LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Her map work was exquisite. The matching section of her test? Perfect. Everything I had asked her to examine, identify or explain had been done flawlessly. She had earned a score of 100 percent on a unit exam. She had even finished early enough to write me a note on the bottom of her test paper.

Ms. Smith. I really liked the unit on India. Maybe it’s because my grandmother is Choctaw. It was neat to learn about where my family is actually from!

No!!! No. No. No. What had I done wrong?

I had planned the unit so carefully. My objectives were clear, and our activities had been centered around them. She had completed those activities and seemed able to answer any question I asked. But as a result of one misconception, she had created many connections in her mind that were inaccurate. They would inhibit her as she tried to build on that material. And if she hadn’t written a quick, unsolicited note, I would never have known.

Her specific situation was fairly easy to fix. It involved an important conversation and some key clarifications. But it made me wonder about my classroom in general. Certainly there would be other points of confusion that I would neither anticipate nor recognize. Certainly there would be moments where students completely missed the concept or context — moments that would pass by unnoticed, then haunt the class down the road.

How could I catch these misconceptions before they caused additional problems?
The answer is a profound action that can be summed up in one word.


Listen to your students. Classrooms are intellectually crowded, with lots of objectives, assessments, and engaging activities. But within each of those elements, we have to make room for our students not only to contribute but to really react to their experience with the material. Paying that sort of active attention requires a certain mindset on the part of a teacher, but it also involves practical approaches. Here are a few of the approaches I find most effective.

Listen as students describe their prior knowledge.

Some teachers use formal pre-assessments to determine their students’ current understandings. I also like informal brainstorms. Now, when we start talking about India, we begin with two minutes during which each student writes down every word they think of when they hear me say “India.” Then they share the words on their lists with the class. I write every word I hear on an overhead transparency, and each word is followed with a question mark. I do not edit the words at this point, since correcting their ideas may prevent more reserved students from sharing connections about which they are uncertain. The question mark I add at the end of every suggestion ensures that each student knows these are initial thoughts, not answers that have been evaluated and approved.

After all of the words are posted we revisit them, crossing out ones that reveal misconceptions and highlighting ones that have connections to our learning goals.

Listen to your students while there is still time to adjust future lessons.

Most teachers become aware that students are confused about Tuesday’s lesson on Wednesday when they check homework (or worse, at the end of the unit). At that point, it is too late. Teachers need to know on Tuesday night, so they can plan to address the issue before moving on to the next day’s material. There are a variety of ways to gain a sense of your students’ understanding in a more timely fashion.

Some teachers insist on a “ticket to leave” from their students. Simply ask them to write something on a slip of paper and hand it to you as they go out the door. Some days you might ask them to solve a problem on the paper. Other days they might have to answer a question or list two things they learned. At any time, they could use the paper to note a question. As a teacher, you can review these tickets to gain a more accurate sense of what your students are learning. Then use that insight to plan the next day’s introduction around their questions or your concerns.

Listen as students respond to open-ended assessments.

Had my test — or any questions earlier in the unit — provided more opportunities for open response, I could have identified the problem area more effectively. Don’t ask questions that only require simple answers. Have your students write, reflect, and show their work.


In short, create space for your students to respond in your classroom. And when they do, pay attention to what they actually say. Listen, and allow what you hear to inform your instruction. When we allow their words to guide us, we design better lessons. And when we accomplish that, our students are more likely to learn.