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NYC Helpline: How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Assessing Prior Knowledge  Lisa Peterson

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 goes.

Two 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 fall apart.

This 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.

Ways 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 a pulse. What does your heart look like? 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:

Creative Writing
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.

Anticipation Guide
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.

This 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.


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