5 ways to work out what your students don’t know

Spotting gaps in your students’ knowledge is vital – Mark Roberts offers five simple tips to check they are up to speed

Five ways teachers can quickly check students' knowledge of a topic

A key element of effective teaching is being able to identify what your students haven’t fully grasped. 

We can call it formative assessment, assessment for learning or responsive teaching.

But whatever we call it, being able to quickly spot gaps in your students’ knowledge and skills is of vital importance.


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Traditionally, a teacher completes this feedback cycle by lugging home 34 exercise books. And it’s only when they’ve written “No! Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to the body” in 13 consecutive books that they finally recognise that something went awry during the initial instruction.

In order to tackle misconceptions and difficulties early, here are some strategies to try before you even contemplate dragging their jotters to the boot of your groaning car:

Pre-planned questioning

According to Barak Rosenshine (1983), a common error that teachers make when checking for understanding is “as­suming everybody understands because there are no student questions”. 

How frequently is your request “any questions?” met with silence or complacent shakes of the head? 

Just as misleading is what Rosenshine describes as asking the cleverest students questions and then assuming “that all the class either understands or has now learned from hearing the volunteers”.

Instead, your questions need to be pre-planned to address misconceptions shared by the majority of the class.

Post-it questions

One easy way to avoid students publicly having to admit they don’t understand something is to give them all a Post-it note and ask them all to write down a question about an element of a topic that they don’t understand. 

Doing this anonymously elicits far more than a hopeful plea for questions. Often, you’ll find most students are asking the same question; a sure-fire sign that you will need to reteach something.

Retrieval practice

A quick quiz at the start of the lesson won’t just help to consolidate knowledge in students’ long-term memory – it will also provide you with immediate feedback on what they’ve forgotten or misunderstood. 

A quick multiple-choice question that reveals that students have no understanding of the link between the Corn Laws and the Napoleonic Wars will inform planning for future lessons.

Confidence ratings

Maths specialist Craig Barton has argued that teachers should consider asking students to assign a confidence rating out of 10 next to their answers.

The benefits of this are two-fold. Not only does this provide a teacher with insight about the students’ level of confidence on a given topic, it also encourages students to reflect on the errors they make on high-confidence answers.

Student spokesperson

A lot of students are reluctant to admit when they find a topic tricky, but others are only too happy to let you know.

Being informed that they’re struggling with a part of the curriculum you thought you’d covered in depth might be a bit irritating, yet this is priceless feedback. 

Try to cultivate this role, making these vocal students unofficial spokespeople for the group’s concerns and knowledge gaps. If the class is struggling with something, in the long run, it’s far better to have it out in the open.  

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England

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