Learn how checking for understanding can help in learning.
Everyday people must process an overwhelming amount of information. Managers give instructions for work. Teachers give lectures and assignments. Family members make to-do lists and ask for help on tasks. Our brains are expected to absorb and hold discrete facts.
We have no control over when information comes our way. Your boss could email you when you are in the middle of planning dinner. Or you call after your kid to pick up milk while they are leaving the house, focused on joining up with their friends. In either case, the information being exchanged is in danger of being lost. You might misunderstand your boss’ note in your response, and it’s unlikely your kid will remember to get milk. That’s because when our minds are focused on one idea, it can be difficult to understand and process other incoming information.
But because these situations are likely, nay unavoidable, It is essential to check for understanding in yourself and others. Checking for understanding allows people to confirm they have understood directives correctly, allows teachers and managers to verify that the material or instructions are understood. If someone doesn’t comprehend, all parties can adjust and ask questions to fill in their gaps of understanding. This process helps avoid misunderstandings due to information overload in a world bombarding us with data.
Below, we at The Learning Agency explain the science behind checking for understanding and offer best practices so you can incorporate checking your own knowledge in school, work, and beyond.
How Can Checking for Understanding Help You Learn?
Checking your own understanding has obvious benefits: it can help you avoid mistakes on a quiz or test or even save you embarrassment during an important meeting. But the benefits of checking for understanding extend into your cognition, having the power to shape and strengthen your memory.
Checking for understanding is similar to the science of retrieval practice. Learning scientist Pooja Agarwal describes retrieval practice as “when we get information out of our heads instead of putting it into our heads.” Retrieval practice is any strategy, such as a quiz or flashcards, that prompts students to remember and communicate previously learned information.
Learning science research has shown that the act of retrieval practice can drastically improve a student’s memory. Agarwal and her colleague conducted a study in an 8th grade class where students were given three, low-stakes quizzes. They found that a few weeks after the quizzes, the students who took the quizzes retained more information about those who just received a lecture.
Not only can retrieval practice help students retain information longer, but it also strengthens their memories in the long term. Memories in our brain are not “fixed,” but are instead constantly shifting as new memories form. When we recall a memory, we draw new connections to that memory, expanding it and allowing the memory to stick in our brains for longer. Through this process, we exercise our neural networks so they are ready to form new memories and retain information. Ultimately, through retrieval, one can prime their brains for more efficient learning in the future.
The retrieval required for a check for understanding is what makes it so successful as a learning tool. Summaries are a simple check for understanding–through synthesizing and communicating information in your own words, you can confirm you’ve retained all of the essential details. But you are simultaneously engaging retrieval practice by recalling the information and reworking your cognitive connections to it. In a 2014 study, Spirgel and Delaney asked students to summarize information they had learned. They found that summaries not only helped students gauge how much they had learned, but the information included in their summaries was better retained.
While checking for understanding, retrieval practice happens. The act of recovering information, even when it was received just moments ago, strengthens our memory of that information so we can retain it longer. Making quick review habitual ensures that all the information has been stored while ultimately training ourselves to be better learners.
How Do I Use a Check for Understanding?
Because checking for understanding is crucial for information retention, improving recall, and thus retaining memories, it is an activity anyone should practice no matter their position in life or age.
But how can you make sure your check for understanding is triggering the necessary act of retrieval? Here are some actionable steps you can take to make sure you and those in your charge are retaining information and becoming better learners.
Teachers can incorporate activities like “exit tickets” or summaries into their lessons. An exit ticket is a short response after class where students must answer a few questions about the lesson. Teachers can use the responses to gauge student mastery and revise future lessons on the topic from that data. A summary–after a lecture or reading– can help students internalize the information covered, while strengthening their memories of it. A summary also offers teachers, as well as students, insight into what information has been retained. Asking students for a check for understanding allows them to recite knowledge and further engrave it into their brain, while also giving teachers the opportunity to personalize future instruction.
Checks for understanding don’t have to come after a lesson, but can also be incorporated into practice. For teachers and students to maximize the benefits of a check for understanding, it must be utilized frequently. According to a 2020 study, while summarization is highly effective, teachers don’t leverage the practice nearly enough. Teachers often rely on multiple choice tests, either because of limited grading time or to prepare students for standardized tests, rather than using short answer questions that incorporate summarization. This deprives students of a technique that “enhances comprehension and is considered an effective strategy to promote and enhance learning and deep understanding of texts.” Replacing multiple choice questions with summarizing on quizzes and tests can help students retain their grasp on the material well after the test is finished.
Managers. Summaries aren’t just for the classroom! Managers can incorporate verbal summary and targeted questions into meetings and ordinary interactions to check employee understanding. Managers can encourage summaries at the top of memos, or by prompting summarization during meetings with questions like: “What is the objective of this?” or “How does this align with other work?” These questions allow employees to recall information and connect it to prior knowledge, further strengthening the connections of data in the brain. A verbal summary can also be helpful to employees listening in; hearing the information in other words and from a different source can bolster their own understanding.
These activities are not only beneficial to employees, but managers can practice summarization too. At the end of meetings, managers can recall the next steps of employees to ensure they adequately understand each task, while modeling this self-reflection for the team.
Coaches, Parents, or Anyone Else Who Regularly Gives Instructions: Checking for understanding can be used by anyone. Asking fixed questions or for a summary allows athletes and children to identify what’s being asked and retain that information.
For example, if you are coaching young athletes and give instructions for an activity, once the instructions are finished, you can ask the captain or group leader to restate the activity. This allows them to reprocess the information, while confirming for you that they know what they are doing. The same is true for parents. Asking for a straightforward summary of the instructions you gave can allow your kids to remember the instructions to the fullest.
Students of All Ages. These processes can also be self-motivated: students and learners of all ages can utilize checks for understanding without being prompted. After listening to a lecture or learning a new task, take a moment to say to yourself or write down a summary of what you’ve just learned. You can also ask yourself how or why the lesson relates to previous information you’ve learned on the subject, initiating a retrieval practice.
Next time that a person—your boss, your wife, a friend—gives you a set of detailed, multi step instructions, take time to verbally repeat back the instructions. By reciting everything back, you take steps to create that knowledge, and you’ll be far more likely to remember the information. Checking for understanding can be used by anyone, and is as simple as asking for a summary. This small action can increase knowledge and grasp on topics that before, may have led people to be lost.
Before you click away from this article and get back to everyday life, do a quick check for understanding yourself: What was this article about? Can you summarize it?