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Methods for Assessing Students' Prior Knowledge & Skills

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Before beginning instruction, teachers should use different assessments to determine what their students know about a particular topic. This lesson discusses the importance of these assessments and gives examples that are commonly used in the classroom.

The Importance of Prior Knowledge

Unless you are really into neuroscience and have done a lot of research on the subject, you would likely have a difficult time keeping up with a conversation about the role dendrites and axons play in cognitive development. You would only be able to participate in and contribute to the conversation after learning the basics of the neuron and how it works in memory and the brain. Prior knowledge, an important aspect in education, refers to the basic knowledge students have about a topic before it is taught in the classroom.

If students do not have a basic understanding of the concepts being taught in their classrooms, or if they have a blurred understanding, they can't keep up with instruction and will easily fall behind. For example, if little Annie comes to kindergarten knowing the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make, she'll have a much higher success rate than little Ben, who doesn't know his letters yet. Even worse, if Ben has a misunderstanding about the alphabet, he may become even more confused as the teacher begins instruction.

Assessing Prior Knowledge

When students have prior knowledge about a topic, they are able to make connections to new content more easily, and can understand and remember information more successfully. Both the teacher and the students benefit when teachers assess their students' prior knowledge. Teachers are able to form instruction based on what students know and need to know, and students learn what is necessary to succeed.

Luckily for Annie and Ben, their teacher, Carlos, knows the importance of assessing prior knowledge. He understands that there are many ways to assess pre-existing knowledge and skills in students. Some are direct measures, such as tests, concept maps, and portfolios, and others are more indirect, such as self-reports, inventory of prior classes, and experiences. Let's take a look at how these work.

Direct Assessments for Prior Knowledge

Let's say Carlos is beginning a science unit on states of matter. He can use multiple methods to assess his students' prior knowledge in this area. Some of these methods are direct, which means they rely on factual data. They include:

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