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What Do Students Already Know?

Why check students’ background knowledge?

Doing so is grounded in learning theories (Ausubel, 1968; Dewey, 1938) and is supported by research on the learning process (Tobias, 1994; Dochy, Segers & Buehl, 1999; Fisher, 2004).

Determining what students already know allows you to:

  • Target specific knowledge gaps (Angelo & Cross, 1993).
  • Become aware of the diversity of backgrounds in your classroom.
  • Create a bridge between students’ previous knowledge and new material.
  • Check for misconceptions that may hinder student learning of new material (Ambrose, et. al. 2010).

For students, understanding their starting point will make it easier for them to see what they have learned by the end of the course. They can better recall past learning and construct “bridges” between old and new knowledge (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

How can you check students’ background 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

Common Sense Inventory:

  • 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.

Background Knowledge Probe (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 121-125)

  • Prepare two or three open-ended or multiple-choice questions.
  • Write questions on the board.
  • Ask students to respond in two or three sentences to each question or circle a response.
    • Example: The Golden Triangle
    • a) Have never heard of this place.
    • b) Have heard of it, but don’t really know where it is.
    • c) Have some idea where this is, but not too clear.
    • d) Have a clear idea where this is and can explain.
  • Let students know these will not be graded and that thoughtful answers help you make effective instructional decisions.
  • Share results with students during the next class.

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.
  • Give each group one poster and sheet of paper to synthesize comments.
  • Review themes of comments.
  • Articulate impact of comments on course design to students during the next class.

Minute Paper (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 148-153)

  • Decide what prior knowledge is necessary for the course.
  • Write a Minute Paper prompt (or question) that hits on the above. Try answering it yourself before using it in class.
  • Set aside 5-10 minutes of class time to use the technique, as well as time to explain what you are doing beforehand.
  • Hand out index cards or half-sheets of paper.
  • Ask students not to write their names on the cards.
  • Let students know how much time they will have (two to three minutes per question), what kinds of answers you want (words, short sentences, a list), and when they will receive feedback.
  • Give students feedback. Explain how this information informed course design.

Blackboard Quizzes and Qualtrics Surveys

  • Create a series of multiple-choice questions.
  • Post to Blackboard as an assignment for the first class.
  • Explain that you will track who responded, but not how they responded.
  • Use report results calculated by the software to inform course design.
  • Share results and impact on course design with students.

Some considerations

When using background knowledge assessments:

  • Communicate that the assessment is not graded.
  • Do not require students to put their name on the assessment.
  • Use technology. Blackboard, Qualtrics and classroom response systems will quantify some of the data for you and provide graphs that you can then share with students.
  • Take the assessment yourself to confirm the questions make sense.



Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T. & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Ausubel, D., Novak, J, and Hanesian, H. (1968). Educational psychology, A cognitive view (2nd ed). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Buehl, M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69, (2), 145-186.

Fisher, K.M. (2004). The importance of prior knowledge in college science instruction. in Sunal, D.W., Wright, E.L., & Bland., J. Reform in Undergraduate Science Teaching for the 21st Century. Information Age Publishing.

Kirk, D. (2005). Taking back the classroom: Tips for the college professor on how to be a more effective teacher. Seattle, Washington: Tiberius Publications.

Tobias, S. (1994). Interest, prior knowledge, and learning. Review of Educational Research, 64, (1), 37-54.
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