prior knowledge


Instructor Preparation Time Medium
Student Response Time Low
Instructor Analysis Time Medium
Large Classroom Considerations No special considerations
Complexity of Activity Medium


Background Knowledge Probe is designed to collect feedback on students’ prior learning, including knowledge or beliefs that may hinder or block further understanding. Students complete a short survey prepared by the instructor at the beginning of a course, the start of a new unit or lesson, or before introducing a new topic.


  • To identify the most effective starting point and level for a given lesson,
  • To identify gaps in students’ foundational knowledge around which you will be building future activities,
  • To focus students’ attention on critical material,
  • To provide a preview of the content that is to come, or
  • To review content they already should know about a topic.
Focus questions on specific information or concepts students will need to know to succeed in subsequent assignments.
Prepare open-ended questions, short-answer questions, and multiple-choice questions that probe students’ existing knowledge of that concept, subject, or topic. Ask at least one item that most students will be able to answer correctly, and at least one that student may struggle to answer.
Create a paper survey, an online survey, or decide to write your open-ended questions on the board in class.
Direct students to answer the survey in class or direct them to an online survey.
Make a point of announcing that these probes are not tests or quizzes and are ungraded. Encourage students to give thoughtful answers that will help you make effective instructional decisions.
Collect the responses if the survey occurs in class, or communicate due date if completed outside of class.
Review responses and draw conclusions.
Communicate the results at the next class by telling them how that information will affect what you do as an instructor and how it should affect what they will do as learners.


Angelo, Thomas A.and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: a Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, 1993. pp 121-125.