Checking For Understanding: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Questioning

Mike Schmoker sounded the alarm when he wrote in Results Now that “for the majority of lessons, no evidence exists by which a teacher could gauge or report on how well students are learning.”

In an interview, author and former teacher Tom Sherrington said “as a profession, we need to think harder about how to engineer more time-efficient ways to check for understanding  across a class…checking for understanding is something which needs to be way higher in teachers’ consciousness.”

What’s so important about asking students questions while teaching, and why is it so hard for teachers to do this consistently? What are some of the most time-efficient ways to check all students’ understanding, and what’s at stake when we fail to formatively assess students?

Pedagogy Beats Curriculum

The importance of knowledge-rich curricula for improving overall literacy has gained traction lately, and this is a major step in the right direction. However, we must be realistic and recognize curriculum alone is not enough

I fear that courageous attempts to make the recent curriculum renaissance “teacher-proof” with extensive teacher guides, on-site professional development, and complex scripts will not only be ineffective, but could even backfire if implemented without genuine teacher buy-in. For full impact, we need to pay as much (if not more)  attention to improving pedagogy as we do curriculum. 

Dylan Wiliam writes, “changes in curriculum rarely impact practices in classrooms. Trying to change students’ classroom experience through changes in curriculum is very difficult. A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum.”

This then, is a call to empower teachers with universal fundamentals of effective lesson delivery and formative assessment that are are rarely taught or deliberately practiced in our colleges and universities. Having a toolbox of formative assessment techniques is key for teachers to unlock and scaffold the most rigorous curricula. 

Ultimately, how we get students to interact with knowledge-rich curriculum is what is most important, and teachers need far more than external, one-shot professional development sessions, hap-hazard coaching and lock-step curriculum guides.  Formative assessment and continuous checking for understanding (CFU) should be a top priority for all new teachers in training, and a long-term endeavor in teacher professional development. 

Refocusing on CFU will take a fair amount of unlearning and relearning as many generations of teachers have been actively discouraged from taking an active role in directing students learning and attention in the classroom. The rush to “limit teacher talk” has been taken to the extreme. Therefore to start, we’ll re-examine what exactly formative checks for understanding look like in the classroom. 

CFU Fundamentals

Dylan Wiliam famously articulated how formative assessment, at it’s most fundamental level, allows a teacher to distinguish “I taught it” from “they learned it.” In Embedded Formative Assessment, Wiliam outlines what makes an assessment truly formative:

“An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.” 

In Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine concludes that “more-effective teachers frequently check to see if all the students are learning the new material.” Rosenshine outlines two purposes of checking for understanding (CFU):

  • To provide students opportunities to elaborate on, and move new learning into long-term memory
  • To let the teacher know if students understand or have developed misconceptions.

Noticing student misconceptions is absolutely vital while CFU. Again, Rosenshine: “when left on their own, many students make errors in the process of constructing this mental summary. These errors occur, particularly, when the information is new and the student does not have adequate or well-formed background knowledge.

By noticing misconceptions and understandings, teachers can skillfully decide how to proceed in the lesson. In Explicit Direct Instruction, Ybarra and Hollingsworth write that “the power of CFU is the real-time information it provides you for making instructional decisions during the lesson. It tells you when to speed up, slow down, or reteach. In reality, your students’ ability to successfully answer CFU questions determines the pace of the lesson.”

Dataworks developed the acronym TAPPLE to assist teachers in this instructional routine: Teach first; Ask a Question; Pair-Share; Pick a Non-Volunteer; Listen; Effective Feedback. 

Screenshot 2019-07-18 at 9.54.30 AM

Formative CFU might take the form of a diagnostic multiple choice question in a math lesson, or a brief Because/But/So writing exercise from The Writing Revolution to check reading comprehension. CFU should take place at least every 5-10 minutes, should take no longer than 1-2 minutes for all students to respond, and ideally the teacher should be able to view and interpret the responses from the whole class in less than 30 seconds. 

“As students practice, and between each step in the lesson, the teacher should conduct “formative assessment” by checking – assessing – to see how many students have mastered that particular step.”

Focus by Mike Schmoker

Done properly, a CFU should function like a reliable sample or poll. Teachers should call on at least three non-volunteers for every CFU, and when two students in a row cannot answer, it’s a sign to reteach. One student answering correctly is never enough.

It is most crucial that all students are thinking and responding whenever a question is asked to the whole group. Mike Schmoker writes “we must ensure that every student is responding, multiple times, to questions throughout.” When we limit questions to individual students or high-achievers who always raise their hands, it gives the rest of the class an clear opportunity to check out

These frequent checks can be done time-efficiently during guided practice using mini-whiteboards (card stock with a sheet protector) or hand signals (hand signals with diagnostic multiple choice questions). Having outlined the fundamentals of CFU, the next section will identify what is not formative assessment. 

That’s Not CFU

Teachers spend a tremendous amount of the school year assessing using benchmark tests and other assessments, but the results are rarely (if ever) used to meaningfully adjust instruction or improve student learning. Robert Slavin states it clearly, “research finds that benchmark assessments do not make any difference in achievement.”

Instead of formative assessment, teachers are constantly distracted by all sorts of other fruitless assessments. We spend hours inputting and analyzing test data after the factwhen we should be gathering data and adjusting instruction in the moment.

Most time-consuming and often impractical are current preoccupations with “individual conferences” in the workshop model, and other 1:1 assessments frequently used to level student instruction.

In Results Now, Mike Schmoker writes “teachers have lately been required to conduct exhaustive, student-by-student reading assessments that can take days to conduct. But few are told how to use their results. We never encountered a single case where teachers used these assessment results to adjust or improve instruction; they used them to group or regroup students.”

The core question we must confront in our profession is, as Dylan Wiliam states, “does the teacher find out whether students have understood something when they [students] are still in the class, when there is time to do something about it?” Put another way, are we using assessments to adjust instruction in the moment, or are we merely hoping to catch misconceptions later? 

Whats At Stake

While there are very few, if any, silver-bullets in education, formative CFU might be one of the most agreed-upon, promising frameworks at our disposal. As Ybarra and Hollingsworth state, “continuous CFU, implemented properly, is the backbone of effective instruction.” 

When teachers do not consistently check student understanding, instructional decisions are made blindly and student learning is fragile. Tom Sherrington put it best – “where students underachieve in school, they are pushed on too far beyond what they can learn all the time. So they have this array of insecure schema for lots of different topics constantly being built on top of.”

It’s no longer enough to hope that students have learned something from our lessons. We must break the habit of asking students to self-report with “any questions…do you understand…ready to move on?” and instead utilize the simple and devastating power of frequent checks for student understanding.

Put Simply

  • The most powerful assessments happen during instruction when misconceptions can be caught and adjustments can be made.
  • It is vital that all students are thinking and interacting with each CFU question, and that at least three non-volunteers are sampled to gauge student understanding.
  • If an assessment does not meaningfully impact instruction or lead to valuable feedback, carefully examine the time and effort invested.

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Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for your classroom. ASCD.

Hochman, J. C., & Wexler, N. (2017). The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. John Wiley & Sons.

Hollingsworth, J., & Ybarra, S. (2009). Explicit direct instruction: the power of the well-crafted and well taught lesion. DataWORKS Educational Research: Fowler, CA.

Rosenshine, B. (2010). Principles of instruction. International Academy of Education.

Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. ASCD.

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Ascd.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree Press.


3 thoughts on “Checking For Understanding: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Questioning

  1. “We never encountered a single case where teachers used these assessment results to adjust or improve instruction; they used them to group or regroup students.”
    How do we expect results to improve?

    On another note, you may want to write an article, as good as this one, on ‘Rediscovering the Lost Art of Answering Questions'(by teachers)?

    Most educators are unwilling to answer questions.


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