A few low impact ways to check if your student's "get it" without an exam or paper
If you've ever looked out at your classroom and beheld a sea of glassy, blank stares, you've probably wondered if your students were understanding what you were teaching. But often, until you get to an exam or paper, it's hard to really know what's working, and by the time you're grading, it can be too late. Here are three ways to check for comprehension during class time, giving you more data about how you might want to shift your lessons moving forward.
Ungraded "gut check" quiz. In content heavy classes, or to check comprehension after an important reading assignment, I like to make a short quiz for my students to complete as a warm up activity. You could always grade these, but that's more work! So I have my students sit as if it were a pop quiz, and take it under those conditions. When everyone is finished, I inform them that I won't be collecting them, but we will be going over the answers together. "If you had a sick feeling in your stomach thinking this would be graded," I say, "now is a good time to check whether you're preparing for this class in a way that you feel good about." This way, students get a sense of what they're expected to understand after completing a reading or participating in a lecture, and you don't have to grade. Students can either feel good about their work, or know they have to adjust their habits, but it happens privately without unnecessary shame or guilt.
Minute Paper. Have students pull out a piece of paper, or provide them with one, and write for one (or more realistically, five) minute about a topic. You can use this in a variety of different teaching capacity, but I love to use them at the beginning of class, to get ideas flowing about the reading or an assignment (What was the most interesting idea presented in the reading for today? What is one connection between this week's reading and last week's discussion on X topic?). They're also great as summary tools at the end of class (What do you think was the most important take away from today's lecture? What do you want to know more about?). Collect these and read through them to get a sense of what students are thinking and connecting with, or just let them stay with students as a reference during discussion. For more ideas for prompts, check here!
Muddiest Points (My favorite!) - Once I learned about this technique, I incorporated it into every class I taught. At the end of class, I give each student an index card (you could also have students supply their own sheet of paper, or do it electronically with an anonymous Google Form) and ask them to write down whatever feels least clear about the day's content. There are no names, so they can be completely honest, but everyone has to fill one out. I would then read through them, send an email to correct anything huge or time sensitive, or make time in the next lecture to cover common misunderstandings. Over time, students eventually started using these to provide anonymous feedback about what they liked and didn't like about the course, or share thoughts about the content that they couldn't bring up in discussion. It was a great, easy way to stay connected and give students multiple ways to give feedback without it being another assignment to grade.