12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 6: Check Whether All Learners Have Understood The Content

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools have been closed and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]


This is the sixth one. Stay tuned for more! We (Mirjam and Paul), together with ExCEL’s – the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning (of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor) Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen (researchers at ExCEL and also authors of the book), and Tine Hoof (also a researcher of ExCEL), we’re working hard to translate the next 9 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, ito English.

In Lessons for Learning this building block is called: use different strategies to check whether everyone in class has understood the subject matter. The authors summarise this building block as follows:

In order for learners to learn, it’s crucial that they stay involved. Learners sometimes stop making an effort because the subject matter is too difficult or too easy. It’s therefore important to regularly check whether all learners have understood the content and are able to process it through your explanations, assignments, and guidance. This can be done by asking questions, offering challenging assignments, and provide activities that gather information from all learners.

Tim Surma and his co-authors state that, for all learners to store what they have been exposed to in their long-term memories, it’s extremely important for the instructor/facilitator to check whether they both remember and understand it. Formative assessment is one way to track this. Lessons for Learning includes examples of how to do this (for example by presenting learners with desirable difficulties and using questions that stimulate them to think.

Furthermore, the authors stress the importance of ensuring that ALL learners (or at least as many as possible) answer the questions. When you ask learners to raise their hands, then often only a select group will do this [and it’s almost always the same ones every time]. They also warn about what is called the curse of knowledge (you, as an expert, perceive the content differently as compared to novices / beginners; in other words the learners).

Lessons for Learning offers tools that don’t require technology to check whether all learners have understood the subject matter. Examples are personal whiteboards where every learner writes down the answer and then holds it up for you to see, a popsicle-stick approach (you can also put their names in a hat and pick one at random) that allows you to randomly pick the name of the learner to answer a question, exit tickets or post-its that learners use to write down the essence of the class in 60 seconds.

However, learning technology also offers a number of options:

  • You can have learners do short assignments, which they can upload via learning technology and then have others reflect on (i.e., provide with peer feedback).
  • You can use quiz-tools to have all learners answer questions during or at the end of a meeting. Digital learning environments like BrightSpace or Moodle have such tools and enable you to quickly check the answers. Applications like Nearpod or LessonUp allow you to alternate between learning content and questioning.
  • You can use student response tools to make sure all learners answer the questions or write down the main ideas of a meeting. I [Wilfred Rubens] have been using Mentimeter for years. It supports different types of questions. Moreover, you can create a quiz with a time limit for the answers. Learners can answer anonymously, which has advantages (they don’t have to publicly admit they don’t know the answer) and disadvantages (sometimes you want to know which learner gave a certain answer). You can also easily copy-paste and reuse the ‘presentations’ (questions and quizzes).
  • You can use exit tickets via online forms like Google Forms or Typeform, Office 365’s online tool, and share them with learners via a QR code. The forms can easily be reused and the results are quickly processed (especially the answers to closed questions).
  • Instead of using paper post-it notes you can use tools like Padlet. It allows you to easily organise online post-its and to save the result for further analysis later on.
  • Tools like Classroomscreen or Prowise Presenter can replace the popsickle sticks. These – and other – applications include functionalities to upload a file with names and then randomly choose a name. This is a lot easier to create and manage than the popsicle sticks as it’s not really practical to carry them around with you.
  • Often you can give learners access to digital whiteboards or screens with their own devices through the software of those screens, which allows them to give presentations. In any case the software of digital whiteboards often includes several applications that allow you to actively involve learners in the meeting or class (including quiz-tools).

Obviously you can use most of these tools in combination with online instruction through, for example, instructional videos or virtual classroom tools. This website lists a few classroom tools, but you can find many more examples online. Again, technology enables you to effectively and efficiently facilitate learning activities.

Take the following into account:

  • General Data Processing Regulations. Make sure to use tools of which your institution has a data processing agreement or use tools that don’t require learners to give personal information.
  • Do your learners have a smartphone, tablet or laptop and Internet connection at their disposal? They usually do, secondary school students and parents practically always have a smartphone, but make sure you don’t exclude learners who don’t have a device at their disposal.
  • The risk of distraction. Smartphones are also called ‘weapons of mass distraction’. They distract, even when they’re turned upside down on the table. You can put the smartphones in a classroom pocket chart when they’re not needed. Use digital technology selectively during meetings. Read this study for more information: Does educational technology help students learn?

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