How to effectively check the cognitive and emotional pulse of your class

A teacher engages students in a lesson as EDT officials toured to assess the challenges facing teachers during their teaching practices.

Do you find yourself readily checking your students’ understanding by asking: “Any questions?” “Is everybody with me?” “Are we together?”? Every time I ask my students these vague types of questions, their most common response is…silence. How should I interpret the silence? Perhaps the students understand everything completely and therefore have no questions. Maybe they have questions but are afraid to ask out of fear of looking stupid. Or it could mean that they are so lost they don’t even know what to ask! The efficient way to check their understanding is by taking both the cognitive and emotional temperature of the class.

The best alternative to the vague “any questions?” prompt is to use a brief Classroom Assessment Technique or CAT to check the cognitive temperature. CATs do not need to be elaborate. For example, the muddiest point exercise simply asks students to write for a few minutes about what they consider to be most confusing or unclear aspects of the concept being explored. Unlike the prompt, “Any questions?,” which may signal that the teacher hopes that there are no questions so he can move on, the muddiest point exercise signals that confusion is a normal and expected part of the learning process, and because the students are writing privately, there is less stigma than raising one’s hand. A high return, indeed, for an investment of about five minutes of class time.

Other examples of CATs include: directed paraphrasing, where students restate in their own words the main points of a lesson; and a pros and cons grid, which asks students to analyse the costs and benefits or advantages or disadvantages of two choices. This can be used in a variety of courses, including evaluating two possible designs in an engineering course, or confronting an ethical dilemma in an anthropology course. A Venn diagram may also come in handy when comparing and contrasting things. So, if you are looking for a practical way to take the cognitive pulse of your class, start using CATs on a regular basis.

While CATs in various forms (from small, informal methods such as ungraded simple quizzes, to formal, graded methods such as multiple-choice exams and research papers) are effective, they only provide cognitive feedback in the form of a score, a correction, lack of an answer, or an abundance of questions, but often fail to explain why or why not. Simply put, cognitive feedback tells us Student X scored a C- because she skipped nearly half of the quiz questions for an English course; affective feedback might tell us she struggled to process comprehension questions due to a painful connection to the subject matter in the passage. Emotional feedback has the power to help teachers understand why students are going off track and help them course-correct. So, how can you check the emotional pulse of the class?

Affective/emotional feedback can be collected in a variety of ways, some as brief as a two-question survey or rating level of comfort with material at the end of a class. Reflection activities are also a common emotional feedback opportunity, as students are asked to think about their experience learning in the class and how learning behaviours and life circumstances have likely influenced their course experience.

No matter what tools are at your disposal, there are always opportunities to take both the cognitive and emotional temperature of your classroom. Doing so has the potential to build learner confidence, improve faculty-to-student relationships, and ultimately help students succeed.