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Checking In On Student Understanding With Thumbs

I’m teaching crisis hotline students all weekend, which means I should really be in bed. I’m teaching again six-and-a-half hours from now. But I wanted to share this quick tool I’m using a lot.

Whenever I’m teaching groups of students, I want feedback on how they’re doing. Are they getting the material? Are they tired, bored, hungry, confused, excited, or what? If I’m to shape the best environment to help them learn, I need be checking in with them frequently.

But I teach adults. They’re very conscious of the other people in the room, and nobody wants the social cost of seeming “less smart” than others. It’s expensive for them to ask for help. So it’s often hard to get accurate information. (I work with them on cultivating a growth mindset, too, but that takes time to germinate and flourish.)

Lately I’ve found a great way for quick check-ins throughout my classes. They go like this.

Let’s suppose I want to ask if people feel ready to move on from the current topic:

  1. Thumbs Up!“Okay, I want a check-in. Close your eyes, please.” They do, since I explained the purpose—confidential communication—early on in the training class.
  2. “If you’re feeling good about this and are ready to move on, give me a thumbs-up. If you’re not quite sure, give me a thumb-sideways. If you want more help first, give me a thumbs-down.” They do, putting out their thumbs and continuing to hold them out. I look around the room, gauging how many students are in each category.
  3. “Okay, please put your hands down.” They do. Once I see their hands down, I call:
  4. “Okay, open your eyes.” And then we do whatever I’ve decided based on their feedback.

(Thumb-sideways means pointing your thumb parallel to the floor rather than up or down.)

The confidentiality seems to be really valuable to them; several students commented tonight that they really liked this approach because it made them feel free to say how they actually felt.

I also find the three-position thumb (up, side, down) much more useful for feedback than just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down: it allows a third option that can mean ambivalence, uncertainty, or some other kind of option. It opens a lot of new doors for me when I’m checking in.

The whole check-in takes about 20 seconds once the class has learned how to do it. It works beautifully, requires no technology, and gives me a sense of which students want more help and which ones don’t. I’m going to keep playing with it.

Here are some other examples:

  • Thumbs-up: You’re ready to keep learning for a while longer.
    Thumb-sideways: You’d like a break in the next 10 minutes.
    Thumbs-down: You need a break right now.
  • Thumbs-up: You agree with the point I just made.
    Thumb-sideways: You’re unsure.
    Thumbs-down: You disagree with the point I just made.
  • Thumbs-up:  You’d like to do a roleplay with your partner right now.
    Thumb-sideways: You’d like to talk more about the Connection Builders we just identified.
    Thumbs-down: You’d like to see a demonstration roleplay first.
  • Thumbs-up: You think this caller primarily wants a referral to counseling.
    Thumb-sideways: You think she primarily wants a chance to talk.
    Thumbs-down: You think she primarily wants a referral for emergency housing.
  • Thumbs-up: You think this caller meets the criteria for being involuntarily hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.
    Thumb-sideways: You aren’t sure.
    Thumbs-down: You think this caller doesn’t meet the criteria.
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3 thoughts on “Checking In On Student Understanding With Thumbs

  1. I use this technique in class after introducing a new technique – basically breaking the class up into who is ready to go try, and who wants to see it demonstrated again or ask questions. It helps me gauge the pace of instruction and gives kids who are advanced/comfortable with the topic some more independence.

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