The instructor’s work of facilitating students’ learning never ends. In order to facilitate learning, one of the fundamental principles instructors employ is understanding students’ prior knowledge. It is well known that students build on what they already know and have come to understand through formal and informal experiences. People develop attitudes and beliefs as they progress through life. For the instructor, it is important to assess such prior knowledge or attitudes and beliefs very early in the semester since the knowledge students possess may either promote or hinder their learning.  It is also important to assess prior knowledge and skills early since such information could be used to help foster student engagement and critical thinking in the course. 

Through assessments, the instructor will come to know the extent to which students’ prior knowledge is accurate or inaccurate. In the instances when  prior knowledge is inaccurate, instructors will need to spend some time helping students to come to terms with their misconceptions before they can go on to help the students build new knowledge.  Again, the ease or difficulty of such a task will lie in students’ making a conscious or unconscious decision to hold on to such misconceptions. In such a case, the inadequate and inaccurate prior knowledge will tend to hinder learning.  Therefore, as indicated earlier on, the instructor will benefit from spending some time to determine the extent and nature of students’ prior knowledge and skills.   

In their book “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smarter Teaching”, Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett and others (2010) discuss how faculty can gauge the extent and nature of students’ prior knowledge.  These strategies include;

  1. Talk to your colleagues. Consider talking to your colleagues who teach prerequisite courses that students are expected to complete. You may ask them about the contents that was covered, the type of assignments completed, the assignments students struggled to complete and why, the areas or topics students enjoyed, and so on.  For online instructors, one may consider reviewing the prior online course or the syllabus for the course for information such as list of textbooks, reading materials used, etc. The information gathered should help you know the content that was covered and the depth of coverage, as well as skills that were mastered. This information would help as you design instructional activities for your course.
  2.  Use low-stake assignment or quiz. To find out what prior knowledge students bring to your class you may consider giving a low-stake assignment or a quiz early in the semester.  Student’s performance on this kind of assessment will be a good indicator of the skills and knowledge they already possess.  Such assessments may include having students write an essay, take a multiple choice quiz, or complete a short answer quiz that examines students understanding of concepts and definition of terminologies that students are expected know.
  3. Self-assessment of prior knowledge.  Another efficient strategy for assessing students’ prior knowledge is to provide them with the opportunity to assess their own knowledge and skills. Such self-assessments should be low-stake and anonymous to encourage candid responses. The intention is to gain an overall idea of the range of skills and knowledge of your student and not to judge individual student’s performance.  Questions could focus on the prerequisite skills, knowledge and experiences expected of your students as well as the skills and knowledge that student will be expected to leave the course with. Students could be asked to rate themselves on a scale with items such as; 1= I have heard of the term, 2 = I can define the term, 3 = I can explain the term to a colleague, 4= I can use the term to solve a problem. Students’ responses should assist the instructor to plan appropriate instructional activities that could enhance students learning.

The above three examples are very quick and easy ways by which an instructor can assess students’ prior knowledge. The question now is what are some of the ways you have assessed students’ prior knowledge? I am very confident that we will all benefit from your contributions or experiences and will appreciate it if you could kindly share in this discussion.


Ambrose, S. A.,  Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman. M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.