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Learning Library Blog 5 Tips for Checking Student Understanding in a Virtual Classroom
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5 Tips for Checking Student Understanding in a Virtual Classroom

By Melissa Childs
March 22, 2021
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“I’m staring at a bunch of black screens.”
“I’ve never even met my students in person.”
“If I can’t see them, how can I tell if they’ve learned the material?”

These statements illustrate just a few of the many struggles that educators around the world are facing due to the shift to virtual teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. We worry about our students, about their well-being and about their learning. We are working hard every day to create opportunities to make learning fun and engaging to reach each and every one of our students.

However, when we’ve given it our all and when we’ve developed the best possible lessons, many of us are still left wondering: Did my students understand what I taught them? What could I have done differently to reach all of my students? How do I know which kids I should check on?

Many of the traditional strategies that we’ve used for decades to check for understanding are not effective or simply impossible in a virtual setting. Through the ISTE Certification process, I learned many innovative ways to use formative assessments to track and to build on student learning. Here are five tips to help you consistently check for student understanding in your virtual classroom:

1. Engage students throughout the lesson.

Use polling software or the chat feature in your videoconferencing system to engage students during the lesson. This allows you to accomplish two things: You can break up a lesson with an activity that keeps students involved (and awake) and you can check for understanding.

At numerous points in my virtual lessons, I stop and pose a question for the students to answer in the chat box within a one to two minute time frame. Students can gain up to three points for participation each day by answering these built-in checks for understanding. They pay close attention and are quick to answer these chat questions to rack up points!

2. Build excitement through student competitions.

Kids (along with adults) love a good competition! By tapping into their motivation, you can have students jumping out of their seats with excitement as they compete with their peers through live, action-packed games through programs like Quizlet, Kahoot or Quizizz.

A couple of years ago, when my students were preparing for the state test, I incorporated these virtual competitions into my classes. It dramatically changed the atmosphere of my classroom. Each day, the kids were rushing to get to class to log in so that they had plenty of time to play. A large group of students would also beg me to let them stay after school so that they could have another chance to compete!

3. Provide several options for students to demonstrate their understanding.

As described in the Universal Design for Learning guidelines, it is essential that we provide students with multiple means of action and expression. Through technology, we can configure opportunities for students to use multiple media, such as speech, illustration, storyboards, film, music and design, to share their learning and ideas with the world around them.

One program that my students love is Flipgrid. Teachers can use Flipgrid to post discussion prompts for students to respond to in video format. This program allows educators to build a strong community through engaging discussions and provides opportunities for them to add videos and links to foster student ideas. Students are also able to watch and comment on their peers’ posts, which can greatly enhance the class environment, whether in person or remote.

4. Allow students to work together.

Providing students a chance to collaborate allows them to build off of one another's ideas, improve their interpersonal skills and develop a deeper enjoyment of the learning process. Digital learning opens the doors for opportunities of new types of collaboration through videoconferencing, shared documents and community forums.

One example of this in action is when my students use shared digital documents to collaborate with one another. In a virtual setting, I place the students in breakout rooms so that they can discuss ideas before adding to the document. I provide students autonomy in their learning, hold them accountable by viewing their progress in real time and provide support to the groups that need it most.

5. Give students an authentic audience.

By providing students with an authentic audience for their work, they develop a strong belief that their work matters, that what they are learning connects to the real world and that they have the potential to make a difference in the lives of those around them. Technology opens the doors to countless possibilities for students to share the amazing work that they do!

Last year, my colleagues and I orchestrated a “Fall into Writing” Celebration, where parents and community members were provided with QR codes to access student audio recordings of the narrative stories that they had written. The students excitedly moved from table to table to listen to their friends’ stories and watched with pride as others listened to their work.

The innumerable possibilities for our students when we consistently provide them diverse opportunities to demonstrate their understanding are clearly represented in the ISTE Standards for Students. By using the numerous virtual tools available today, we provide our students with an opportunity to become creative communicators. During this time of chaos and hardship throughout the world, let’s give our students access to fun, innovative ways to demonstrate their learning!

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Melissa Childs is an instructional coach and a special education teacher at Salmon River Middle School in Fort Covington, New York. Melissa is a ISTE Certified Educator and is School District Leader certified. She and is working toward her Ph.D. in educational leadership.