DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
Ms Ellen Cornish and Dr Don Jordan
‘The biggest communication problem is we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply’. (Source unknown)
How often have you given a lecture or lesson and checked for understanding during the session by asking: ‘Any questions?’, ‘Did you get that? ‘Does everybody understand? ‘Does that make sense? Teachers often allow one or two confident students who respond to such questions, to speak for the rest of the class, and accept these responses as evidence that the whole class has understood the concept or idea being developed by the teacher. The teacher will then make a decision about where to move to in the next part of the lesson or series of lessons.. As teachers, even if we select students at random to answer a question, we might select a student for which the question is either too easy or too hard.
We know that less confident students will sit quietly, but we don’t know whether they understand or not, or whether they are too shy to say anything in case they show their lack of understanding in front of their classmates.
Teachers rarely go into a lesson with a plan of the questions they might ask as part of the teaching and learning process, even though questioning and discussion are key aspects of good pedagogy.
Too often, classroom discussion only involves the most confident students, ignores the majority of those not volunteering to participate, and relies on prompts and questions that we don’t plan in advance.
Questions are an important way to check for understanding, so it is important to ensure that questions engage students in deeper thinking, not just prompts for them to recall information that they have read or have been told.
By planning questions, teachers can ensure they are tapping into deep issues of learning. One way to make a question suitable for all students is to ask the question at a number of different levels either orally or written. Well-crafted questions are an important way for teachers to determine what their students know, need to know and understand. 
One way to make certain that the questions we ask really engage students in creative and critical thinking is by developing questions that represent the range of knowledge that is taught in classrooms as well as the deeper understanding we are striving to achieve. The way to do this is to plan questions in advance.
Guiding questions to help teachers incorporate checking for understanding in their lesson planning include:
- How do I provide opportunities in my classroom for students to ask questions?
- How is discussion used in my classroom as a support for deeper understanding?
- How will I find out what misconceptions or naïve assumptions my students have about the topic?
- How do I know what my students understand?
- What evidence will I accept for this understanding?
- How will I use their understandings to plan future instruction?
There are numerous questioning techniques; the most relevant in any learning setting will depend on the purpose and context of the lesson.
Previous SCLT authors have outlined important techniques that engage students in critical thinking through deep questioning.  Melvin Freestone (2012) discusses generative, focus and explorative questions.
Generative questions are gateways to inquiry; focus questions shape learning and explorative questions direct learning. Each type of question has a particular value, role and function in learning. When they are used in combination, they become powerful and empowering beyond words.
By way of analogy – generative questions paint the big picture, focus questions provide the colour and texture, and explorative questions give the detail. An artist looking at or creating a work of art sees the overall picture at the same time as the detail and nuance. (Freestone 2012)
 Greg Cairnduff (2014) discusses ‘Five powerful questions a teacher can ask to promote student thinking in the classroom’.
‘Teachers would agree that for inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom, amongst other things, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions, and not only asking well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to ask questions of their own’.
Keeping It Simple
- What do you think?
- Why do you think that?
- How do you know this?
- Can you tell me more?
- What questions do you still have?
Provide time for them to think, before requiring students to answer.
Fisher and Freya (2007) suggest a series of question stems that require students to reflect on and to explain their understanding. Suggestions include:
- 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_______________?
- 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 __________________?
Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), identified six levels of thinking, from the simple recall or recognition of facts, as the lowest level, through increasingly more complex and abstract mental levels, to the highest order which is classified as evaluation and creating. These levels of thinking are explained in an earlier SCLT article by Cornish / Jordan where we share our experience in using Bloom’s Taxonomy in our classroom teaching
Supporting Bloom’s six levels of learning are questioning stems that enable students to demonstrate their deeper understanding, from the simplest level, remembering, to higher order, creating and evaluating.
Bloom’s Taxonomy; Six levels of questioning.
- What happened after…?
- How many…?
- What is…?
- Who was it that…?
- Find the definition of…
- Describe what happened after…
- Who spoke to…?
- Which is true or false…?
- Explain why…
- Write in your own words…
- How would you explain…?
- Write a brief outline…
- What do you think could have happened next…?
- Who do you think…?
- What was the main idea…?
- Explain another instance where…
- Group by characteristics such as…
- Which factors would you change if…?
- What questions would you ask of…?
- From the information given, develop a set of instructions about…
- Which events could not have happened?
- If…happened, what might the ending have been?
- How is…similar to…?
- What do you see as other possible outcomes?
- Why did…changes occur?
- Explain what must have happened when…
- What are some or the problems of…?
- Distinguish between…
- What were some of the motives behind..?
- What was the turning point?
- What was the problem with…?
- Judge the value of… What do you think about…?
- Defend your ideas on / about…
- Do you think…is a good or bad thing?
- How would you have handled…?
- What changes to… would you recommend?
- Do you believe…? How would you feel if…?
- How effective are…?
- What are the consequences…?
- What influence will….have on our lives?
- What are the pros and cons of….?
- Why is….of value?
- What are the alternatives?
- Who will gain & who will lose?
- Design a…to…
- Devise a possible solution to…
- If you had access to all resources, how would you deal with…?
- Devise your own way to…
- What would happen if…?
- How many ways can you…?
- Create new and unusual uses for…
- Develop a proposal which would…
Since March 2011, at the invitation of public and private sector education establishments, Ellen has focused on work with educators, post graduate students and teacher trainees in Thailand and Cambodia.
Since 2012 she has been co presenter been co presenter in an ongoing program to assist the development of skills in classroom strategies and teaching methodologies of staff and education students at Battambang University, Cambodia
Since 2014, she has been working with the Health Sciences Faculty at Puthisastra University, Phnom Penh, helping develop and teach units of work in the Graduate Certificate in Teaching Learning.
In Thailand, in 2011, she was involved as a co evaluator of the Mechai Pattana Secondary School in north eastern Thailand. She has co presented workshops for university staff and senior Education and PhD students in the Faculty of Education at Silpakorn University, since 2012.
Ellen has co-authored a number of articles for Student Centred Learning Thailand.
Dr Don W Jordan
Dr Don Jordan is an experienced educator, having taught in a number of schools in Tasmania, Australia. He is currently working with nurse educators at the Health Sciences Faculty, Puthisastra University Phnom Penh Cambodia, teaching units of work focussing on teaching and assessment strategies that promote critical thinking. Don is also working with education students at the University of Battambang, Cambodia, conducting workshops for staff and education students on classroom strategies and methodologies.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007) Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom. ASCD, Virginia, USA.
 Fisher and Frey 2007
 Melvin Freestone. SCLT, Oct. 2012. http://sclthailand.org/2012/10/questions-questions-questions-part-1/
 Greg Cairnduff. SCLT, Sept 2014. FIVE POWERFUL QUESTIONS A TEACHER CAN ASK TO PROMOTE STUDENT THINKING IN THE CLASSROOM. http://sclthailand.org/2014/09/five-powerful-questions/