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Research School Network: Understanding Clues As students return to schools, what are the subtle clues we can look for to check student understanding?


Understanding Clues

As students return to schools, what are the subtle clues we can look for to check student understanding?

by Durrington Research School
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In just over a week, all students across the country will be returning to school – something we are all very much looking forward to. However, at the forefront of teachers’ minds will be how we are going to assess what students have understood during remote teaching, so that we can use this information to plan how we will fill these gaps. What we refer to as formative assessment.

EEF CEO Professor Becky Francis articulated this concern in June 2020:

Taken together, the prior literature on school closures and the growing evidence about the experience of socially disadvantaged families during lockdown conveys a clear message: for the attainment gap, the 2020s could not have got off to a worse start.

But there is another – positive – caveat to insert. Whatever the impact school closures have had on widening the attainment gap, and whatever the adversity experienced by each child, what matters now is how we respond
.”

In February 2021 we find ourselves in the same position as we did back in June 2020. The difference is that the gap has probably widened even further. So as Becky says, the focus now needs to be how we respond to this challenge. In recent months, much has been documented about effective formative assessment classroom approaches such as quizzing, multiple choice questions, hinge questions and looking at student work. Alongside these approaches, what other clues can we be looking for to make a judgement about how well students are understanding when they return to our classrooms? In Assessment and Classroom Learning’ by Dylan Wiliam& Paul Black (1998) they talk about (p52) a study by Reynolds et al (1995) where seven indicators of student understanding’ were agreed by experienced teachers. They were:

1. Changes in demeanour: students who had understood were bright eyed’ while those who had not appeared half hearted;

2. Extension of concept: students who have understood something often take the idea further on their own initiative;

3. Making modifications to a pattern: students who understand spontaneously start making their own modifications, while those who don’t understand imitate or follow rules;

4. Using processes in a different context: students who have understood a particular idea, start seeing the same patterns elsewhere.

5. Using shortcuts: only students who are sure of the big picture’ can shortcut a procedure so that thinking up or using a shortcut is taken as evidence of understanding.

6. Ability to explain: students who have understood something are usually able to explain it;

7. Ability to focus attention: persistence on a task is taken as a sign of understanding.


The authors agreed that the list should not be seen as a static checklist, but rather as a series of potential clues to the level of the student’s understanding.

Much of this will be intuitive to experienced teachers, but it’s good to remind ourselves of these clues as students return to our classrooms. Furthermore, it’s worth us stopping to think about how we will create opportunities to look for these clues during our lessons. Here are five suggestions:

1. When students are set a task to work on independently, rather than diving in and moving around the students, stand back and watch them. Look for the clues – are they looking bright eyed’ or half hearted’? Are they persisting with the task and focused or giving up and switching off? This will give you an indication of where to intervene?

2. Provide opportunities for students to explain ideas to others. If they struggle with this, this might suggest they are struggling to understand themselves.

3. When using worked examples with students, look out for the students who remain overly reliant on the worked example. This is another possible clue that they are struggling to understand.

4. Encourage students to look for patterns and similarities in ideas. For example, in science students who have a good understanding of the particle theory of matter will be able to use this to explain ideas such as melting, evaporation and dissolving.

5. Use open questions and other stimulus materials e.g. images and text, to provide the opportunity for students to develop and extend their thinking. They will only be able to do this if they fully understand the core knowledge.


Checking understanding is a tricky business. These simple and easy to implement approaches should help to build a picture of what students have and have not understood, as they return to us over the coming weeks.

Shaun Allison

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