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Home Classroom ActivitiesIdentifying Prior Knowledge
Identifying Students' Prior Knowledge

Research on learning suggests that in order to change the way students think, we have to identify and actively counteract their prior understandings.

  • Even after a year of college physics, many novice learners hold the non-Newtonian view that an upward force is exerted on an object when it is tossed into the air; gravity is acting on it only on the way down (Clement, 1982).
  • Another study showed how - despite some active learning techniques - students tend toward a biased assimilation of evidence, meaning that they weigh more heavily the evidence that agrees with their position. Twenty students were divided into small groups and asked to list arguments both for their side of a controversial issue and for the other side. The group work resulted in an increased number of arguments for both side but "despite the dramatic change in both the number and proportion of arguments offered on the opposing side, only 3 students changed their minds on the issue. For the remaining 17, the new information they retrieved had almost no effect on the confidence with which they held their initial position" (Kurfiss, 45).

Techniques for assessing prior understandings (adapted from Angelo and Cross)

  • 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 D2L), report the results and explain how those results will affect your role as a teacher and what they need to do as learners.
    Short example from Virginia Tech.

  • 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.
    Description and examples from Penn State.


Angelo, T., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Clement, J.J. (1982). Students' preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American journal of physics 50, 66-71.

Kurfiss, Joanne. (1988). Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities: ASHE-ERIC/Higher Education Research Report.