Gauging Student Understanding

So you’ve been asked to get all kids to the finish line, to “meet the standard” or “pass the benchmark”.  It’s a daunting task, especially if you try to cram Common Core in 13 years in it’s entirety.  At least one step that can help us get closer to bringing all kids there, is answering a fundamental question…. “What do they already know” followed closely by “What are they stuck on when?”

Think about it.  How much of the beginning of your school year is spent figuring out “where kids are at”?  So what can you do to capture a class or student’s sense of knowing and understanding?  Traditionally, you could quiz them, or give them some form of formative assessment (assuming they do their homework that is).  These are often tied to a grade or score and therefore penalize a student for “not knowing”.  What are our jobs for if not to help students get to “knowing” from a place of “not knowing?”  So why would we penalize “not knowing”, which is commonly confused with “not trying.”

Asking students to raise their hands with a question can work, if you as a student aren’t worried about possible negative ridicule of being “the dumb kid”.  So what can you do?

I recently found a free tech tool that I think helps with some of this.  GoSoapbox is a very simple to use and free tool that requires no student email (if you don’t want to have students give it).  It is similar to another student response system you may have heard of called Socrative in that it lets you create quizzes (with scores if you wish) and surveys.  The quizzes can help with self assessment as well (giving students reasons why an answer is correct or incorrect).  However, in addition there are two simple features I love that help me gauge student understanding…

The “I’m confused” button.  When activated, there is a toggle button in the student view that says “I’m confused” or “I’m getting it”.  It updates on the teacher’s screen live in what the company calls a “Confusion Barometer”.  The feedback is anonymous so no student names are used there.

Confusion Barometer
Confusion Barometer from

They also have an excellent Q and A feature.  It lets students pose a question, but also “vote up” other questions.  These questions are posted anonymously in student view, but the teacher can see who is posting them.  They can be replied to by users, or the teacher on the site or just answered verbally and taken down.  Teachers can also remove inappropriate or off topic questions.  I encourage you to take the tour here or better yet sign up for a free account.

Q and A widget from
Example of a “Voted Up” question (notice the 1 on the left) with 5 replies. From

There are some low tech way to do these things as well.  “Ticket to Leave” is a popular method of quickly gauging what students learned that day by asking them to write down one thing they learned in class before they leave.  “Parking lots” in a classroom are areas where questions, comments and new ideas are posted for all to see, generally anonymously.  Many teachers and presenters will open the day or session with “Parking lot” ideas.  Alternatively, using a “Think-Pair-Share” might be a good way to get kids talking about what they do and do not understand. I have also used “Knowledge Rating Guides” to check for understanding before an assessment.  Here is an example one I made for my Copyright unit. To keep students from simply checking boxes, I ask them if they know it to write a definition or example in their own words.

Gauging understanding lets you better focus your time in and out of class and with individual students during an intervention in or out of class.  We all know how much work we have to do in the limited time we have, so let work smarter, not harder.  And we can all agree not to work dumber right?

I’d like to know how you gauge student understanding in your classroom?  Leave us a comment or tweet us.

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