Jeremy Côté


Do You Understand?

When teaching a concept, it’s natural to suppose that the person you are working with isn’t able to follow each statement you make. This is a consequence of the fact that the material is new to them, which means it takes time to understand the material. I’m sure we can all think back to instances in our education where we only partially understood what was going on.

I also predict that the teacher asked the class a common question.

“Do you all understand?”

At first, this seems like a reasonable thing to ask. After all, shouldn’t part of your job as a teacher be to make sure that everyone is following the argument? If no one understands the concept, then it’s a waste of both your time and your students’ time. It makes sense to suppose that “checking in” on students to make sure they are following is the right thing to do. If the class answers “yes”, then you can continue on without worrying.

Unfortunately, the reality is not so nice.

In an ideal world, students would make a teacher pause and go over a certain argument again if they couldn’t follow. They would ask questions and the teacher would answer them. Understanding in the class would flourish, and everyone would be happy. But this doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely even comes close to happening. A class might have one or two questions thrown in, but by and large, students don’t ask questions, even if they can’t follow.

Should we blame students for being unwilling to participate in class? I want to argue that instead it is up to us as educators to create learning environments that are more suited to asking questions when something isn’t clear. Furthermore, I want to argue that you should try to avoid ever asking the question, “Do you understand?” Instead, there are much better alternatives available to you. I also want to note that the following is applicable to both classroom teaching as well as one-to-one teaching.

Those three little words

I’ve asked this question so many times that I think I do it almost out of habit when I work with a student. It’s instinctual, because I want to make sure that a student is following what I’m saying. I don’t want to assume that they are following, and then be caught down the road and find out that the argument wasn’t clear to them, requiring us to start over. If possible, I think that’s something all teachers strive to avoid. In particular, some students drift off during explanations, so this question also acts as a way to bring them back to the topic.

However, we have to consider this question from the side of the student. What do they think about when they hear the question “Do you understand?” As a student myself, I have two possible reactions. If I do understand, then I don’t have a problem and answer “yes”. If I don’t understand, chances are I won’t feel like asking a question is worth it. I tell myself that I will figure it out later on my own. As such, I still answer “yes” to the question. But notice how different these two scenarios are! Despite not understanding, I might still say that I do.

This isn’t the only reason students answer in this way. There are many reasons, depending on the student. Some students will follow the tendency of the group.

A simple scenario:

If a few students say that they understand, that must have meant the teacher did a good enough job at explaining it. This means I should understand it too (even if I don’t). Therefore, I’ll say “yes” in order to follow the group’s lead. I don’t want to look like I’m dumb or can’t understand, so I’ll hide it.

A student may want to ask a question, but they fear that their question will showcase their ignorance, making them seem stupid to their peers. Depending on the class and the kind of institution one is in, this can have a big effect. If the group of students is roughly the same throughout their whole school life, showcasing one’s ignorance to the peers that they will be with every single day might not seem like a great risk to take. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to just say that everything is understood.

This is something that definitely happens, so as teachers, we need to be vigilant for it. Students won’t necessarily give truthful responses to their answers. As such, my advice is to not ask the question! Don’t even set them up to be in a situation where a student might be pressured in to saying they understand even if they don’t.

Rapid response

There’s another angle to this that I think a lot of teachers don’t realize unless it is pointed out to them. While some may argue that their students are being truthful to them when they ask the question (which I think is debatable), a lot of teachers don’t give ample time to pose this question.

Have you ever asked your class if they understand the argument that you just went through, while at the same time erasing the board? It makes sense to you to do these tasks simultaneously, but the situation is different from the students’ perspectives. They see a teacher who is asking the question in an off-hand way (since you’re barely paying attention and cleaning the board instead), so the students infer that this must have been an easy topic. Therefore, asking for further clarification might seem like an extra hassle that isn’t worth the effort.

Here’s another scenario that I have encountered many times with teachers. After going through a long and detailed argument (where students are grasping on the thread that weaves everything together), the teacher stops writing on the board, turns around, and ask, “Does that all makes sense?”

Meanwhile, the student is just trying to keep pace with the writing on the board. They are still a few lines behind in the argument, and haven’t had enough time to process what just happened, let alone ask themselves if they understand what is going on. They say nothing.

The teacher, seeing no one raise any questions, waits for a moment or two before diving back in, oblivious to the fact that it has barely been two seconds since they addressed the class.

The lesson here is simple. Give your students ample time to look at what just happened in the class and think about what kind of questions they have. Yes, that means waiting for a period of longer than three seconds. Yes, that means you might not be able to transition from topic to topic as fast as humanly possible, but the benefit is that the students will feel like they have breathing room in the class. Therefore, if you have built a good learning environment in your classroom, the students will be able to formulate questions for you to answer.

How to not ask “Do you understand?”

A teacher shouldn’t need such a blunt tool to gauge if their students understand. A teacher who has taken the time get to know their students and make sense of their strengths and weaknesses needs to be able to probe the class for understanding without asking that question.

To do this, the best way I know of is to ask conceptual questions that refer to the topics just learned. This way, you’re not able to get away with students saying they understand even if they don’t. The students have to show some understanding of what is happening. This is also helpful because it means the students can engage with the material instead of being able to drift off and not pay attention.

How you pose these conceptual questions is up to you, but this alleviates the need to ask students if everything makes sense. As long as they are getting the correct answers to the critical points in your questions, they are demonstrating that they know enough about the new topic.

I know what you’re thinking. This is a great idea, but what happens in practice is that there ends up being only one or two students in the class who answer all of the questions. I can’t generalize from these two students to the entire class! Of course, you’re correct. That just means you have to be on the lookout for this pattern. If the same few students are always answering the questions because the rest of the class won’t participate, change up your strategy. Force them to break up into groups and think about these conceptual questions. Don’t force them to speak in front of the entire class if they don’t want to, but give each student the opportunity to think about their understanding of the subject in a deeper fashion than a three-second reflection.

I can already imagine another critique of these ideas: they sound great, but there’s already so little time in a class and so much material to cover! Splitting up into groups and discussing would make this even worse.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s the price of admission if you want students to not answer your repetitive question in the affirmative even when they don’t understand. As a teacher, it’s our job to probe their understanding without just asking them. The dynamics of both teaching to a group and teaching to an individual can lead to students telling teachers what they want to hear. I’ve had this happen to me as a tutor. It takes probing a little deeper before they admit they don’t understand. I often kick myself when this happens, because it means the student feels like I will judge them for not understanding a concept. The reality couldn’t be more different. I absolutely want to know if they don’t understand, so I can help them get to that point of clarity!

This brings me to my final point. We need to talk to our students and establish that asking questions is a good thing. Being unsure about something is great, because it tells you exactly where you have to look to improve your understanding. Asking questions and getting clarification is something I think we all wish we did more of as students. In the short-term, it’s easy to just nod along in class and say that everything makes sense, but if you want to focus on long-term growth, asking questions is so important. That’s why you need to convey this message to your students all the time. What I tell my students now is that they need to be comfortable with stopping me mid-sentence and say, “Jeremy, you’re making no sense.” If I can get them to feel comfortable doing that, then I’ve created a good learning environment for my students.