Ask the grumpies: Checking for student understanding

Rumpus asks:

… my most-disjoint part of class is after I work a problem and need to evaluate whether the class understands. Currently I look at their faces for signs of confusion (or sleep). Then I cold-call 2-3 people (out of 25-35) and ask them to self-identify if they understand or want to talk about it or want to work another problem. Then I ask the class “are we good?” And I’m not getting a good understanding of what level of understanding the class has. These problems take 10-15 minutes each, so I need to get a good evaluation before deciding whether to work another. What do you do to evaluate class understanding on the fly? (Or do you?)

#1:  I have the students do call and response or sometimes I’ll cold-call.  I don’t cold call enough in one of my classes and I wonder if that’s why I have a small handful of students who are getting Cs.  They all sit together and have last names that are similar.  I need to work on this.

#2  That kind of question is hard for me to answer because I frequently use problems for which there is no one right answer.  You can poll the class about what they got and how, having them report back to the big group, designating 1 person per group as the reporter.  I would have them vote:  “Raise your hand if you think you got the right answer and are very confident.”  “Raise your hand if you don’t know if you understand or not.”  “Raise your hand if you’re totally confused.”

Does anybody have better suggestions for Rumpus?

14 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Checking for student understanding”

  1. Ianqui Says:

    One thing I do, which seems to work surprisingly well is to say, “Does anyone have any questions?” Then, if there’s silence, I say, “You know, if something is unclear to you, then the likelihood is that it’s also unclear to at least 50% of the class. So you might as well ask and help everyone else out too.” More often than not, this tactic prompts a question or two.

  2. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Oh my god I honestly think I would shrivel up and die if my professor cold-called me. That’s actually one of my greatest fears.

    May I suggest a tactic that may or may not help? BEFORE you give the answer, do cold calls on what answers they have. This is still terrifying but slightly less so and may give you a better understanding as to comprehension. I don’t know if it’s possible to walk through a problem in the 15 minutes and then give them a very similar problem and give them the time you think they need to adequately solve if they truly comprehend and then cold call for answers. I just think this would get you the most honest answers and truest glimpses to what’s going on.

  3. Catherine Says:

    Would clickers (aka “classroom response systems”) be useful here? If part of the problem is that students don’t want to admit to being confused, clickers anonymize and aggregate the results, so that a) nobody’s singled out and b) if half the class is confused, everyone can see that, so the confused students don’t feel shamed and the ones who aren’t confused can recognize that a good portion of the class has a real need for further explanation. You can also use clickers to ask more nuanced questions with multiple options, like, “yes I’m still confused but I’ll figure it out on my own” vs. “OMG I am so lost please help me.” And you can use them instead of cold-calling for solutions, to see if they actually do understand, or just think they do.

    Clickers are pricey, so one way around that is to give each student two index cards, one with a big green YES on one side and the other with a big red NO on one side, and ask them to hold them up in the air with the words facing you. Not quite as anonymous as actual clickers but super-cheap and delightfully low-tech.

    • anandi Says:

      oh wow, this is brilliant. Do all of your students have laptops? I wonder if there’s some online solution for this too.

    • Rumpus Says:

      I’m going to think more about this. I know clickers are used on campus, but I don’t know anyone that uses them. Using clickers sounds like a great way to solve my problem of not having enough feedback.

  4. femmefrugality Says:

    I wish I had suggestions. I try really hard to pay attention in class and be on top of things. I’m spending a ton of money to be there….don’t want to blow it. I don’t really understand it when I see people falling asleep when they’ve made such a huge investment.

  5. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    Then I cold-call 2-3 people (out of 25-35) and ask them to self-identify if they understand or want to talk about it or want to work another problem. Then I ask the class “are we good?”

    This is terrible pedagogical technique. Who the f*cke is gonna flat-out admit they don’t understand something or that they aren’t “good” with the material, especially near the end of a class, when their minds and bodies are already moving on and the last thing they want is to elicit more professorial babbling?

    In order to find out whether students understand something, you have to put them in a position where they are required to explain it, not just nakedly assert that they do or don’t understand. If you are going to use cold-calling, then the questions you ask have to elicit an attempted explanation. If the explanation rendered is wrong, then you now have an oportunity to use further socratic questioning to guide the class to where they need to be.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Note: this comment is an example of terrible teaching technique. Why be a jerk to someone who is asking for help on how to do something? Way to shut someone down. No wonder students are terrified of admitting that they don’t understand something in your classes. They’re quite a bit less afraid in ours.

    • Rumpus Says:

      Yes, it is a terrible technique. That’s why I’m looking for help on what do I do *after* I just spent 15 minutes putting them in positions where they have to explain their positions. How do you decide if the class needs another go-round? During that first or second or third problem I’ve hit somewhere between 3 and 9 students…so there’s at least half the class out there that I’m still in the dark about their status.

  6. First (Link)Loves « Adjunctorium Says:

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