Checking for understanding in dance class

formative assessment in dance classFeedback about what children understand is central to teaching in the Primary dance classroom.  In this article we explore why it is important and simple and practical ways of finding how children are experiencing the content of your dance lessons.

Formative assessment is important to student learning. It provides an opportunity for students to give feedback to teachers and for teachers to reflect on their teaching practice.

Not only does it show evidence of learning, but it gives teachers new direction as children explore new concepts.  Importantly it is a component of a collaborative approach to learning.

Checking for understanding is important, but for it to be formative assessment, it is acted on.  It is a process rather than a tool.

We know in teaching and learning that nothing is definite but checking for understanding enables teachers to better hear the voices of their students.  Our teaching decisions are likely to be better.

Why is it important to check for understanding in a dance class?

Formative assessment can have a huge impact on educational outcomes in Primary classrooms. In his book “Embedded Formative Assessment: Strategies for Classroom Assessment that Drives Students Engagement and Learning”, Dylan Williams identifies five key strategies of formative assessment.

  1. Clarifying sharing and understanding learning and success criteria.
  2. Eliciting evidence of learning.
  3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward.
  4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.
  5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

But as important as these are, the clear focus should be on hearing our students’ voices in the classroom.  Seeing them as not just owners of their own learning, but as full citizens with agency in all areas of their lives.

Students need to know that teachers hear their voices and that they will respond accordingly.

Rather than referring to it as formative assessment, let’s think of it as really hearing children’s voices.  Their curiosity assists us in co creating their learning journey.

Why might this be difficult in a dance classroom?

Many of the strategies we would normally use to understand children’s comprehension can stop the flow of the dance lesson. This can be a challenge both creatively and physically.

From a creative perspective, students need the space to explore unimpeded or influenced by the prior experiences of the teacher.  Children’s creativity is built on how they make meaning within their own view of the world.  By pausing too long to investigate their understanding, we run the risk of stifling their inspiration and innovation in that moment.

Pausing a class to check for understand may also lead to children cooling down, which may lead to injuries.

However, embedding reflective questioning in the lesson can avoid both these challenges.  Teachers need to use their instincts about when children are ready and able to express their impressions, ideas, and understandings.

formative assessment in dance class

The Blank Face…what does it mean?

Some of this instinct is about reading the nonverbal signs in the classroom.  We have probably all experienced the vacant look of a class that you have totally bamboozled.

In a dance context, children looking at each other for direction can be an indication that you may be moving too fast, the movement is too complex or that it is disconnected from the children’s movement language.

The movements may need to be broken down further, adapted to the level of the children or it may indicate that the students need more input into what you are teaching them.

In the case of a creative task, you may observe that there is a lot of talk and not much movement taking place.  This may indicate a missing part of the tasks scaffolding.   Adding an additional linking activity within the task can clarify the process.

When leading a discussion, silence from the class, rather than lively debate, often means that they have not had enough time to think about the questions you are posing.  Children need time to formulate their ideas, talk to others and frame their opinions.

How do you know when your students are good to go?

Timing in your class needs to be led by the children, not by your desire to move the learning on.  Here are some ideas that let you know that you children are happy and confident to move to the next part of the learning experience.

Quick Checks

During lesson:

Thumbs up, thumbs down

Thumbs up (I understand), thumbs down (I do not understand), thumbs in the middle (I’m a bit confused)

Finger rating

1 finger (I need some help I do not understand yet), 2 fingers (I’m still a little confused), 3 fingers (I understand I can do it myself), 4 fingers (I understand, and I can teach it to a friend).

formative dance assessment

End of lesson:

True or False

Ask a few questions and have children move to different parts of the room for whether they think your statement is true or false or they are not sure.  You can also have students write down their answer with a reason on separate post it notes and post it under a written question.

Online or paper forms

Create a form, survey or questionnaire that addresses ideas you are curious about.  Here are some examples of questions.

1. Summarize today’s lesson in 20 words.

2. What is the most confusing part of this topic?

3. What feedback would you like me to have about what we have covered today?

4. What is the big idea you have learned about…?

The power of the open ended question

Ask open ended questions and seek feedback from students on how they are coping with today’s lesson. Students’ answers are creative attempts to make sense of their experiences.

Oral question and answer:

1. Is there anything else you could have done?

2. What did you call what you are using?

3. What would have happened…?

4. What could we do instead?

5. Can you do it big/ smaller/ slower/faster?

Tell me about…

1. How do you know that….?

2. Can you tell me more about why…?

Show me how you…

Technologies … the pros and cons

Kahoot is a game-like student response and reflection tool.  It is constantly evolving but the user generated questions are often not appropriate.  However, it is a way of tracking student responses overtime if somewhat tedious.

Google forms is good for creating surveys and getting input from students.  The forms are simple to implement but there are no templates for questionnaires and surveys.

There are many other ways of generating ways of communicating online for private feedback options.

Applying the knowledge as a way of demonstrating understanding

This may be a part of the synthesis of your lesson.  A dance example could be to find an example of symmetry in a photography if you were learning about symmetry in the main body of the lesson.

Having them teach and explain a dance concept to someone else can be a powerful way of finding information about how they a viewing an idea.  Having them teach some of their choreography to someone else also privileges their artistic product.

formative dance assessment in primary school

Trouble shoot

Students identify where there are trouble spots as a part of the rehearsal process.  It gives them the power to see the challenge and then problem solve how they are going to improve it.  This is an important part of the creative reflective process.

They can then apply this process to their written pieces, viewing first drafts as part of a ‘written rehearsal’ before the finished product is ready to present.


Built in moments in the lesson to sum up what they have learned.

This could be done by creating the concept, skill or idea as a metaphor eg. A….is like a…..because…

For example:

“Formative assessment is like a meal while you’re cooking because it provides feedback that the cook can use to make adjustments to improve the meal”

8 Quick checks for understanding Jay McTighe

Once you have the information …what then?

If you are asking for ideas, opinions, or suggestion then to demonstrate that you value their input, there must be action.  This demonstrates that you are addressing their concerns.  This action should be transparent to them.

This leads to a cycle of clarifying to get a clearer understanding of what the children are knowing.  It means reframing, exploring further or practicing the skill, correcting inaccuracies or oversights in transmission of knowledge and then co creating new learning goals.

The teacher must be genuinely interested in finding out what the students know and be willing to listen to what they are telling you.    Also, what they may not be telling you.

Observing, questioning with curiosity, and working alongside students as co-creators, reveals many new learning opportunities for teachers and students alike.

Finding out where students ideas come from and how it effects their viewpoint, while they are still in the classroom, is crucial for teacher understanding.  Once you know where students are in their learning it is easier to plan what happens next.

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