How to assess whether students have understood a given topic
Assessing understanding correctly is an essential skill that any English teacher should master as soon as possible, on the contrary it can seriously disrupt the students’ learning process and cause frustration, lack of motivation, not to mention poor results. First of all, the question “do you understand” is an absolute taboo, because it’s well-known that students aren’t always sure whether they have understood, or have in fact not understood, but are too self-conscious about admitting it.
So, we’ve outlined several useful strategies you can use in the TEFL classroom in order to assess your students’ understanding of a certain vocabulary or grammar topic. We advise you to use the strategies to assess students’ understanding individually, in pairs and the group as a whole in order to keep the class dynamic.
A very quick, simple way to check straightforward concepts is to use negative checking. For example, if you’ve just taught them the simple present of the verb to be, you could ask: “Is it correct to say ‘She are’?”. Added bonus: this can easily be turned into a classroom review game to play as a closing activity.(1)
Using pictures or realia
Bringing in pictures or realia is always a great solution to check the meaning of vocabulary because it leaves little room for misunderstanding and is very motivating, especially for young learners. The downside is that it takes a bit of planning and might not be possible for more complex vocabulary topics. An example is to bring in flashcards with pictures of recently taught vocabulary items and ask them to point to the correct one.
English teachers have to teach a lot of verb tenses and these can be hard to grasp for students, as they can work quite differently from verb tenses in their native language. It’s advisable to introduce examples with a timeline during the presentation of the new verb tense, to ensure the students are actually familiar with the concept of a timeline. Let’s say they’ve just learnt the simple past, and they already know the simple present and future, then you could give an example of a sentence in the simple past and ask them to put it in the correct place on the timeline.
Concept checking questions
This has long been considered the most thorough strategy to check students’ understanding of a given topic, especially with more complex concepts, such as verb tenses.(2) Concept checking questions are a set of questions that can give the teacher systematic information about whether the students have understood a concept. It can take a little while to get the hang of creating them, but it’s very important to be able to apply them in your classes.
This is how it works: imagine you’ve just taught the present perfect simple, and you have a sample sentence that reads “She has never tried sushi”. The concept checking questions could be:
- Is she eating sushi right now? – No
- Is this information still true? – Yes
- How many times has she eaten sushi? – Zero
- Is this in the past, present or present perfect? – Present perfect
The questions could be presented on the board or verbally, but for lower levels it’s certainly preferable to write them out on the board, seeing as students’ listening comprehension could be insufficient to understand the actual question.
Asking the students for personal examples is also an excellent way to create more of a personal connection with the topic taught, which helps them remember it much better. For example, if the vocabulary topic is adventure sports, you could ask them to name a few sports from that category, ask them which adventure sports they have tried or would like to try. If the topic is adverbs of frequency, you could ask them to give examples of activities they always/sometimes/never do.
Ask the student(s) to act out or mime a verb they’ve learnt. This works well for action verbs, and you’d be surprised to see how well it works for children and adults alike.
As you can see, you have to adapt these strategies a little according to the students’ English level and age, but overall they should help you on your way to assessing students’ comprehension quickly. Don’t forget to use them often, especially straight after introducing a new topic, and always before students are given any type of task where they have to demonstrate their understanding.