Are You with Me? How to Effectively Check for Student Understanding

October 24, 2023
Rachel Fuhrman

When we think about what teaching is, we know it's more than just standing at the front of a room and presenting a lesson–so much more. One of the key components of teaching a successful lesson is that students walk away with a new, deeper understanding of the content. To make sure every lesson accomplishes that goal, it's crucial that teachers effectively check for understanding. 

There are many ways to check for understanding, some more effective than others, and Fishtank is here to help make it easier for you to get it right.


Why Is it Important to Check for Understanding?

Put simply, checking for understanding ensures students are engaged, have had their questions answered, and feel prepared to move on. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher to feel like my lesson was going incredibly well, only to have every students’ hand pop up in the last 2 minutes of class letting me know they are completely lost! The situation gets worse when students don’t let you know how they’re feeling, struggling in silence and falling behind. 

By frequently checking for understanding, you can ensure that your students are building their knowledge of new content throughout the lesson and take the time to stop and adjust your instruction if they’re not. 

You may have seen or used methods to check for understanding in your classroom before. Does any of this sound familiar: “Thumbs up if you understand”, “Are you with me?”, “Is everyone ready to move on?” While these methods could be effective if your students are willing to put themselves on the spot and are prepared to articulate their questions, they may not be effective for all students. 

Shy students may feel scared to admit, especially in front of all of their peers, that they are confused by showing a thumbs down or raising their hand with a question. Questions like “Are you with me?” also leave a lot of space for students to just passively move through the lesson without really thinking about whether or not they understand. As a very shy student, I most certainly would not have raised my hand to say I was confused, especially if I felt like everyone else was prepared to move on. 


How Can I More Effectively Check for Understanding?

Before offering some new strategies, I want to share one quick adjustment you can make to a previously mentioned strategy that can make it more effective. If you rely on a thumbs up or down system in your classroom, consider having students put their heads down before responding to help students feel more comfortable answering honestly. 

Now, to introduce some more effective ways to check for student understanding. The first is through partner discussions. You can ask students to retell a part of a story, rephrase the key concepts they just learned, or explain the key takeaway from a part of the lesson to their partners. This method tasks students with acknowledging whether or not they truly understand what has been taught up to this point. Further, this strategy allows students to work together to synthesize and clarify their ideas. As students are talking, you can circulate around the room and check in with students. Based on the conversations you hear, you can decide whether or not the class is ready to move on.

The second strategy to check for understanding is through a short independent written response. Similar to the partner discussion, you can ask students to rephrase a key concept in their words or retell a part of a story. Because they are writing, you can also push their thinking by asking them to write their own version of a story problem, the next few lines of a dialogue in a story, or quickly make a connection between today’s lesson and a previous lesson. 

This strategy encourages students to articulate their thoughts in a very low-stakes way–this isn’t something you are necessarily going to grade, but it is something that you will want to circle and quickly look at. As students begin writing, you can check in with them and see whether or not they have grasped the concepts. Additionally, if you give students the direction to begin writing, and no one is writing, that is a very good indication that they are lost. You may just need to reframe the question, but this could also mean that you need to bring the class back together for more direct instruction. 

As you and your students get more comfortable with these strategies, you can decide what works best for them and how to pivot your instruction when needed. 


What Resources Can Make it Easier to Check for Understanding?

Because Fishtank ELA and Fishtank Math lessons are designed with this need to effectively check for understanding in mind, there are plenty of resources available to help you. First, Fishtank Plus users have access to Unit Launches that provide a deep dive into the unit content and important instructional considerations. As you complete the Unit Launch, you can identify the types of lessons, problems, or questions your students may struggle with and pre-plan the targeted questions and strategies you will use to check for student understanding. 

Enhanced ELA Lesson Plans, available for Fishtank Plus users, provide scaffolding questions you can utilize to check for understanding during the lesson. In Fishtank Math lessons, all users have access to the Guiding Questions for each Anchor Problem and the Discussion of Problem Set Questions that can be used to check for understanding. 

Outside of the specific unit and lesson supports, all Fishtank users also have access to the Fishtank library of Teacher Tools that provide guidance for effectively utilizing the curriculum. Teachers can access the Preparing to Teach Fishtank ELA or Math Teacher Tool that can deepen your understanding of how to employ lesson features to check for understanding.  Additionally, you can access the Academic Discourse and Supporting English Learners Teacher Tools to feel more confident engaging and supporting all students with their partner discussions. 

Looking for more tips and tricks for your ELA or Math classroom? Dive into Fishtank’s library of Teacher Tools to find guidance on Supporting English Learners, Academic Discourse, Vocabulary Instruction, and more! Upgrade to Fishtank Plus to unlock even more resources and additional curriculum resources.


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.

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