Should we spend time finding out what students have learnt during a lesson?


I will start by saying that I think this might be difficult for me to explain my thinking and I suspect I will give up trying to clarify! I also suspect that some of this is engrained in what people have always been told should be in their teaching and will defend it regardless. Regardless, I hope this blog gives some things to ponder on.

In normal times I hear teachers speak about spending time in lesson doing whole class activities with the purpose of finding out what students know/understand/have learnt in that lesson. I don’t mean independent practice (although there are possible issues with this) I’m thinking about tasks where the teacher makes the students all respond at the same time, in the lesson. For example, using whiteboards to hold up an answer or giving them a multiple choice and the students hold up their fingers to correlate with what they think the correct answer is. Also, in some cases individual activities in front of the whole class such as ‘targeted questioning’.

I’m also not talking about retrieval activities that have the purpose of helping students to remember in the long-term; this is a different purpose. I’m discussing when a teacher does an activity to find out if all the students know/understand what they have just learned/have made progress in that lesson which I think may be a waste of time in doing exactly that.

During online learning I’ve seen people spending time trying to replicate these activities however as there are additional issues with remote teaching I’m not including it in my argument here.

Bjork & Bjork (2006) back my concern when they say “teachers….are at risk of assuming that performance during instrcution…is a reliable index of learning – that is, that performance during instruction is a valid basis for judging whether the relatively permanent changes that will support long-term performance have or have not taken place”

So what we think we are finding out from these activities might not be quite what we think.

I suspect that a lot of this practice comes from the ‘proving learning/progress every 20 minutes’ phase in teaching which possibly originated from Ofsted inspections at the time. I wonder if these are just a hangover or if people have really thought about if they’re impactful? Whilst it might not be being done every 20 minutes have the activities continued?

It wastes time

I also think that they waste time. I’ve tried to think of an analogy to represent what I think happens with teachers that do this. It’s not a great one but here goes…

A child is NOT a dustbin

Let’s imagine someone is trying to fill a large dustbin full of mud as quickly as possible. They need 30kg of mud in the dustbin. They start filling it and then take it over to the scales to weigh it. It’s 5kg. So they take it back and continue filling. They want to check it again so take it back over to the scales and reweigh it;15kg. Time is ticking by, so they drag it back and carry on filling it. They must be nearly 30kg so they take it back to the scales and it’s 29kg. So they go back…..

I am not equating students with buckets! My point here is that it was probably a waste of time keep weighing the dustbin. The quickest way to fill the dustbin would be to just carry on and not keep stopping to weigh it. Ignoring all other flaws in the analogy I would say that the time and activities that is spent in classrooms finding out if students know things might be better used keeping on teaching them instead of trying to measure the learning.

I think this is one of the big issues with these activities; I can’t see how the time doing them is better than teaching students more or recalling for long-term memory.

In some classes, using whiteboards will take time to setup and take time on the inevitable training needed so that students don’t draw penises or wipe the ink all over their hands. At a minimum that would be 5 minutes total giving out and taking in? I know some schools have a whiteboard ready for each lesson but for those that don’t it’s a factor.

Imagine you’re the child that gets the questions correct every time. Assuming that there are occasions when others get it incorrect if the teacher chooses to go through the incorrect answer then you have to sit each time listening to something you already know. If you’re the student that often gets it wrong, the teacher may well say ‘Brian got this wrong so I’m going to go through it’ or ‘Brian how did you work out that answer?’. Poor Brian, being named. Easy solution, don’t say Brian’s name. But Brian knows that each time this repetition of explanation is for him. Not a great feeling. And then how do you know what his misconception might be?

And if you’re the student that doesn’t understand, you may feel pressured to write something on the whiteboard so any indicated of a misunderstanding is completely undermined by the fact they just wrote any answer down; there is no rationale for it (that the teacher my try and spend time doing).

And what if Brian still doesn’t get it after your second explanation? Do you keep on asking everyone? At which point does the majority understanding outweigh the few that don’t? How long do we carry on, on the same topic? If we keep diagnosing problems we’re making things very complicated

There are other uses of time that are much better for learning. Filling the dustbin more and more (overlearning?) is better than continuously weighing it.

We should focus on teacher exposition

This is one of the key factors. This model means that a teacher is spending more time repeating an explanation in the moment rather than the emphasis being on refining it for next time. As you become more experienced as a teacher you should pick up on common misconceptions on specific topics and pre-empt these before you teach the topic again. Does the in-class method prevent out of class reflection of exposition? Of course not, but I think that there should be a significant emphasis on refining for next time.

Also, if Brian got the answer wrong, there has probably been a misunderstanding somewhere. Without asking him you won’t know what that is. Again, asking him publicly isn’t ideal. And then what? Some teachers will repeat the exact same explanation. If they change their explanation to meet his misunderstanding, why didn’t you explain it like that in the first place? Once the misconception is there it is very difficult to ‘un-do’ it.

Asking ‘targeted’ questions

I hear people saying we should plan who we ask questions to to see what the group have understood. I find it utterly bizarre that you would calculate who to ask something that would be representative of anything other than what that the student can answer there and then. Being told to ask pupil premium students first is just ridiculous and frankly embarrassing. Asking your ‘high attaining’ student a difficult question to ‘challenge them’ – they’re probably clever enough to realise this. How frustrating to never be asked a simple question once in a while. And your low attaining student being the bench mark; if ‘Christine gets it then everyone else will get it’ is again just horrific rationale for asking her a question.

Using this type of targeted questioning to make inferences about learning in my opinion is not only a waste of time for everyone else in the class but has dubious foundations. Just ask them all the same question on a piece of paper to answer in their own time.

Does it really tell us what they’ve learnt?

This is where Bjork comes in again. There is a difference between performance and learning. And performance was exactly what people wanted for Ofsted inspections and high stakes lesson observations.

I’ve seen this most in maths teaching. A teacher teaches students a methodology of working something out, gives examples, the students practise. They can do the method themselves. Their answers show this. BUT when there’s an end of unit test which requires application of the same methodology, they all leave it blank or get it wrong. What happened?

Again, it’s not the fact that the teacher has got them to do the practice that matters; practice is important. It’s the inferences made from the results of the practice in one lesson that matters. Saying they could do it therefore they have learnt it is not true. A teacher needs to do much more for it to ‘be learnt’. Which comes back to the issue of time. I think a teacher should spend more time working on long-term memory in lessons (which may be independent practice!) that trying to prove they’ve learnt it. It’s the use of time and inferences that matter.

The teacher has confused ‘performance’ that they can correctly use the method with them having learnt it which is temporary with long-term learning.

The distinction between learning and performance is
crucial because there now exists overwhelming empirical
evidence showing that considerable learning can occur
in the absence of any performance gains
and, conversely,
that substantial changes in performance often fail to
translate into corresponding changes in learning

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 176-199.DOI: 10.1177/1745691615569000.

Does it depend on the subject or what we’re asking them?

My perspective on this comes from teaching a humanities subject. I find that when I teach new ideas students are more than willing to ask questions about it. My relationship with them means that are happy to do this. Their questions bring up any misconceptions which I can deal with there and then. Maybe some students don’t want to ask and I’m preventing them from being able to share the misconception? Maybe a student has carried on with a misconception because they weren’t confident to ask me? I think I go over and over content and then apply it to new contexts that this may be just as good as spending time finding out individual misconceptions, but with the added benefit of overlearning & lots of retrieval.

I can see that subjects like maths and science might want to use whiteboards for example for students to put their answer to a numerical question. It’s a quick way to see if students have understood. But my previous arguments hold on this. Would individual practice without the pressure of answering at the same time as everyone else be better? Wouldn’t it be better if students that get stuck on work ask for help individually? Maybe this is also about teacher-student relationships?

Does it depend on teacher experience?

When you teach a new topic you won’t have such a clear idea of what the common misconceptions are so your explanations may not be refined to address them. Once you’ve taught it a few times you should pick up on these and change your expositions. So maybe these techniques are needed the first time you teach a concept, not necessarily to find out who has the misconceptions but for the long term gain of being able to identify them and address them before they arise next time the topic is taught.

But we need to deal with misconceptions straight away…

Yes of course we must but having 32 students holding up answers and then responding might not be the best way to do that. Students need to understand foundations to be able to move on to higher level understanding, I just am not convinced that these strategies are the best way of finding out if truly understand it or if they are ready to move on.

I’m a reflective teacher and want to find out what I’m missing out on in my teaching. I want to make things better. However with these strategies I just can’t see how my students are missing out. I’m just going to keep filling the dustbin….

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2006). Optimizing treatment and instruction: Implications of a new theory of disuse. In L-G. Nilsson and N. Ohta (Eds.), Memory and society: Psychological perspectives.

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 176-199.DOI: 10.1177/1745691615569000.


One thought on “Should we spend time finding out what students have learnt during a lesson?

  1. Great blog Dawn. I have always disliked the class set of whiteboards answer techniques, and I think you have just given a good explanation of what is wrong with this approach. I’d far prefer to use any additional time using different examples to utilise the knowledge just learnt. Through these exemplifications the learning can be embedded, within a wider context. This also allows space for conversations through which you can discern whether any misconceptions have arisen.

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