Assessing Prior Knowledge Lisa
You are excited to begin your new unit on Westward Expansion.
Teams of students will play the part of pioneers in a simulation
of life on the Oregon Trail. Their first activity will be to examine
a list of actual supplies available to early pioneers and to choose
the ones they would like to take. You can't wait to see how it
periods later, you're in despair. Your students have no idea who
pioneers were, let alone what they might need. The most popular
item on the list is "hoe,"
which elicits gales of laughter until you explained that it actually
is a farming implement. In frustration, you watch your activity
scenario can happen to teachers at any time in their careers,
but it certainly is more common with teachers just starting out.
New teachers are less aware of what typical students in their
schools are likely to know. However, you can minimize the chances
of this scenario happening to you by assessing your students'
prior knowledge. If you find out beforehand what your students
already know about a topic, you can focus your instruction where
the students need it. As an added bonus, if you take the time
to share information as a class, then everyone can start out with
a similar knowledge base.
to assess prior knowledge include:
As a class, you complete a chart about the topic to be studied.
First, you elicit what the kids KNOW, and then you list what they
WANT to know. At the conclusion of the unit, or each time you
explore a major concept, you chart what they LEARNED.
Example of a K-W-L chart about the heart:
| We know...
|| We want to know...
|| We learned...
| The heart is a muscle.
|| What causes a heart attack?
|| A heart attack is caused
by damage to the muscle.
| The heart pumps blood.
|| How big is your heart?
|| Your heart is as big
as your fist.
| Your heartbeat makes
|| What does your heart
|| Your heart has 4 chambers.
You write the topic to be studied in the center of a circle
or square. Then you ask students what they know about the topic,
and write the information on lines that extend out from the center.
Example of a web about the heart:
You can simply ask students to write down what they know about
a topic, but I find that they often respond with, "I don't
know anything." It is less threatening
if you can frame the question in a way that allows for creativity.
For example, instead of asking students what they know about the
digestive system, you could ask them to write a description of
what they think is inside their stomach right now, or you could
ask them to describe the journey of a piece of hamburger as it
goes through their body.
You can ask students to represent their ideas about a particular
topic in a drawing. This works well for younger students, or even
for older students because it offers a quick and visual way to
share information. Before beginning a unit on Native Americans,
I asked my seventh graders to work in groups to draw their idea
of a typical Native American community. At the end of the unit,
we compared their drawings with what they had learned.
You can give your students a preliminary survey, asking them
to identify statements that they agree or disagree with. This
strategy works well for older students when studying a controversial
topic. For instance, you might start a unit about drugs and alcohol
with a survey of your students' attitudes about these topics.
Another form of anticipation guide asks students to identify statements
as fact or fiction. This type of guide works well for subjects
about which many students have misconceptions. For example, you
could also start a drug and alcohol unit with a quiz that asks
students to decide if certain widely held beliefs about drinking
and drug use are true or false. In my social studies class, I
knew that many of my students would have heard common myths about
Christopher Columbus, so I began a unit about him with this quiz [sample
quiz, PDF format], which was designed to pique their
interest in the real history of Columbus.
list represents just a few ways that you can assess your students'
prior knowledge. No matter how you choose to do it, however, your
instruction will be more effective if you take the time to learn
what your students already know.