Every teacher I’ve ever met knows that no lesson plan survives the first contact with real students. And yet most teachers plan their lessons as though they’re going to go perfectly. They plan them on the basis of
assumptions they know to be false.
I’d like to suggest a small but powerful modification: Because lessons never go according to plan,
teachers should build plan B into plan A. This
involves designing a lesson with a “hinge” somewhere in the middle and using specific kinds of
questions—what I call hinge questions—to quickly
assess students’ understanding of a concept before
The Rationale Behind the Hinge
When planning a lesson, the teacher identifies a particular concept that will be important for students to
understand before moving on to other parts of the
lesson. Of course, there are many such points in a
lesson, but at least to start, choose one point somewhere in the middle of the lesson. At this hinge, the
teacher asks a hinge question to check that the class
has understood this key point of the lesson and gets
a response from every single student. Depending on
those responses, the teacher either moves on or goes
back to review the material.
There’s nothing new in this idea, but it turns out
that it’s rather difficult to do well. Here are some
principles that teachers may find useful in designing
effective hinge questions.
PRINCIPLE 1. Get a response from every student.
Teachers have always used questions to judge the
level of a class’s understanding before making a
decision about whether to move on, but getting evi-
dence about the whole class is difficult. For example,
if a teacher wants to check whether students can
recognize adverbs, he or she could ask the students
to identify the adverb in a sentence like this: The boy
ran quickly across the street. Teachers often ask stu-
dents for a choral response (Hunter, 1982). However,
that makes it difficult to tell who is responding cor-
rectly and who is just miming convincingly. In other
words, the teacher doesn’t have good evidence about
who has and hasn’t understood.
The teacher could, of course, ask each student
in turn, but this takes a considerable amount of
time, and students are likely to be influenced by the
responses of other, higher-achieving students. One
way to avoid this is to have all students respond at
the same time by using finger voting. The teacher
might ask students to identify the adverb in this
The boy ran quickly across the street.
(A) (B) (C) (D) (E)
Students can hold up one finger for A, two fingers
for B, and so on, to indicate their choice. One of the
important features of finger voting, or using ABCD
cards, is that if a student hasn’t made a choice, it’s
obvious to the teacher.
PRINCIPLE 2. Do a quick check on understanding,
instead of engaging in extended discussions.
When teachers first start using hinge questions, they
often find it difficult to interpret student responses;
they’re not sure whether a correct answer means that
the students have truly understood. Although they
might think that they could just ask each student to
explain his or her answer, they actually never do this
because, in a class of 30 students, it would simply
take too long.
For the question to work as a quick check on
understanding, it shouldn’t take up a lot of time.
Teachers should design the question so that it takes
students no more than two minutes to respond, and
Here’s how teachers can get on-the-spot evidence about what students
do and don’t understand before moving forward with their lesson.
DUTOURDUMONDE PHO TOGRAPHY/SHUT TERSTOCK