Sunday / July 21

A Better Way to Check Student Understanding

“Are there any questions?” isn’t a reliable method to check student understanding.  

Teachers generally intend it to check student understanding, but consider it from a student’s point of view—especially an adolescent student. Here is an invitation to appear ignorant before your classmates.  Here is a chance to show the world that whatever “it” is, you don’t “get” it. The teacher wants you to admit you don’t understand something? Talk about painting a target for teasing on your own psyche! No thanks. You’ll choose to keep your mouth shut and your psyche safe. And the teacher will never know if your silence means understanding or emotional self-protection. 

I confess I checked students’ bravery many times before I finally realized that this question did little to check student understanding.   

I noticed in one class, whenever I asked Are there any questions, one high achieving student always had at least one question. He was almost always the only one to respond to this question, and it was almost always a question about something I was sure he already knew.  

One day after school, I questioned him about his repeated queries and he admitted that most of the time he was really asking questions for the two bilingual who students sat near him. They often had questions, but were afraid to ask. He continued, “They say that since I’m smart, it doesn’t matter if I ask questions. But they’re afraid if they ask something, others will laugh and think they’re dumb.” And with that, I “got it,”—and I began looking for better way to check student understanding and draw out what was in students’ heads.   

More Effective Ways to Check Student Understanding

Like all teachers, I had been interpreting the absence of student response to this query as proof of my instructional excellence. But this question was not achieving my goal. But substituting these words and allowing 3-5 seconds of “think time” worked wonders: 

  1. “So – what are you wondering?”
    Students (and adults) find it much more emotionally safe to admit to wondering something rather than having a question. “Having a question” after an explanation connotes a lack of understanding, but “wondering” connotes curiosity and intelligence. 
  2. “So – what have I not made clear?”
    With this phrasing, the “error” is not on the student’s part for not understanding; it is on the teacher’s part for not providing clear explanation.  

Optimizing Wait Time to Check Student Understanding

Now about that “wait time”.  Did you know students typically get less than a second to think before they are expected to reply? Really! Studies show that extending that to a minimum of 3-5 seconds results in more students responding—and they respond at higher levels of thinking (Gage & Berliner, 1992).  

If you really want to check student understanding and not just student response speed, give them time to think. 

I encourage you to try using the “…wondering” question instead of the “are there any…” one.  See if you get more—and more accurate— student responses, as well as more student comfort in giving those responses. And if you’re feeling brave enough to paint the target on yourself, ask what you have not made clear. I promise, students will give you feedback on that one. 

May you experience success in all your academic endeavors! 

– Alene 


Gage, N.L. & Berliner, D.C. (1992). Educational Psychology (5th ed.).  Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Written by

Alene Harris, PhD, is a retired professor from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University who for 50 years was a certified teacher in both elementary and secondary (English Language Arts and Life Sciences) levels. Her background includes 16 years of classroom teaching and 23 years of university teaching, including over 2,000 mostly middle school students, with a smattering of elementary and high school, in urban, suburban, and independent schools; and over 1,000 college students, mostly graduate students returning for a master’s plus teaching licensure, at Peabody College. She is the author of Reclaim Your Challenging Classroom: Relationship-Based Behavior Management.

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