How do you know whether a student understands what you are saying? One clue of course, is by whether the student is looking at and concentrating on you and your comments.
But this clue is not foolproof; everyone has had moments of staring at a speaker while daydreaming, only to realize later that they have not heard anything that the speaker said.
It is sometimes important, therefore, to probe more actively how much students are actually understanding during lessons or other activities.
Strategies for probing understanding generally involve mixing instruction with conversation (Renshaw, 2004). In explaining a new topic, for example, you can check for understanding by asking preliminary questions connecting the topic to students’ prior experiences and knowledge about the topic.
Note that this strategy combines qualities of both instruction and conversation, in the sense that it involves combining “test” questions, to which you already know the answer, with real questions to which you do not.
For example: When introducing a science lesson about density to kindergarten children the teacher might reasonably ask both of the following:
• Teacher: Which of these objects that I have do you expect will sink and which ones will float? (A test question—the teacher already will know the answer.)
• Teacher: What other things have you seen that float? Or that sink? (A real question—the teacher is asking about their experience and does not know the answer.)
By asking both kinds of questions, the teacher scaffolds the children’s learning, or creates a zone of proximal development.
Note that this zone has two important features, both of which contribute to children’s thinking. One is that it stimulates students’ thinking (by asking them questions), and the other is that it creates a supportive and caring atmosphere (by honoring their personal experiences with real questions).
The resulting mix of warmth and challenge can be especially motivating (Goldstein, 1999). When warmth and challenge are both present in a discussion, it sometimes even becomes possible to do what may at first seem risky: calling on individual students randomly without the students’ volunteering to speak.
In a study of “cold calling” as a technique in university class discussions, the researchers found that students did not find the practice especially stressful or punitive, as the teachers feared they might, and that spontaneous participation in discussion actually improved as a result (Dallimore, et al., 2006).
The benefit was most likely to happen, however, when combined with gestures of respect for students, such as warning individuals ahead of class that they might be called on, or allowing students to formulate ideas in small groups before beginning to call on individuals.
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