How to Know What They Know: Using Student Response Cards

We all know the sinking feeling that comes when you’re grading student work and realize that they don’t really understand the topic you just finished. You wonder how this could have happened. You did all the things. There were labs and hands-on activities and fancy notes pages and a gorgeous set of slides to help you deliver the information. And yet, here we are, elbow-deep in a stack of too many mediocre to failing papers. You remember that somehow last year’s students did much better with this. You’re wondering how this could have happened.

Have you been there? I don’t have enough fingers to count the times I have. And now what? I hardly had the time to cover all this stuff to begin with (which might be part of why we’re here), and I certainly don’t have time for a do-over. How do I fix this?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to wave over our classrooms in these situations, but in my experience, there are some practices that can certainly help. I know for me that as I grew as a teacher and was more intentional with formative assessment, I encountered many fewer instances where I was blindsided by what they didn’t know.

And just to be clear, I always knew that I needed to check for understanding throughout the lesson. (Surely I learned that in an education class somewhere before they turned me loose on unsuspecting students) My problem was that I mostly was just asking my whole class if we were good, if they were tracking, and when the smartest, most outspoken kid in the class told me he understood, I felt good to move on. Spoiler alert: The smart kid is generally a poor spokesperson for the rest of the class. 

So how do we get better information during the lesson from ALL students? Today I’m going to share one of my favorite low-tech solutions to figure out what they know in real time.

Student Response Cards

When I was in the classroom, I referred to these as the “poor man’s clickers.” I know there are lots of ways to use student response systems and individual devices to get feedback from all students immediately, but I didn’t have access to that kind of technology. Also, there are times when the technology creates distraction, sometimes doesn’t work, etc. So, I made these sets of cards to use instead. They include standard multiple-choice answers, yes/no, true/false, numbers 1-4, agree/disagree, increase/decrease and even just cards that say, “Got it!” or “Help.” 

Assessing Individuals

I print these out, punch holes in them, and put them on a single ring. I make enough for a class set, so each student can have their own. Then when we are discussing a topic in class, I can ask for input, answers, etc. I have students hide their responses until it’s time for everyone to show me, and then I give them a “1-2-3, Show!” Instead of holding their answers up high, which promotes cheating off the smart kid or hiding their confusion due to embarrassment, I have students hold up their answer just in front of them so only I can see it. Then based on their responses, I know how to adjust my instruction in real time. I know when we need to revisit/reteach for the whole class, which individual students need help, or when it’s time to move on.

Assessing Groups

We also use these cards in student groups, so that students can collaborate on an answer and then show me so I can check them. This might be after having student pairs turn and talk to one another about a question or topic. I can also call a timeout during an activity or lab and have groups show me with a “Got It” or “Help” card how they’re doing on a particular step or just in general on the activity. It helps them communicate simultaneously about who may need some extra attention or to let me know that the whole class is struggling, and we need to regroup.

These simple student response cards allow me to have a sense of what students know in real time. Instead of letting the smart kid tell me if they understand, every student/group can show me. I can have students let me know their opinions, answers, or comfort level with the material with just a show of cards. Instead of discovering what they know (or don’t know) at the end of a lesson or unit, I can figure some of this out in the middle of it and adjust my instruction accordingly.

Download Free Student Response Cards

You can download our free Student Response Cards here or customize your own! Feel free to share any ideas or questions you have about using these in your classroom.