By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
We often think about learning like a marathon, as if it's this long, long race where everyone begins at the same starting line, sets their pace, and runs at that pace for a long time until they arrive at the finish line. But there’s a problem with this analogy. The problem is that learning does not typically happen in consistent, incremental stages. Instead, learning happens in fits and starts, and in the best situations, it is the result of being deeply curious about a subject, topic, or theme and engaging in a productive intellectual challenge. In fact, when we really get down to it, learning isn’t like running a marathon at all! If learning is like running, then it’s probably a lot more like jumping hurdles.
When jumping hurdles, runners begin at the starting line and then sprint as fast as they can towards the first obstacle they have to overcome. If they’re successful, they continue to sprint forward. If they are not successful, the hurdle falls down, or worse — they fall down. Then they have to pick themselves back up and start again. Runners who can overcome all of the hurdles sprint through each stage on the track. Runners who cannot fall behind abruptly, and sometimes, permanently.
To train runners in hurdles, coaches help them practice by providing a set of smaller obstacles along the track, and train them through practice sessions where they develop specific strategies that will refine their skills. Coaches watch the moves the runners make while they’re jumping, and study these moves to give the runners actionable feedback about ways they can adjust their footing, their stance, and their speed — all of which help them to become better at the sport. This is the same kind of training and support that checks for understanding provide for students.
Checks for understanding are micro assessments that teachers can build into their lessons to ensure that students are developing the strength, skills, and strategies necessary to overcome the academic obstacles that will be presented in a long-term project, assessment, or high-stakes test. They are mini-hurdles that can help a teacher determine which students are sprinting ahead, which have minor gaps in understanding, and which are struggling to make sense of the lesson content or skills.
Traditional instruction organizes the procedure of a lesson so that the teacher presents on the important topic of the day, the students engage in practice related to that topic, and then go home. Everyone holds their breath and hopes that the students do well on the quiz at the end of the week. In our analogy, this model would be equivalent to a coach turning away from a race, hoping their runner is able to finish. Students, like runners, need three things from their teachers to increase their speed, strength, flexibility, and stamina.
1. Tasks that gradually increase in difficulty
Like a coach who lays out smaller hurdles on the track to teach runners about basic techniques, teachers can provide short tasks for students at strategic points in a lesson. One simple structure for a lesson would be to include one check at the beginning of the lesson, one in the middle, and one at the end of the class period. The opening check serves as a baseline understanding of what students remember from a previous lesson, and assesses their prior knowledge or current thinking about a topic. The mid-lesson check becomes a moment to micro-assess their understanding of the essential learning of the lesson. What must students understand in order to meet the learning target or objective? Finally, an end of lesson check gives us vital information about how students are leaving the class. This check informs our instruction for the next day’s lesson.
2. Actionable feedback for micro adjustments
We often assume that assessments always equal grades. But just like not all runs are races, not all tasks need to come with the heavy weight of a graded assignment. Small and simple assessments designed as checks for understanding provide key insights into students’ knowledge while it’s in formation. This is critical to helping teachers understand how students are making meaning, as well as how they’re interpreting (or misinterpreting) the content. Rather than focusing on how many points to provide, consider ways of providing students with actionable feedback that includes micro adjustments. Micro adjustments may include offering students a suggested next step, pointing out something they did well, or giving a tip as to what would have made their response more complete. The goal is to move away from evaluative feedback like “good job” or “needs work” and move into actionable feedback, which gives students a concrete next step to practice. When we get good at building checks for understanding into our lessons, we can design our lesson sequence to build on the feedback we give students in the moment.
3. Celebration of progress
As many runners can attest, marking personal progress is critical to building confidence even when someone else crosses the finish line first. As educators, it is essential that we are able to note specific areas of improvement for students at all levels. We can make connections between their gains and future successes, which increases their investment in their learning and can help them to set short- and long-term goals.
There is no shortage of strategies for checks for understanding. Below is an example of one of our favorite sequences using US Government as an example topic.
There are countless ways to monitor our students’ learning. When we are engaging in beginning, middle, and end of lesson checks for understanding, we have so many opportunities to notice our students’ process and progress, to reflect with them, to encourage them, and to help them leap over the obstacles they encounter on their learning journey.