133: Assessing Prior Knowledge





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  1. Background Knowledge Probe
    • Purpose
      • gather detailed information on students’ prior knowledge related to most important materials to be studied
      • determine more effective starting points for scaffolding
      • determine range of readiness / preparation levels in a class
      • serve as pre- and post- assessments
        • administer before scaffolding for pre-assessment
        • administer after scaffolding to post-assess what was learned during instruction
    • What it is:
      • short, simple questionnaires used to assess knowledge at the start of a course or the start of a unit
    • Suggestions for Use:
      • Focus on key concepts needed to be successful in upcoming material
      • At least one low floor question – most can get it right
      • At least one high ceiling question – most will get it wrong
      • Use to introduce important concepts about to be uncovered
      • Use to assess knowledge midway and after related scaffolding
      • Share enough data related to assessments that students can determine how they performed relative to the class
    • Examples of Implementation:
      • ELA – List all Shakespeare’s plays you’ve been exposed to.  Check off if you read the play, listened to the play, watched a live performance, watched an adaptation, etc.  After analysis – point out which plays they will see again in the course and how they can help students who haven’t had prior exposure to the plays.
      • Electrical Engineering – Showed pictures of 5 pieces of electrical equipment and asked students to determine readings on the illustrations.  Observe what students can read or not and the format (standard notation, engineering notation, with units or without) of their responses.  After 1st individual probe, combined students into heterogeneous groups and had them try again with the expectation that all students needed to make sense of the correct answers.  Gave tips to more experiences students on how to help less experienced students
    • Step-by-step procedure:
      1. Consider what students may know at the start of a course or a unit (and to what degree they may know it).  Try to identify at least one point most will know and have that lead off into related, less familiar points.
      2. Prepare probe.  Formats could include
        • 2-3 open ended questions (see ELA example)
        • Handful of short answers
        • 10-20 multiple choice questions
        • Use student-friendly language that will make it easier to access what they already know
      3. Give students the probes.  Emphasize the need for thoughtful responses and the fact these pre-assessments will not be graded.
      4. In a timely manner, report the results and discuss implications:
        • how results will affect the way the course will be taught
        • how results will affect what they do as learners
    • Analysis Tips:
      • Affinity group responses by different levels of preparedness
      • Assign scores to each pile of preparedness
        • +2 significantly prepared
        • +1 some relevant background knowledge
        • 0 no background knowledge
        • -1 wrong background knowledge
      • Total the scores to determine overall level of preparedness
      • Fast method – Divide responses into prepared and not prepared piles prior to teaching related concepts.  This related to Clustering student needs for more efficient planning.
    • Extension tips:
      • After individually completing groups, have students work in small groups to come up with mutually acceptable answers.
      • Ask students in small groups to rate and sort answers from other groups – see Analysis Tips above
      • Ask students to interview each other and annotate responses and sense-making related to probe questions.
      • Use version of probes as a post-assessment
    • Pros:
      • Provide info on students’ content and communication skills
      • Provide specific baseline data that can inform instructional decisions
      • Can provide opportunities to hook students in by tying things back to their prior knowledge
      • Can prime the pump, i.e. prepare students to take in new information by making them aware of connection to things they already know
    • Cons:
      • Feedback might demoralize teacher
      • Responding to probe can be frustrating for unprepared students
      • Classifying responses may create hard-to-change false impressions of students which may impact expectations later in the course
    • Caveats:
      • Can show big holes in course-long sequence due to knowledge gaps in students – only do this if you have time and energy to make significant revisions to course materials
      • Do not generalize too much from one assessment
      • Plan response for both prepared and underprepared students
  2. Misconception / Preconception Check
    • Purpose: 
      • Identify incorrect or incomplete knowledge that can interfere with new knowledge
      • Help students identify “early on” beliefs that may hinder their understanding of new knowledge so they have a better chance of revising and transforming their knowledge structures to accommodate new info
    • What It Is:
      • Pre-assessments that uncover prior knowledge or beliefs that my hinder or block further learning
    • Suggestions for Use:
      • Use it to uncover common sense knowledge that is counteracts content information
      • Use it to uncover beliefs that allow some facts to get through but block out deeper understanding of method or worldview
    • Example of Implementation:
      • History –
        • Anonymous responses to 3 questions: 1) How many people lived in North America in 1491? 2) About how long had they been on this continent in 1491? 3) What significant achievements had they made at that time? (5 minutes to respond).
        • Shuffled papers and handed back.
        • For (1) and (2) collected highest and lowest answers.
        • Teacher analyzed question (3) at home.
        • Then added question (4), where did you get your answers for 1-3.  Class realized that most of their guesses were grounded on thin ice.
        • As homework students paired up and conducted research to find acceptable ranges of answers to 1-3.
      • Health –
        • Prior to a unit on STDs, used a probe that had 10 statements that represented true facts or common misconceptions about the symptoms, treatment and transmission of STD’s.  Students answered in Likert scale from this is certainly true, mid range (I have no idea) to this certainly false.
        • Analyzed responses and found that many students were clinging more (or less tightly) to several misconceptions.
        • Tied their response results to specific lessons related to the prompts.
      • Astronomy  –
        • On large blank sheets of paper asked students to respond to question – What makes the season change on Earth” and said any answer was acceptable except “I don’t know”.
        • Divided responses in 4 piles – correct, distance, weather, others piles.
        • Picked best response from each pile and created another assessment – same as before with 4 responses as multiple choice question.
        • Asked proponents of each model to explain their answers to the class.
        • For homework, students had to identify and verify the correct response.
        • After discussing their research with some specific feedback, concluded lesson by explanation why some incorrect model were reasonable and reminded students how long it took to figure out what actually caused the seasons.
    • Step-by-Step Procedure:
      1. Identify most troublesome common misconceptions or preconceptions students bring to the course.
      2. Focus Misconception/Preconception check on most common or harmful preconceptions
      3. Create simple questionnaire to elicit beliefs related to list in step 2.
      4. Get another teacher to check questionnaire to make sure it’s helpful and not patronizing or threatening.
      5. Think of how you will respond to several outcomes of questions – strike out questions that you are comfortable responding to.
      6. Explain purpose of pre-assessment.  Let it be anonymous.  Explain how and when you will use the feedback gathered from it.
    • Analysis Tips:
      • Use responses to answer these questions
        1. What specific misconceptions do my have about course material that may interfere with their knowledge?
        2. How many students have these beliefs?
        3. How deeply embedded are these problematic beliefs?
      • Affinity group responses by type of response / misconception
      • Use Likert responses to get at question 3.
      • Also group Likert responses to identify –
        • strongly held correct ideas
        • loosely held correct ideas
        • strongly held incorrect ideas
        • loosely held incorrect ideas
    • Extension Tips:
      • Prior to answer questions, have students identify common misconceptions held by other people related to topic or field.
      • Have students come up with reasonable explanations for misconceptions.
      • Use same questionnaire as a post-assessment later in the term
    • Pros:
      • uncover likely barriers to learning early on
      • anonymity of responses will make students more likely to be truthful about what they know and don’t know
      • can generate sense of relief for not being the only one to have a misconception
      • develop students’ metacognition skills
    • Cons:
      • unlearning errors can be challenging, unpleasant
      • changes in ideas take time
    • Caveats:
      • thread lightly around sensitive issues to help students open up about their opinions
      • don’t use this strategy until a positive safe classroom culture is established


Knowing how to effectively gather and analyze assessment data related to students’ prior knowledge can help teachers tailor course materials to match students’ readiness levels.  Uncovering unhelpful beliefs can help students and teachers investigate the rationale for the truth (and falsehood) of these beliefs and create room in students’ knowledge structures for new ideas.


Preparation Steps
  • Analyze upcoming standards.  Identify key big ideas and possible misconceptions related to these.
  • Design questionnaires that are design to elicit ideas related to big ideas and misconceptions.
  • Build a positive safe culture that values using student feedback to make better instructional / learning decisions.
Early Implementation Steps
  • Implement prior knowledge questionnaires at the start of a course or unit.  Do NOT grade them.  Tip: Keep them anonymous.  Also see Step-by-Step Procedures above.
  • Analyze responses and use patterns in their responses to inform future instructional decisions.  See Analysis Tips above.
  • Share responses with students and explain how these will be used to change instructions and tips to improve student learning.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Use student data and feedback to design better questionnaires and refine upcoming projects and scaffolding activities.
  • Implement some of the Extension Tips above.
  • Have students conduct research on questionnaire questions and discuss their findings in class.



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