You Lost Me: Five Tips for Checking Comprehension
I have no doubt you are the best teacher this school has ever seen. You care about your students. You are creative in the classroom. You know the material as if you had changed its diapers.
But are your students on the same page?
We learn differently. The words you speak, no matter how basic, when falling on uncomprehending ears will not take root. Checking for comprehension frequently and diversely can keep your students by your side as you together explore the beauty of knowledge. But really, gauging comprehension is a simple act of caring for your students.
Proceed if you care.
The Journal of Learning
Take home journals are records your students can refer back to over the year when they need a helping hand at remembering. It’s a reference you can point towards when your students are struggling to connect the dots of how sentence structure influences your history essay relates to your art project.
Prompts for the journals can be completed in class or at home. Collect the journals occasionally and return with constructive feedback on their engagement with the subject at hand. Journals are a canvas for writing, drawing, art projects, quizzes, and nearly anything you can imagine. At school term’s end, your students can have a tangible witness of what they’ve learned and their journal will be a keepsake for years to come.
Pair and Share
We need an occasional break from the old “teacher talks at us and we regurgitate the info back on a daily quiz” format. When it comes to grasping a concept, ownership rockets our learning like Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap”.
Having your students pair up with each other in order to teach what you’ve already taught them is a beneficial technique for them to own the lesson. However, recognize their need for guidance in this manner. A few questions and key points for them to cover will ensure they grasp what they are teaching to their fellow students.
Whether they answer a worksheet together or present what they’ve learned to the class, you can find ways to empower your students with the ability and confidence to own what they are learning. You could even have them teach someone at home what they are learning and get their “home learner” to sign off on their student’s teaching.
Regardless of the skill, there is a risk involved in ownership, because it means we might fail. But the path of mastery is wrought with failure. That’s how we learn. You are the one creating a safe place for the students to fail and you are the guiding voice of correction as they build their confidence in what they are learning.
What you need is some wall space and pre-cut jigsaw pieces of an image relevant to what the students are learning. At the end of the class, hand out a puzzle piece to each student, asking them to write their names and a summary of the main points of the lesson. Or questions they have. Or a few things they learned that day. Then they hand them in as their ticket out the door.
As you assemble their pieces on the wall, you get insight into who understands what and where you may need to spend some more time and effort. As the weeks pass, your students watch how their learning together is creating an image. The anticipation is palpable.
You can spin this one a hundred different ways depending on the lengths you are willing to go. Try: upon completion of the image have a small celebration with a take-home token matching the puzzle, as a reminder of the learning that has taken place. Try also: running with the metaphors a completed puzzle invites, recapping the lessons which make up the image, and taking pictures of your students with the completed puzzle for them to keep.
“In The Moment” Checks
Creating an atmosphere where it is not only safe, but encouraged to ask questions or state confusion, is founded on intention. Sometimes you need instant feedback to know whether what you are teaching is making sense.
Putting systems into place where kids can both verbally and non-verbally engage with the lesson is crucial to comprehension. From time immemorial, the hand raise has served this purpose. But if you’re a shy kid, you wouldn’t be caught dead with all eyes drawn to you. Here are some other ideas for real time interaction.
- Periodically ask for a thumbs-up/ thumbs-down for whether or not your students understand.
- Present a scenario where the students react when they encounter the subject being taught (i.e. clap every time a verb is used; act out the moods of the characters in the story; touch your nose when you hear the name of a country; etc.)
- Predetermine a hand signal for when your students get lost or confused. Something you can see, but doesn’t draw a lot of attention to them.
- Everyone closes their eyes for a blind quiz, whether true/false or multiple choice (or something else), and raises their hand for correct answers. This acts as a non-threatening way to get a wrong answer and a good way for you to see where your students are at. Of course, there will no doubt be peeking.
As a fan of the show Community, I’ve commandeered the “Dreamatorium” idea so we all get a slice of that delicious cake. If you implement your Imaginatorium early on, it will be a place you can return time after time and will serve you well. The idea is simple.
As children we live in a world of pretend. Remember what that was like? Your students are still there, so capitalize on that natural ability. Put the pens and paper away and step into the Imaginatorium together. Have a special ritual you do together in order to get there, like walk around the room backwards, and once you are there, you are no longer in the classroom, but in the space of your design.
Maybe you’re on Safari in Africa because you’re using adjectives to describe the animals you see. Maybe you’re in space suits floating above the Earth and watching the geography turn beneath you. Maybe you’re stepping back into the pages of history to role play a certain battle or era or event.
I can remember with vivid clarity acting out the story of Tom Sawyer as ten year old. Complete with whitewashed fences and marbles. I don’t remember all the lessons we learned that year, but I have fond remembrances of Tom Sawyer.
When you invite students into the sacred space of their own imaginations, they create for themselves worlds which they will not quickly forget. And it’s a place you can revisit later to see what they remember.
You know what they call a leader with no followers, right? Just a guy taking a walk.
Checking for comprehension ensures that you are not wandering all on your lonesome. In the classroom, you are the leader and a good leader cares for those under her guidance. I can remember the teachers who cared about my learning and I’ve mostly forgotten those who didn’t.
It’s just a thought.
P.S. What comprehension techniques have served you well?