How do I find out what my students already know?

Knowing what your students know enables you to design your teaching based on students’ understanding. It can also inform you about the effects of your teaching before the results of final assessment are in (when it is  too late to adapt your teaching!). Yet, how can you tell what your students are thinking?

Getting started

Below are three examples of teaching and learning activities that activate and explicate students’ (prior) understanding. Using them at the start of a lesson or course helps determine prior knowledge and understanding and activates their learning; using them later on is more informative about the effects of your teaching.

Quiz- Quizzing students, for instance with a series of multiple choice questions or statements, is a fast way of determining students’ understanding. Offline quizzes can use answer options as raising hands, standing up or moving to different corners. Several interactive digital Apps (e.g., PresentersWall) offer more options, including voting, rating, or open questions. Students vote using their own phone, tablet or laptop.

Mindmap – Asking students to draw a mindmap about a central concept or question, visualising (hierarchical) relations between the central concept and related ones. It informs you about their understanding and activates their learning. Depending on their purpose mindmaps can be done in class or as preparation, by hand or online, individually or in groups. You can also ask students to continuously update the mindmap as they progress through the course, challenging them to directly link course content to their developing understanding.

Exam questions – Developing examination questions and answer models is a task usually reserved for lecturers, but when you ask students to do so, it requires them to think about the essential aspects of the course content,  activating their learning. The wording and level of the students’ questions (e.g. asking for (rote)memorisation, application, or understanding of course material) also informs you about students’ expectations in terms of the level of required understanding. Using one or more of the best questions in the actual examination is motivating for students and saves you work.