Structure
5 minutes | Opening warm up: Inquiry question
10 minutes | I do, you watch: Mini-lesson modeling
10 minutes | I do, you help: Stop and jot, turn and talk reflection on the model
15 minutes | You do, I help: Small group practice
5 minutes | You do, I watch: Closing summary formative assessment
Week-long Lesson Structure
Monday | I do, you watch: Introduction, modeling, and reflection
Tuesday | I do, you help: Small group discussion and practice
Wednesday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 1
Thursday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 2
Friday | You do, I watch: Independent practice and formative assessment
The process of instruction and assessment is complex, especially when we’re trying to use data to inform instruction and support students who’ve struggled in the past. We want to be mindful to keep forward momentum toward rigorous learning goals while developing a clear path forward for students who begin at every level.