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Assessing Prior Knowledge


Assessing prior knowledge can be helpful for adapting instruction as well as determining what, if any, supplemental instruction and resources may be needed. Prior knowledge assessments can be done at the beginning of the semester or conducted throughout the semester on a unit basis. See below for some tips on how to integrate prior knowledge assessment into your courses.

Tips for Integrating Prior Knowledge Assessment

As you consider your course, what major assignment types, important concepts, and key skills will students be working with throughout the semester? What prior knowledge is important for their success in your course? That information is going to help determine how you set up your assessment. For example, in a course where writing plays an important role, having students complete a writing diagnostic early on will provide insight into their abilities. In a STEM course that builds on foundational mathematical concepts, having students work problems based on those concepts as a diagnostic makes sense. In a course that focuses on research skills, testing students' ability to locate appropriate sources may be a useful diagnostic. Analyze your course outcomes and think through the prior knowledge and skills required to be successful in meeting those learning outcomes. This can also help you determine if a one-time assessment will work or if you should take more of a unit-based approach.

Part of getting a true feel for students' prior knowledge and skills is testing them in an authentic environment where they cannot access resources or look up answers to questions they do not know.  You can also emphasize the importance of answering what students know and that they can openly admit when they do not know the answer. The goal of this is to provide you with a starting point for instruction and to frame your expectations reasonably.

If you were to grade the prior knowledge assessment for accuracy, you'd be adding some unncessary stress onto your students. They may cram for the assessment, which would not provide an accurate representation of their true knowledge retention. Instead do not grade the assessment or only grade it for completion.

Some students may not understand why you are conducting the assessment. Be transparent and explain the purpose. Indicate that the results not only inform you about how prepared they are, but the results should also inform students about necessary steps they may need to take to be successful in your course. For example, if they've forgotten several prerequisite concepts, they may need to complete some supplemental instruction or seek out tutoring. Asking students to reflect on their results and make a plan for the semester can promote positive learning and help-seeking strategies.