I think the act of teaching is a rather courageous process. It may not always be regarded as such, but it nonetheless is a courageous act. Through teaching we really put our best selves forward. I really believe (yes you’ve already heard this a hundred times but as a reminder…) that all teachers set out to be the best teachers they can be with the information and training they have accessed.  With this in mind, let’s think about what happens in a lesson. One hopes this is not a “stand and deliver” moment but rather an opportunity to “peel back the layers” moment. To be willing to make us vulnerable in a lesson and check for understanding or more specifically to check for learning can be scary.  It is a natural part of the instructional process but it can be unnerving. When we check for learning we are really evaluating our success through the student. If we are to be facilitators of learning we must look at the process of checking for learning as our data collection process by which we can evaluate our methods. Without that data we don’t know how successful we can be. So how can you check for learning? There are lots of ways and any of these methods can be used as a check for understanding, a formative assessment or in a summative assessment and  we  can check for learning engaging the entire class at once in both verbal and nonverbal ways.

Checking for Feedback

Checking for learning must be regarded a feedback process providing us, the educator, with room to grow! The data we collect provides insight into student achievement with the concepts we are sharing with them. Therefore instead of inadvertently assigning value to certain students over others, let’s think of ways to engage all students in the checking process. When we check for learning with all of our students it sends the students the message that we care for each of them and they are equitably important to the process and to us. That can be a lot of pressure, but one day I saw one of my teachers frame the check in a way that made so much sense. After teaching a group of new “vocabulary”  on family in a real world context, she turned to the class and said: “let’s see how I did”. She began to tell a story about her family and students, using hold up cards with pictures of different family members on the card, held up the appropriate card with the family member on it as they appeared in the story. During the story she redirected a few students by sharing she needed their feedback too, that everyone was important to the process and it got them right on board (which surprised me!). It can be difficult to get middle and high school students buy in but this teacher had done a great job in establishing rapport and relationships that she reinforced in the checking for learning process. The best part was she had immediate feedback on how well she did. After she had the feedback I noticed she changed the homework for the class to help them practice where there were some issues. So not only did she get data, she used that data on the spot to focus their practice on an area in which they  could grow.  It is not surprising after observing this that the students all did the homework. When I asked a random student how they felt about the process, the student replied, “Mrs. XYZ really cares about us and how we are doing. She really cares if we get the information and helps us when we struggle.” Mrs. XYZ could not do this if she didn’t collect the data through learning checks.

Strategies that Check for Learning

Checking for learning does not have to be a major production. These checks can be simple requiring little prep time. Some examples are:

  • Thumbs up thumbs down: Teacher asks a question students answer with thumbs up or down to give an answer. You can add thumbs to the middle for ‘I’m not sure’.
  • Dry erase boards: these can be actual dry erase boards, shower board cut into squares at your local Home Depot or Lowes, or best of all heavy weight page protectors with a piece of white cardstock in it (tape the end to keep it in place). Students can draw a picture to represent the answer and hold it up. The teacher could give a sentence stem with students writing in their answer on their board and holding it up. The options are endless! All the students should hold up the board at the same time to ensure a level of anonymity.
  • Lineups: line students up so they are all paired. Allow one student to ask a question and their pair to answer it. Sound a cue so students rotate to a new partner. You can join the fun too so you get to talk to the students!
  • Quick write: In a quick write the teacher provides an open-ended prompt and students get 2 minutes to write an answer. The goal is to informally assess what the students know and can do in a short period of time on the given topic. In advanced lasses the time may be a bit longer but be sure not to give students too much time. You want this to be a cold reaction to the prompt as this is a good view of what language the students own.
  • Quick draw: A quick draw can be used in a variety of ways. It can be used early on in the input process to assess student comprehension of certain vocabulary words or it can be used in response to a prompt. Ultimately students draw a picture to represent their answer on a white board or white board substitute and hold up their answer.

 Other checks for learning require a bit of prep work but many of these are and investment in the beginning to get materials made. You can find some samples in multiple languages at the Shelby County World Language website.

  • ABCD Cards: A set of four cards. One card for each letter. As the teacher asks questions, in multiple-choice format, students hold up the letter that corresponds with the correct answer.  Each student should have a set of four cards.
  • Like and dislike cards: Two cards –  one with “I like” In the target language and the other with “I don’t like”. Teacher provides input and students respond with I like or I don’t like.
  • Vocabulary cards: Students have a set of “cards”. Each “card” (could be on cardstock or regular copy paper) feature one picture of a vocabulary word. As you work through input, students hold up the card for the vocabulary words they here.
  • Turn and talk: Once students are at a point that they are ready to apply their learning, have students practice with a partner while you circulate listening in to conversations.

There are numerous strategies for checking for learning. Choosing the most effective strategy is not something that can happen on the fly. Strategy options should be considered carefully during planning in order to select the best option for meaningful feedback. It is really critical however NOT to just check for learning but to respond to the data we collect. Our responsiveness messages the importance of what we are learning to our students as well as our concern for their success. While we never say a word about either, our actions speak volumes. Checking for learning is an integral piece of building proficiency, but only if we act based on the student performance. If students are using hold ups, as you scan the room, attend to who got it correct or incorrect. How many were incorrect? Was is enough to necessitate a whole group review or would a small group review be better while others work on another assignment? Whatever the case, we are there to facilitate student learning – maximize student success. The biggest factor in determining student success is the teacher. Therefore, data from learning checks provide us ongoing feedback to ensure student success.

Published by Alyssa Villarreal

Alyssa Villarreal, is the President of Advance Learning and World Language Coordinator for Shelby County Schools (SCS) in Memphis, TN. Ms. Villarreal holds two masters degrees (Curriculum and instruction and educational leadership). As the World Language Coordinator for Shelby County Schools (SCS), she coordinates the district’s language program, which includes programs in eight languages including Spanish, French, German, Russian, Latin, Japanese, Arabic and Chinese. Ms. Villarreal has written and directed three successful Foreign Language Assistance program (FLAP) grants in her nine-year tenure in SCS. The first was to build a K-12 Russian program and was received in 2007. She was one of eight World Language Coordinators nationally to receive a 2008 FLAP grant to build K-12 global villages in Japanese, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. In addition to her district duties, she has worked as the Foreign Language methods instructor for the University of Memphis. She has served as program director of three STARTALK programs for Memphis City Schools, consultant to other STARTALK programs and a STARTALK site visitor.

In addition to her district duties, she has worked as the Foreign Language methods instructor for the University of Memphis. She is currently serving as President of the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL) and was named the 2012 NADSFL Supervisor of the Year.