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How to Use Levels of Understanding in your Classroom

Levels of Understanding for Students

I have used Levels of Understanding in my 5th grade classroom for a few years now, and I can honestly say that it has not only changed the way that my students think about their learning, but also how I think about my teaching.

What Are Levels of Understanding?

Simply put, levels of understanding show the progression of learning and are often labeled with a level 1, 2, 3, or 4.

In my classroom, I use the words, “Beginning, Developing, Proficient, or Distinguished” which correlate with levels 1-4. Other teachers use the words, “Novice, Apprentice, Master, and Expert.”

It really doesn’t matter which of those words you use or whether you just use the levels 1-4 as long as your students understanding how learning is taking place in their brains.

How I Use Levels of Understanding in Math:

Since I teach math to two rotations of students in my classroom, I most often use “Levels of Understanding” in math, but it can be applied to reading, writing, science, or social studies as well.

At the beginning of a math unit, I always start by referring to my levels of understanding posters. I have them displayed above my bulletin board.

For example, if I am starting a new unit on rounding decimals, we stop and discuss where we are in the learning process.

Levels of Understanding Posters

You ALREADY have some background knowledge!

Do my students have background knowledge about rounding decimals? Yes, because we have been learning about how to read, write, and compare decimals. They also learned how to round whole numbers in third and fourth grade.

This already builds their confidence! They know that although we are learning something new, they have some background knowledge to begin with.

Levels of Understanding Posters

This is where we will “live” for the beginning part of our new unit.

Learning a new math concept causes anxiety in some students. They don’t understand it right away and some will want to shut down immediately. This is why I refer back to this level of understanding and remind them that IT’S OK to be frustrated. We are developing our knowledge and they should be using their notes, a partner’s help, or my help in small group.

I cannot tell you how many times I have helped a student push through their “math fears” just by reminding them that they are at a developing level of understanding and eventually they will become proficient.

Levels of Understanding Posters

This is our goal!

Some teachers will disagree with me and say that Level 4 is our goal, and I definitely always strive to get my students to level 4…but some students will remain at level 3 for a variety of reasons and I am completely ok with that.

In math, I am constantly telling my students to continue to push, I tell them to persevere, to not give up, and I tell them that they will become proficient eventually.


Once they understand a math concept like rounding decimals, they realize that “I can do this on my own with very few mistakes.”

When this hits them and they can raise their hand and tell me that they are proficient, their math confidence skyrockets!

Once they get over that hurdle, they truly realize that they can do “hard things” and not just read a simple classroom decor quote about it.

Levels of Understanding Posters

The distinguished level is a “push” further.

In a classroom, you will have three different types of learners. Those that are pushing through developing, those that are proficient, and those that are ready for a challenge and move on to the distinguished level of learning.

Now, I’ve had plenty of “experts” tell me that we should be giving students distinguished level assignments throughout math. As a teacher in the trenches, I’m going to agree to disagree on this one.

Yes – students should be challenged. They should work together with partners to solve challenging problems, BUT I’m not going to give my students who are at a “developing” level a “distinguished” level task no matter how much my county, math coach, or principal may tell me to do so. It will frustrate those students. They will shut down, and once they shut down, it’s VERY HARD to get them back to that level of confidence.

I save distinguished level tasks for students to have proved that they are at a “proficient” level first. ALL students love the challenge when they are ready for them!

Students that reach a level 3 quickly need these types of tasks earlier. They thrive on the challenge, but I also use these students to “teach” their peers. Students LOVE helping others (for the most part). There’s also something to be said about a little positive peer pressure to help students stay on task in math. ?

I have these Levels of Understanding Posters available in four different styles:

Happy Teaching!


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