Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Monday April 25, 2016 -- Checking for Understanding

Contributed by Gabe LaHue

During my first year of graduate school, I took an upper division undergraduate class and the teacher started by showing us this video: A Private Universe*. We opened our GTC meeting the same way, and watched as it was revealed that fundamental scientific misconceptions were held by Harvard graduates and high schoolers alike. The point the professor of my class was trying to make was that you don’t know what misconceptions your students may hold until you really begin to question them; furthermore, since any learning we do in a class builds on our prior understanding, teaching without addressing these underlying misconceptions is akin to building a house on a shaky foundation – it doesn’t matter how well the house is built if the foundation isn’t solid. The professor used this rationale to justify his style of teaching, which included constant encouragement to ask questions in class and a discussion section in which each student was put on the spot to answer a particular question and interrogated rigorously about all aspects of that question. The discussion section was not unlike a watered down (and very short) version of a qualifying exam (the oral exam Ph.D. students take to advance to candidacy). While this teaching strategy seemed very effective in my opinion, it was definitely time consuming and I wondered if it was too intimidating for some of the students in the class. We used this method of checking for understanding (oral exams) as a jumping off point for a group discussion about various methods of checking for understanding, their advantages, and their disadvantages. The substance of our discussion is highlighted in the table below.

Check for Understanding
Oral exams
Very thorough
Time consuming
Short summary response
Puts information in context
Gives real world application
Time consuming
Long answer
More thorough than multiple choice
Time consuming
Cold calling
Targets quiet students equally
Not thorough
Understanding indicator notes (red/yellow/green)
Can be time consuming also
Relies on own diagnosis
Group discussion
Unifies group to single response
Group idea may be wrong
iClickers (or similar)
Very efficient
Technology issues
Take home exams
Can be more detailed
Difficult to grade


In addition, we also explored specific strategies for checking for understanding.  We accessed a website (http://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/category/C7) which shares many of these strategies, each accompanied by a short video demonstrating the strategy in action. We discussed the availability of many K-12 pedagogical tools and were encouraged to use these as foundations, adapting to our own particular needs. 

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