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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Teach High School Science

Teaching for Understanding
Judy Jones

I remember when I first started teaching that I felt successful if I could just have a decent lesson each day, manage student behavior(!) and keep up with all the paperwork! But as the years progressed I found that my focus changed. I still wanted to craft interesting and standards-based lessons and I certainly wanted my students to be focused and engaged, but I also became very interested in knowing how well my students were processing and retaining what I was teaching. Was my teaching resulting in high quality learning and understanding? I began to hold myself more accountable for their learning. And certainly in this era of high stakes accountability, teachers are being expected to ensure that all of their students are becoming proficient with content.

So how do I ensure that my students really understand? One word: Assessment. This is an evolving skill and I continue to learn new strategies each year--from my own reading, from Internet sources, and from the new enthusiastic teachers that I mentor.

By “assessment” I don’t mean just the summative types of assessments such as tests and standardized exams. I mean all those ways that we assess informally and then determine what our students have learned and what we may need to teach again in a new way. Teachers who teach for understanding exhibit their belief that all students can learn.

What follows is a sampling of many ways that we can assess our students for understanding on a daily basis.

Quick Informal Assessments

Let’s say that you have been explaining a concept to students and you want to find out how well they understand the ideas. If you just ask, “Do you understand,” you are likely to get a few nods from the kids who always understand and a few polite nods from students who “have no clue” but want to please you! And of course, those blank stares from some of the others. So why don’t you try one of the following. (Note: One bonus effect of these methods is communicating to the students that you really do care about all of them “getting it!”)

Thumbs Up – Thumbs down
Ask all the students to do a thumbs up for “I get it” and a thumbs down for “I’m clueless” and a thumbs sideways for “I sort of get it.” You can quickly scan the classroom for those thumbs down and easily see who needs more help. And the students can do this fairly privately. I don’t find this to be perfect; student personalities are still involved. But it works much better than other quick assessments and the students enjoy it.

Five Fingers
You could also use the five finger response with five fingers meaning that they understand it so well they could teach it and one finger meaning that they are still in a state of confusion.

Colored Cards
Or you could use different colored cards for the “how well do you understand” question. Red could mean “Stop, I need more help. Green could mean “I understand and I’m ready to move forward”, and yellow could mean “Slow down, I think I am almost there.”

You can also use cards for questions that are multiple choice. Give the students four cards each with A, B, C, and D written on them. Students hold up the correct answer to your verbal questions. Again, a quick scan of the classroom helps you identify the puzzled students.

Individual White Boards
These are becoming increasingly popular among teachers. They do involve a small investment. These are notebook paper sized white boards that can be kept under student desks. Whiteboard pens can be kept readily available. The teacher can ask questions during a lesson that students need to answer on the white boards and then hold up so the teacher can scan the room for the answers. (You can make these from shower board purchased at a home supply store – they will cut the sheet into the pieces that you need – total cost for 20 boards might be $15-20.)

Other Types of Informal Assessment

These are questions that students begin to answer when the bell rings to start the period. The questions are on the board and relate to the previous day’s lesson or to the upcoming lesson. I actually give my students a sheet of paper that has two weeks worth of space for answering “bell ringers,” one week per side. I collect these each week and give completion credit. It is very easy to scan them and see which students understand and which need more help. Bell-ringers can be kept in journals, also.

Exit slips
These questions are asked at the end of the period. Students need to answer and turn in the “exit slips” before they go to their next class. Again these are easy to scan and really help to see who needs more help.

Sometimes when I begin a new unit, I use brainstorming to assess prior knowledge. Students privately write down everything they already know about the new topic and then they share what they know while I write furiously on the board or on an overhead. This exercise is great at finding out where my students are coming from and what some of the misconceptions are. It is also lively and engaging!

This is a well-known technique which I find really useful. After explaining a concept, I will give students a chance to turn to their partners and try to explain back and forth what they understand about the concept. Then I will call on a couple of pairs to have them share their conversations. When students have been actively engaged in trying to explain, they are much more interested in what other groups have said.

Questioning Individual Students

Research has shown that ALL students need to be called on to answer questions in class. In my early years, I avoided calling on weaker students because I was worried that they would feel bad when they could not answer the question; I subsequently learned that what I was communicating through this practice was a belief that the student was incompetent. So now I call on all students. But I try to put a little caring and fun into the process. If any student cannot answer a question, I scaffold a series of questions to lead them to an answer. This is very helpful to me because it shows me where the breakdown in understanding occurs. And it definitely communicates to the student that I expect him or her to be able to answer questions. If in the end, a student just cannot answer, I allow that person to select a “life-line” – another student who will answer for him or her. But, very importantly, after that other student has answered, I go back to the original student and ask him or her to explain the answer. I have found this process to be very effective.

I also ask students to give me examples when I ask them questions. Let’s say that I ask a student to explain a mutualistic relationship in nature. That student is likely to give me a great textbook definition. My next question is “give an example of such a relationship.” By giving an example, the student convinces me that he or she truly understanding.

Formative Assessments

There are many types of formative assessments that can be useful for moving students toward deeper understanding. Remember that timely feedback is very important if formative assessments are going to do what we want – allow students to learn and strengthen their understanding. The following is just a very small sampling of such assessments. Almost everything we do as teachers can become formative assessments.

Concept maps
Give students just a few words that they need to connect in a concept map and then as the unit progresses, give them more words (concepts) that need to be put into the same concept map. By building slowly, understanding will deepen.

Visual displays
Have students create a diagram or a flow chart or some other visual display to demonstrate and build their understanding of a concept or process.

On many homework assignments, I ask students to summarize what they have learned from a lesson, lab, or activity. These summaries are extremely useful to me in assessing degrees of understanding and help guide my next steps in planning and teaching.

Circulating and “interviewing” students
When my students are engaged in an activity or laboratory, I circulate continuously. I ask students to explain what they are doing and I ask questions frequently. I uncover many misconceptions this way and I am able to have a one-to-one discussion with a student as we work together to clear up these misconceptions.


Finally, as a teacher, always find time to reflect on what you are doing. Ask yourself questions.

Does this activity work?
Could I introduce this activity better?
Am I pacing my instruction correctly?
Could I make this activity more inquiry-based?
Do students learn the concepts better with individual, group, or paired situations.
What are some of the social and cultural aspects of my class that need to be considered?

And ask for your students to give you feedback – not just at the end of the year. Students can be very honest about what is working for them and what is not working.

I always welcome questions, comments, and new ideas to add to my collection! E-mail me.

There are many articles about assessment on the How to Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment page.


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