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How do I assess student understanding?

Hello and welcome to the 31st edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

In the last edition of our series on assessments, we wrote about the need for formative assessments during teaching and how these assessments must inform teaching. The focus of the piece was that assessments must help us answer the question: Have students understood what I have taught them today? In today’s edition, we go deeper into how to assess for student understanding.

First, it is important to know what understanding is. If assessments are to reveal evidence of whether students have understood or not, we need to know what understanding something looks like. There are multiple frameworks for what understanding can look like. We have distilled some of these into tangible actions or thoughts. When these actions or thoughts are displayed by the student, it could mean that they have understood.

What is student understanding?

Features of understanding


Student can explain the concept.

Middle school students can explain the effect of climate change on changes in flowering time.

Student can interpret from the given situation based on their learning.

Using their understanding of mean and methods of deviation, middle school students interpret data to answer questions.

Student can apply their learning to a novel situation.

High school students can apply their understanding of lowering of freezing point due to the addition of salts to reduce water freezing on mountain roads.

Students can have multiple perspectives and understand other points of view.

High school students can weigh in on the different perspectives in a major world conflict.

Students can empathise.

Primary school students can empathise with the feelings of a character in a story and understand the reasons for their actions.

Students have a self-awareness of the limits of their understanding.

High school students can differentiate between the Newtonian laws of motion that they understand are different from motion according to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

So once we know what understanding looks like or sounds like, it becomes easier for us to create evaluations for specific topics in which students understanding needs to be assessed. Only knowing what to assess is not enough. We should also focus on how to assess. Here it is important to first know what different types of assessments exist. We think that there is a spectrum on which various types of assessments lie.

On one end of the spectrum are the informal assessments that should happen in class. Things like:

  1. Checking in on students from time to time.

  2. Entry slips / Exit Slips

  3. Oral assessments

  4. Listening in during think-pair-share routines

  5. Oral summary of learning during previous class

At the other end of the spectrum are projects or performances that are built during the learning process. For example, a group of students could do a modern-day adaptation of Macbeth to understand the nuances of the relationships between the characters. During the process of coming up with the play, teachers can keep a check on whether understanding is happening. At the end of the topic, the students can put on the play and be assessed again, but the crucial formative assessments happen while the play is being built by the students. We can think in a similar fashion for a science or a math project.

The two extremes of the spectrum of assessments – on one hand a highly informal way of collecting data while on the other hand, elaborate and deep work needed by the students. In the middle we have things like quizzes, worksheets, long answer-type questions, response to prompts type of questions.

So when do we use what type of assessment? Teachers know that they do not have infinite time. So there is a need to prioritise. One great way to prioritise is to decipher the overarching concept from each topic – the one or two deep understandings that will help students even beyond the classroom. These types of understandings should be evaluated continuously in the form of informal assessments and deeply in the form of presentations, plays, or projects. Assessments should be planned at various stages of preparation of the play or project.

Some understanding needs to be procedural knowledge or skill building. It is important for students to pick up the skills or knowledge to help them build deep understanding. Though essential, proficiency in these skills and knowledge can be assessed by having worksheets, tests or quizzes.

The one thing that needs emphasis at the end is that all of these methods of assessment are still all formative assessments. And as we wrote in the last edition, formative assessments must inform teaching and must happen while teaching is happening. They should not happen at the end of the lesson.

So go ahead and make priorities in your curriculum, figure out what understanding looks like in the topics at hand and use specific types of assessments for your learning outcomes. Going ahead, we will also write about what a good assessment item is. What are the differences when asking a question which needs a long response, a short response or one of the multiple-choice options need to be selected? In the meanwhile, let us know what you think…


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Edition: 2.5

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