Knowing whether or not your instruction is effective may seem obvious, but it’s typically not black and white. If you’ve ever asked a tween or teen about their school day, you’re probably a bit ahead of the game – you’ll get a one-word answer or they will tell you what they think you want to hear, just so you’ll stop asking questions about school. And, of course, we can fall back on the traditional tests or quizzes, but these are often just the regurgitation of information with no learning taking place. If you really want to know about the quality and the impact of your instruction, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get a bit creative.
Real learning means that a student can take in information, interpret it and/or analyze it, and then apply that knowledge to a new situation – it involves higher-level thinking. Also, as the instructor, you need to be able to engage students in learning. Getting student buy-in is as important as disseminating information pertaining to the topic they are studying. Presenting students with opportunities, like projects, debates, and/or case studies where they can apply the information you’ve taught them is a great way to see if they really “get it.”
Identifying right or wrong answers is less concrete, and in these situations, students’ responses might vary quite a bit, therefore, using a rubric could be the best way to evaluate students’ understanding. Rubrics should be created along with the lessons and/or projects, and it is important to share these rubrics with students right from the start so they have clear expectations. As an instructor, you should know what you’re assessing well before students present their work, and so should they.
It is important to know when students aren’t understanding you and check for understanding on a daily basis. Remember that if students don’t demonstrate understanding that it may not be lack of comprehension but rather that students may be preoccupied with other things in their lives, as is common with adolescents. We can look for signs like anger, frustration, avoidance, disengagement, etc., and explore these emotional responses with students, because troubleshooting these issues is often a prerequisite for learning to take place. It is very important to speak with students and to listen to what they are saying – don’t make assumptions, judgments, and be empathetic to their unique situation and/or feelings.
On the flip side, students who are learning will be engaged – you will see a light go off and a change in confidence alongside this change in understanding. Their facial expressions will often exhibit an expression of relief, or perhaps, joy. They’ll want more opportunities to prove to themselves and to show you that they understand what is being taught. Ask them questions, engage in discussions, be flexible enough to go off-script, and explore related topics that might be of particular interest to your students. They may even digress on their own and come back with examples of articles or problems they discovered outside of school or tutoring. Allow them to share their discoveries before moving onto new topics, and help them build that bridge between those discoveries and what you’re about to teach them.
The most important part of being a great instructor is knowing your students. When they trust you, they will tell you when they are struggling, but you will already know because you have observed them long enough to know how they respond in different learning situations. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to evaluating students and the impact of your instruction, but there are best practices that should be incorporated. When in doubt, trust your gut. Once you’ve been around students for a while, your instincts can often be your best tool!