Assessing Prior Knowledge

Assessing students’ prior knowledge allows an instructor to focus and adapt their teaching plan. For students, it helps them to construct connections between old and new knowledge. 

Why Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge? 

Determining what students already know allows you to: 

  • target knowledge gaps and misconceptions
  • become aware of the diversity of backgrounds in your classroom
  • create a bridge between students’ previous knowledge and new material

Considerations for Assessing Prior Knowledge 

When using background knowledge assessments: 

  • do not require students to put their name on the assessment
  • communicate that the assessment is not graded
  • use technology:  Canvas, Qualtrics,  andclassroom response systems  will quantify some of the data for you and provide graphs that you can then share with students
  • share the questions with colleagues or teaching assistants to confirm that the questions make sense

Getting Started with Assessing Prior Knowledge 

Plan your background knowledge assessment by asking the following questions:

  • What do you assume students already know? 
  • What kinds of questions will help you confirm your assumptions? 
  • What are some common misconceptions or myths related to your subject? 
  • How are you going to analyze and respond to the data your pre-assessment provides? 

Some Strategies

  • Make a list of 10-15 statements related to course content, including commonly held misconceptions. Have students mark "true" or "false" next to each statement.
  • Canvas Quizzes and Qualtrics Surveys:
    • create a series of multiple-choice questions
    • post to Canvas as an assignment for the first class
    • do not grade the assignment, except perhaps to assign participation points
  • Prepare two or three open-ended questions. Ask students to respond in two or three sentences to each question.
  • Gallery Walk:  
    • place images, graphs, and excerpts from upcoming course content in the middle of a poster paper. This leaves room around the material for students to write
    • hang images around the room
    • create groups of two to four students
    • place one group in front of each poster. Give them five minutes to write observations, what they know or what they are wondering about the material