Checks for Listening: 100% Participation

It is natural for students to lose attention during an explanation. In this post, I share two of the highest leverage strategies you can use to secure 100% attention. I explain why this should be our goal in my previous post.

Strategy 1: All Hands Up Cold Calling

I disagree with the way lots of teachers do cold calling. I hate the idea of ‘no hands up’. In fact, at my school, we’ve pretty much banned ‘no hands up’ or ‘hands down questioning’. Why?

Imagine two classrooms:

Classroom A:

After every question the teacher asks, NO hands go up. The teacher pauses after the question and then selects a student. As far as the student is concerned, they have been chosen randomly because everyone had their hand down. Of course, the teacher is strategic in who they pick for which question.

This sounds like best practice for cold calling: the name is said after (and not before) the question is asked. There is also a pause before a student is picked. Good stuff, right?

Classroom B:

After every question the teacher asks ALL hands go up. Boom. There’s energy in the room. Participating and ‘giving it a go’ is the culture that permeates the room. A student who wasn’t quite sure what the answer is feels like they might as well put their hand up and give it a go, because, well everyone else seems to be giving it a go. The teacher looks around and exclaims, ‘Great to see 100% of hands up, team!’ The teacher then scans the room and selects a student. As far as the student is concerned, they have been chosen randomly because everyone had their hand up. Of course, the teacher is strategic in who they pick for which question.

Which classroom has a better culture? Which classroom feels more exciting to be in? Which classroom are the students more likely to be paying attention in? Admittedly, my description of Classroom B is more colourful than Classroom A – but that’s entirely the point! If the students can feel like they can express their enthusiasm for answering questions, then why stop them from doing so?

Culture is the most powerful tool a teacher has in his arsenal. You can nail the cognitive science all you like by asking the most elegant questions in the world that check for deep understanding to go alongside the most eloquently chunked explanation ever delivered. But if the students aren’t *with you* because the culture of engagement and buy-in isn’t strong enough, then your excellent exposition will not have its full impact.

‘No hands up cold calling’ creates a culture of listening because students think: ‘I could be picked’. In contrast, ‘all hands up cold calling’ creates a culture of buy-in because students actively show: ‘I want to be picked’.

That buy-in is a crucial cultural element that has to be forged by the teacher consciously in their classroom. How?

Strategy 2: Checks for Listening

Most teachers are familiar with ‘checks for understanding’, which are questions designed to assess how well students have grasped an explanation.

However, I am a big advocate of another type of questioning: checks for listening. These are high-frequency questions a teacher fires out at students, pretty much after every sentence of an explanation. The questions are designed for 100% of students to be able to answer successfully, provided they were paying attention. This needs to be heavily narrated to the class initially before it becomes the norm: “I’m going to ask you lots of questions that check you are listening. I need to see every hand go up for every question because that will show me you are listening. I’m going to be most impressed with speedy and straight arms.” Once this becomes the norm, your lessons will feel so much more energetic.

Here is a typical script from one of my lessons:

Mr Raichura: “There are three states of matter: solids, liquids and gases. I say, you say: ‘states of matter'”

Students: In unison: “States of matter!”

Mr Raichura: “What are the three states of matter? I need to see all hands up for this.” All hands go up. “Claire.” All hands go down.

Claire: “The three states of matter are solid, liquid and gas, sir.”

Mr Raichura: “Well done – merit for that full sentence, Claire! Solids, liquids and gases are the three…what?” All hands go up. “Peter”. All hands go down.

Peter: “Solids, liquids and gases are the three states of matter, sir”.

Mr Raichura: “Great – a merit for great focus from Peter.”

This type of questioning doesn’t take long at all. After one sentence, I gave students three opportunities to rehearse what they just heard. How did I create three opportunities? By asking questions that full under the category of ‘checks for listening’. I must ask at least 50 of these questions per lesson, possibly more.

Combining the two strategies: how and why they work

Consider a typical classroom in which a teacher asks very few questions during a their explanation. If you could track how many students were paying attention, you would notice that with every sentence the teacher speaks, the number of students paying attention falls. At the end of the explanation you might have only 40% of students paying attention. Then the teacher might ask some ‘checks for understanding’ questions but these won’t be accessible to all of the class – after all, they weren’t really paying attention. This is what the attention of the class might look like as a graph:

Now consider the scenario where the teacher uses high frequency questioning: after every sentence they ask two or three checks for listening questions and they expect all hands up. Every question the teacher asks interrupts the loss of attention. Questions are engaging; even more so when everyone is expected to show they are participating by putting their hand up. This is what the attention of the class might look like in this classroom:

My students LOVE these questions. Why?

  1. Success breeds motivation. Answering questions correctly makes students feel successful, which in turn is motivating. I used to worry that asking ‘checks for listening’ might come across as patronising. However, our expertise-induced blindness often prevents us from recognising just how valuable students find the opportunity to rehearse new vocabulary and new ideas. We might teach ten new words in a lesson. Imagine having 50 opportunities to rehearse these words. Much more motivating than only having 10.
  2. Praise. Students love the praise they received for answering these questions successfully. Merits are great tool here – dish them out! If I ask 50 questions in a lesson, that gives students 50 chances of earning a merit and receiving praise. This reinforces a culture of participation and paying attention. Culture is everything.
  3. Contributing is desirable. Because I constantly narrate, ‘Come on team, I should see all hands up for this” and “I’m so impressed to see all of our hands flying up for these questions – we are on fire, team!” or “I love that you are respecting the effort I put into planning and delivering your lessons by contributing at every opportunity. I’m so proud of our participation today!” There is a real seal of approval from the teacher in all of these remarks – and students really want to impress their teacher. “I can’t wait to tell Mr [Form Tutor / Head of Year] how well you are all contributing today.”

Flip the question

An easy way for teachers to generate ‘checks for listening’ questions is to turn the fact they just stated into a question.

“The heart is an example of an organ.”

‘What is the the heart an example of?’

Flip the question so it becomes ‘What is an example of an organ?’

Finally: ‘Who can put the words ‘heart’ and ‘organ’ in a sentence?’, is another question.

Checks for understanding: number of hands up is now useful data

Generating ‘checks for listening’ types of question is much easier than their more difficult ‘checks for understanding’ counterparts. The latter types of questions tease out whether students have grasped an idea or concept, and may not result in 100% of hands going up. This is fine. In fact, it is really useful that all hands don’t go up.

“We’ve seen why the heart is classified as an organ. I have a trickier question now: if I tell you that the stomach is also classified as an organ, what must be true about the stomach?”

This is a classic ‘check for understanding’ question – it’s an application of what students have just learned. They’ve understood organs through the example of the heart but now they are being asked about the stomach. I wouldn’t except all hands to go up straight away. But I am very much interested in seeing how many hands go up. So I wait and I count.

For each hand that doesn’t go up for this question, I now know something incredibly valuable: because there is a culture of ‘all hands up’ in my classroom, when someone’s hand doesn’t go up, it is far more likely that this is because the students genuinely don’t know the answer, rather than because they don’t want to contribute. Suddenly, the number of hands is a rough gauge of how many students *think* they understand the content – and this is incredibly valuable data for me as a teacher.

I will leave readers to consider for themselves how useful this data is and how it might inform my next steps as a teacher: who should I pick to answer (someone with their hand up or someone without their hand up?). Do I do neither, and use mini-whiteboards instead? Or perhaps I should employ ‘turn and talk’? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post…



7 thoughts on “Checks for Listening: 100% Participation

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