How do you know if your students are ready to learn a new concept or skill? How do you know if your students have the prerequisite skills and prior knowledge of the topic they need before starting a new unit? In the return to in-person instruction, getting to know your students’ prior knowledge is more important than ever. Students may come to the classroom with gaps in their learning or poorly developed background knowledge on topics. Read on to discover how to assess students’ prior knowledge quickly and efficiently so that you can maximize learning the first week of the school year.
Why is Prior Knowledge Important?
Prior knowledge is any information that has been previously learned by a student both inside the classroom and from the world around them. This includes things such as facts, definitions, vocabulary, concepts, and skills. Activating prior knowledge is an integral part of the learning process because it allows students to access new material, make connections between new learning and prior learning, and better understand what they have learned. Without prior knowledge of a topic or concept, students may have difficulty participating in the lesson and understanding new material.
▶️ What Does This Look Like in Reading?
In reading, prior knowledge includes students’ background knowledge of the subject of a text as well as students’ vocabulary and mastery of the skills needed to fluently read and comprehend a text. Background knowledge is easy to assess through strategic questioning at the beginning of a lesson. While some students may have gaps in their background knowledge of a topic, the good news is it is relatively easy to supply background knowledge students may be missing. Two quick ways to do this are to watch a short video on the topic or to provide a few key facts about the topic prior to reading. Showing students pictures of a setting or historical figure is another quick and easy way to supply background knowledge.
To determine students’ prerequisite skills and readiness to learn in reading, you can use diagnostic reading assessments. I’ll dive deeper into the power of diagnostic assessments in the section below.
▶️ What Does This Look Like in Math?
In math, prior knowledge includes prerequisite skills, vocabulary, and background knowledge of topics that may pop up in word problems. Math vocabulary is relatively easy to teach students during a lesson. However, background knowledge is much sneakier in math than in other subjects. When a student lacks background knowledge related to a word problem it can appear that the student is struggling with mathematical thinking. What the student is actually struggling with is the background knowledge needed to comprehend the problem.
For example, a student that lives in an apartment building may lack the necessary background knowledge to understand a word problem asking students to determine how many feet of fencing is required to put a fence around a backyard. This word problem is asking students to calculate the perimeter of the backyard in order to determine the total amount of fencing needed for the project. However, the word problem doesn’t use the word perimeter. Instead, students will need to infer that the problem is about perimeter by visualizing the problem using their background knowledge of backyard fences.
The key to supporting students lacking background knowledge is to help students learn to use visualization. Visualization is a powerful strategy I plan to develop an entire post about on a later date.
4 Steps to Assessing Students’ Prior Knowledge
- Start with a Diagnostic Assessment
- Ask Strategic Pre-Planned Questions
- Use Student Surveys
- Analyze Student Work Samples
Start with a Diagnostic Assessment
One of the quickest and most efficient ways to assess your students’ prior knowledge is with a diagnostic assessment. A diagnostic assessment is an evaluation that helps teachers determine students’ strengths, needs, and readiness to learn content. Diagnostic assessments allow teachers to pinpoint learning gaps, create flexible groups for instruction, and accelerate learning by identifying student readiness.
In reading, I use diagnostic assessments to identify students’ strengths and needs in phonological awareness, decoding, high frequency word recognition, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. The toolkit linked above includes quick, easy-to-use assessments for each of these key components of reading instruction. Diagnostic reading assessments make it easy for you to form groups for reading instruction, plan lessons that meet students’ needs, identify gaps that need to be remediated, and identify areas for acceleration.
In math, I use diagnostic assessments to identify skill gaps in prerequisite skills taught in the prior grade and to determine mastery of the essential standards for the current grade at the end of the year. The toolkit linked above includes diagnostic math assessments for Kindergarten through Grade 5 as well as primary (K-2) and intermediate (3-5) assessments. Use these assessments to find out what your students already know and are ready to learn to accelerate your planning for the school year!
Ask Strategic Questions to Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge
One of the most effective ways to assess students’ understanding is by asking questions that reveal their prior knowledge and level of understanding of a concept. One type of questioning is called recall questioning. With this method, teachers ask students to recall facts and ideas they have previously studied. Teachers can use different methods to help students recall information. One method is to ask students to draw, list, or verbally explain what they know about the topic. Another method of recall questioning is to provide students with a list of statements and to ask students to mark the statements as “true” or “false”.
Another type of questioning is critical thinking questioning. To make the most of this method, ask pre-planned open-ended questions that require students to think critically about the material. Critical thinking questions ask students to analyze, evaluate, and create. An example of a critical thinking question that activates prior knowledge is: What is the difference between ____ and ____? This question asks students to analyze and draw connections between two topics.
▶️ Example Questions to Assess Prior Knowledge:
- What do you already know about ____?
- What do you think of when you hear ____?
- What do you remember about ____?
- What is the difference between ____ and ____?
- How does ____ connect with what we learned about ____?
- What are some examples of ____?
- What are some facts you already know about ____?
- What do you wonder about ____?
Use Surveys to Get to Know Students’ Preferences and Interests
Another way to assess students’ prior knowledge is through surveys. These surveys should be short and simple so that students will complete them without feeling pressured. They should also be designed to give teachers an idea of what students already know and how they prefer to receive instruction. Surveys are a great way to get to know students the first week of school! With student input from surveys, teachers can create student-centered classrooms and lessons.
Analyze Student Work Samples
Another way to assess students’ prior knowledge is by analyzing student work samples. Work samples are particularly effective in assessing students’ abilities in writing. One effective method for analyzing student work samples is to use a rubric to score the student’s work. Rubrics are tools that help teachers evaluate student work by providing a set of criteria for evaluating student performance. Teachers can then use these criteria to determine whether students have mastered a particular skill or not. Another method for analyzing student work samples is to conduct an error analysis. An error analysis is a method for carefully reviewing student errors to determine student misconceptions. Error analyses are commonly conducted in math to determine underlying areas of need, but can also be used effectively in reading by conducting running records.
What are your favorite ways to determine what students already know and ready to learn?
Looking for more teacher tips? Click here to read my End of Year Tips for Teachers
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