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Tool: Checking for understanding techniques

How can I periodically determine whether my students understand a concept, principle or process? 

Summaries and questions

Distribute index cards and ask students to write:

  • Based on our study of (topic), list a big idea that you understand and write a brief summary of it. [Front]
  • Identify something about (topic) that you do not fully understand and word it as a question. [Back]

Hand signals

Ask students to display a designated hand signal to indicate their understanding of a specific concept, principle or process:

  •          I understand __________ and can explain it (thumbs up)
  •          I do not yet understand __________ (thumbs down)
  •          I’m not completely sure about __________ (wave hand)


  • Indicate by a show of fingers how well you understand ________.  Five fingers means that you have a complex understanding of and can synthesize and analyze relevant concepts. One finger means that you are totally unfamiliar with the concept. Two through four represent varying degrees of understanding.

Question box or board

Establish a location where students may leave or post questions about concepts, principles or processes that they do not understand. This technique may benefit students who are uncomfortable saying aloud that they do not understand.


Ask students to create a visual representation (web, concept map, flow chart or time line) to show elements of a topic or process.  This strategy may be adapted to accommodate other intelligences. For instance, students may choose to represent their understanding artistically, musically or kinesthetically.

Oral questioning

Use the following questions and probes to regularly check for understanding:

  • How is ___________ similar to/different from ___________?
  • What are the characteristics/parts of __________?
  • In what other way might we show/illustrate ________?
  • What is the big idea/key concept in __________?
  • How does _________ relate to _________?
  • What ideas/details can you add to _________?
  • Give an example of ___________.
  • What is wrong with __________?
  • What might you infer from _________?
  • What conclusions might be drawn from ___________?
  • What questions are we trying to answer?  What problem are we trying to solve?
  • What are you assuming about ___________?
  • What might happen if ____________?
  • What criteria might you use to judge/evaluate ____________?
  • What evidence supports ______________?
  • How might we prove/confirm ____________?
  • How might this be viewed from the perspective of ___________?
  • What alternatives should be considered?
  • What approach/strategy could you use to ___________?
  • How else might you say ___________?

Follow-up probes:


What do you mean by _______?

How do you know?

Could you give me an example?

Do you agree?

Tell me more.


Can you find that in the text?

Give me your reasons.

What data support your position?

But what about ______?

Say more….

Misconception check

Present students with common or predictable misconceptions about a designated concept, principle or process. Ask them whether they agree or disagree and have them explain why. 

All adapted from Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

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