Teaching and Learning Resources

Assessing Students'
Prior Knowledge

Svinicki & McKeachie (2010) argue that the most important characteristic determining student learning is prior knowledge. Students come to a course or program with a wide range of pre-existing knowledge, as well as a set of beliefs, values and attitudes. Getting a sense of what your students know and can do when they come into a course or program can help you in determining what to teach and how to teach it.

Students tend to draw on what they already know or believe as they take in new information and concepts.  Because each student brings with them a unique, pre-existing knowledge structure, teaching something seemingly concrete could actually produce a variety of interpretations within a classroom.

An effective way of teaching students at any level is to determine and explicitly draw on students’ pre-existing knowledge and beliefs in order to help them develop new ideas, rather than expecting that students will simply abandon their initial ideas and beliefs. The following are examples of techniques to assess students’ prior knowledge both initially and throughout a course or program.

Techniques for assessing prior understandings (From: Angelo, T. & P. Cross. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.)

  • Background knowledge probe. Open the class by preparing two or three open-ended questions or ten to twenty multiple-choice questions that probe students' existing knowledge of that concept. As soon as possible (perhaps through Avenue to Learn), report the results and explain how those results will affect your role as a teacher and what they need to do as learners.
  • Misconception/preconception check. Identify some of the most common misconceptions about the course's subject, then create a simple questionnaire to elicit information about your students ideas or beliefs in these areas. Assure students that this assessment is ungraded and anonymous.


  • Minute paper. At the end of class, give students one minute (or two to five minutes) to write the answers to one or two questions. You can word these questions so that they will elicit misconceptions that persisted after the class discussion.

Refer also to Assessment, Student

Related Resources

Carnegie Mellon’s “How to Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge”  is an extensive resource that offers a variety of methods to gauge students’ prior knowledge at the beginning of a course or program.

Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A
Handbook for College Teachers 2nd ed.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.  Available in   CLL library Call number LB 2822.75 .A584C
Bransford, John. (2000). National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington: Natl. Acad. Available in CLL library. Call number    LB1060 H847 2000 and online http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853.html

Svinicki, M & W.J. McKeachie. (2010) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Strategies, Research and Theory for college and University Teachers. 13th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain. Enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. 1st ed.Virginia: Stylus, 2002. Available in CLL library. Call number LB 1057 .Z85 2002