Have you been in this scenario before? You’re in the middle of what has unintentionally turned into a long-winded explanation, and you start to feel it: the students are losing focus. You still have a little more to say, so you want to stay on your train of thought just a bit longer. But you’re concerned you’re losing students at one of the critical junctures. Then you think you’ll pause, just really briefly, and check in with them with a simple yes-or-no question. You just want to know if they are making the effort to take it all in, and snap their focus back into place for a few minutes more.

At this point, which version of this question are you likely to use:

A. Does this make sense to you?

B. Does this make sense?

C. Am I making sense?

Let’s think about this from another angle. You’re attending a professional development workshop, and as a member of an audience drifting off, your presenter asks the crowd if one of his points is making sense, which version of the above would you prefer? To what extent does it matter?

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I have been among the crowd for versions A and B more times than I can count, and I can tell you that I experience each of those in vastly different ways. Largely, it depends on the tone of the person asking the question.

As you consider how this comes across to you as an audience member, let’s put ourselves in our students shoes for a bit. Let me share my experience, as a teacher, with each phrasing.

Does That Make Sense to You?

Early on in my career there were times when I would ask, “Does that make sense to you,” and I would either receive glares, emphatic nods, or a hearty–slightly louder and edgier than normal–“Yes!” That would catch me off guard. Only after this check for understanding question was inflicted on me would I grow to understand why.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, when I am sitting in room where a teacher or presenter frames the question “Does that make sense to you,” my brain goes into fight or flight. And maybe it’s because I had my coming of age in the 1990s, but for me that usually means fight (which usually takes the form of snark).

Here are some of the thoughts that have run through my mind when asked this:

  • I don’t know, should it make sense?
  • Is it okay if I don’t get it?
  • This person is condescending. I am now tuning out.

There have been other snarky thoughts I have had. And I will keep those to myself. Most often my gut was telling me that the subtext of posing this question was the presenter communicating, “If you don’t get this, then you’re not paying attention. Something is wrong with YOU.” I can’t confirm that was what was actually running through the mind of those presenting to me, but it certainly describes how I have felt on those occasions, which is why I ditched the practice as soon as I noticed I was using it in my classroom.

Does That Make Sense?

As a young teacher, I camped mostly in the “Does that make sense” check for understanding question. I only remember getting a no response when I was totally bombing a lesson. Usually I would get yes or silence. Really, I was using this question to refocus my students for the next minute or two, a way to jostle their attention back on the subject at hand. It typically got the job done, which is why I tended to use it so often.

But I wasn’t really offering my audience a chance to really assess their understanding. If I think about when I was posing the question–when students looked bored, distracted, or sleepy–I had probably lost them long before. I was partly at fault for losing their attention and not recognizing the cues earlier (or, what would have been even better, anticipating when they would lose their attention when designing the lesson in the first place). “Does that make sense,” wasn’t really for them, it was for me, signaling to my students that they were getting off track, and they needed to get with the program.

But was that helping them with their comprehension? Was I helping them learn by using that tactic?

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Am I Making Sense?

These days, when I ask my students directly about their level of comprehension, this is the way I frame the question. I can’t remember when I made the switch to this phrasing, but I noticed that it caused a different response from those in the room. In general, more of my students engage with it in a more genuine way. I have more students that admit when they are a little lost. They feel a little more free to say “kind of” or “mostly.” This gives me the opportunity to probe about their point of confusion.

Here’s what I hope this way of asking the question communicates:

  • I’m struggling here too
  • It’s okay if you haven’t caught everything I have said today
  • If you don’t understand something, maybe it’s me and not you
  • Comprehension of this content is important, so let’s figure out if I can reshape my delivery, or repeat a key concept, to help you make the connection

In a subtle way, as the teacher, I am placing the responsibility of a lack of comprehension on my shoulders. The students can detect this, especially when I choose the right tone to pose the question.

Sometimes the smallest changes we make in our classrooms can have the biggest impact. And those small changes aren’t always apparent.

And this post turned out to be longer than I anticipated, so that has me wondering . . .  “Am I making sense?”

QUESTION: Have you ever made adjustments to the kinds of things you say over and over in your classroom? If so, what was the result?

Please comment below, and share with someone you know is a great communicator with his or her students.

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