The Power of the Check for Understanding (CFU)

The No-Nonsense Nurturer pedagogical model was developed over several years by observing highly successful teachers in action, then creating a coaching system to support teachers in adopting these effective strategies in their classrooms. No-Nonsense Nurturer educators change lives because they believe all students deserve a classroom in which students’ voices are heard and their full potential can be developed.

One of the most essential practices of No-Nonsense Nurturers is to consistently provide clear and precise directions for behaviors, as well as the “why,” “how,” and the “what” of learning. Precise directions include clear cues to begin work, the time allotted for activities, and brief directions for what students need to do in order to be successful on any given task –  not only cognitively, but with their movement and voices. For example, a precise direction for a do now in middle school may sound like:

“When you enter the classroom, please sit silently and independently in your own seat, and complete both the review and preview questions of the do now, so that I can find out what you already know and what you still need to learn. You have 10 minutes. Go.”

Even with this practice in place, some students will not follow directions or complete the task the teacher asked them to complete. Often, this is not because students intentionally want to resist. They may have not heard the direction, they may have been thinking of something else, or the directions still may not be clear. As authors and experts in human behavior Chip and Dan Heath say, “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.”

One hack (and a best-kept-secret practice of No-Nonsense Nurturers) is to provide a quick check for understanding (CFU) before releasing students to begin any task. CFUs can be done both in a classroom or in a virtual teaching setting. Here are the steps to executing an effective check for understanding:

  • Deliver precise directions including guidelines for movement, voice level and participation, and a cue to begin.  Include the time frame to be finished.
    • Example: When I say go, turn to your assigned partner, and in library voices, discuss how the pandemic impacts the supply and demand of personal protection equipment. This is important since the pandemic impacts us all. You have 2 minutes each to share for a total of 4 minutes.  The partner with the shortest hair goes first. Go.
  • Explain to your students that you will randomly call on one to three students to check for understanding of the directions. Let students know that CFUs are not a “gotcha” but rather an opportunity to build active listening skills and a chance to support their peers. Tell them it is alright not to know answers, but it is not alright to not try.  Also let them know that if they do not know the answer to the CFU, you will call on another classmate to answer, but you will then return to them so that they have a chance to demonstrate that they know the directions. Be sure to go back to them. If a student has an extenuating circumstance, refrain from embarrassing them, and invite them to check in with you privately (in person or in the chat)-for support.
  • When you need to call on a student, use a system for selecting random students such as popsicle sticks or smart phone apps such as “Stick Pick” or “Who’s Next”.
  • A CFU is most effective at increasing student engagement when delivered in the Cold Call format. Provide one to three CFUs on the what, why, or how of the directions, depending on what misperceptions you anticipate. Do the CFUs in the Cold Call format (by posing a question first, followed by a student name).  By using this sequence (question…pause…call on student), more students are cognitively engaged, wondering if they will be called. With the reverse sequence (student…pause…question) only the student who you called feels accountable for answering the question, allowing other students to tune out because they know they don’t have to respond.
    • Example: What will you and your elbow partner discuss….(pause)…Leah? 
    • Example: Why is this question important?….(pause)…Ronardo? 
    • Example: Who talks first and for how long…(pause)…Karen?
  • Request that the students who are called on to answer the CFU do so aloud in class, or by unmuting themselves virtually. Alternatively, in a virtual setting, students can write their answer to the CFU in the chat.
  • Utilize No Opt Out when students don’t know the answer to the CFU.

By utilizing the CFU in conjunction with the Cold Call and No Opt Out techniques, teachers leave little room for student misunderstanding of directions and create a culture that supports risk taking, embraces mistakes and requires 100 percent participation. In addition, by developing these skills, teachers will ensure they hold all students accountable for learning (not just those who typically offer responses), and that students know that “I don’t know” is not a response that excuses them from learning.

To download a CFU Planning Guide template, click here.

By Leah Pearson, Associate, CT3 Education
Check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families.
Category: No-Nonsense Nurturer, Teaching