Checking for understanding while teaching remotely

The teaching profession has done an incredible job of adapting to new & challenging conditions. Overnight, we’ve all upped sticks and gone to remote teaching again (some more notice would’ve been nice though, Gavin…).

I find myself teaching live for the first time and the biggest challenge has, without a doubt, been learning how to check students’ understanding. In “normal” lessons this is a breeze, and I employ a variety of techniques:

  • Cold calling.
  • Choral response.
  • Multiple choice questions where students put up a number of fingers according to the choice they’ve made.
  • Circulating around the classroom and live marking students’ work.

And other teachers have effective mini whiteboard routines etc. Now, usually I have a pretty good feel about where the class are at and I can use this to inform my future planning.

Have they smashed the lesson and understood? Great! I can move on.

Have they really struggled and need some consolidation? Okay, I better look at whether I can explain something another way and improve the understanding of the class.

This is a problem with remote learning; it’s nowhere as easy for me to have an idea where my class are at. I’m still tinkering with my practice, and I’m sure this is nowhere near “best” practice yet but thought I’d share a timeline of how I’ve been checking for student understanding (starting from what I did first, to what I’m doing now):

  1. Cold calling

Initially I stick to what I knew well. Cold calling. This is *very* different to doing live in a lesson though. I’m missing all of the non-verbal cues from the students that show me how confident (or not) they are feeling. In a regular lesson, I tend to cold call when I think the levels of understanding in the room are good.

Remotely, it worked *okay* but completely ruined the pace of the lesson. The extra few seconds in un-muting your microphone and getting the answer out really slowed things down. It also feels more intrusive than during a regular lesson.

So I quickly canned cold calling and looked for other techniques.

2. Private message in the chat

Now I teach on zoom, and there’s an option for students to send me a private message in the chat. This is great, as I can ask a question and get the answer from the whole class very quickly. The fact it’s private is necessary, otherwise students will just copy each others answers….

I’m not sure if Microsoft Teams has this functionality but if it does, it’s very powerful. I use the private chat function a lot.

It also offers a brilliant opportunity for praise (which is highly motivating for the students). I will often be saying things like “Excellent answer for Q2, John. Keep it up!” and students like that they can see me looking at their work and offering immediate feedback. If I need to correct a student then I can do so via private message to them and offer support in that way.

Now this is great, but unless I download the chat then there’s no permanence here and I struggle to remember e.g. “oh Emily struggled with this type of question last time, I should make sure that she’s okay with this task”. So I also tried…

3. Google form that goes alongside the lesson

My vision here was to give the chat answers some “permanence” and so I tried a google form (downloadable below) that went along with the lesson. There were sections for do now answers, a couple of points where I’d pause to check for understanding and sections for students to upload images of their work (a lot of physics I’d prefer for them to do on paper, calculations are easier by hand!).

Time period and frequency – Make a copy (

This, for me, took away the main pro of responding as a private message in the chat though: the immediacy of answers & ability to give feedback/praise. Offering feedback after the lesson is less powerful. Misconceptions may have arisen and I wouldn’t have realised. I’d rather know *while* I’m in the middle of a lesson.

It’s a shame that google don’t allow you to view student’s answers live (before they have submitted the form). I do think that this would work well for asynchronous lessons, though.

I’ve therefore not done this since and tend to use google forms as a plenary/homework. I highly recommend for automatically generating google forms. I’ve made a video on how to do this here:

4. Thumbs up/down

A simple way for me to assess how happy students are is for them to give me a thumbs up/down. I do this quite regularly and re-explain a concept if I get too many thumbs down. In theory, you could get those who put their thumbs down into a breakout room while the others get on with a task, but I’ve yet to try this.

So what do I do now and what am I going to try in the future?

I’ve settled (for now) on an approach that looks like this:

  1. Do now and questions throughout the lesson answered as private messages in the chat. This gives me the ability to offer immediate feedback and encouragement.
  2. Teacher exposition for 20/30 minutes, questioning via chat throughout. I’m currently using my regular powerpoints for this, and using a graphics tablet to annotate over them. Top tip: press W for whiteboard in powerpoint!
  3. Students complete independent work for 20/30 minutes, and they attach a photo of their work through google forms. I’m not necessarily going to mark this photo, but I am going to check for usual prompts…”show your working”….”UNITS!!!!” etc. etc.
  4. This google form also contains a self-marking plenary/homework. Use this to assess effectiveness of lesson and re-teach content if necessary.

In the future, I’m keen to also try out for sketches/diagrams/check students’ working etc.

Now I’m still early in this process but have been finding that this has been quite successful. We’re all working this out together though, so I’m keen to know what everybody else is doing! How do you check for student understanding?


2 thoughts on “Checking for understanding while teaching remotely”

  1. Very similar. Gave a go today and it worked OK; slower than I’d like but everything is compared to normal.
    Using the ppt/ g slides where students have their own copy a lot as then I CAN see live what they’re doing. It’s the closest I’ve come to finding something that feels normal


  2. I was pretty disappointed with – I so hoped it would be the solution to at-a-glance keeping in touch with what pupils are doing, but it was just too slow. I suspect my expectations were just a little too high. This is a great article – thank you.


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