Pre Course Assessment Essay

Assessing Prior Knowledge

Students come to the classroom with a broad range of pre-existing knowledge, skills, beliefs, and attitudes, which influence how they attend, interpret and organize in-coming information.  How they process and integrate new information will, in turn, affect how they remember, think, apply, and create new knowledge.  Since new knowledge and skill is dependent on pre-existing knowledge and skill, knowing what students know and can do when they come into the classroom or before they begin a new topic of study, can help us craft instructional activities that build off of student strengths and acknowledge and address their weaknesses.

Once prior knowledge and skill is assessed, there is a range of potential responses, depending upon the type of course, the uniformity of results, and the availability and type of supplemental materials and alternatives.  For example, if a majority of the class possesses misconceptions or weak understanding of a concept that you viewed as a critical prerequisite, you may decide to include covering it in class, provide a supplementary session on it, or provide links to materials for students to engage with on their own. Similarly, if most students demonstrate proficiency in a skill you were planning to cover, you may decide to drop it and replace it with another skill that they have not yet developed, or adjust the level of complexity or time you spend on it.  Individual students lacking many of the prerequisite skills and knowledge could be encouraged to take prerequisite courses or be forewarned that they need to develop proficiency in areas on their own if they are to succeed in the course.  Thus assessing prior knowledge can enable both the instructor and the student to allocate their time and energies in ways that will be most productive.

Examples of Methods for Assessing Prior Knowledge and Skills

There are several different methods to assess pre-existing knowledge and skills in students.  Some are direct measures, such as tests, concept maps, portfolios, auditions, etc, and others are more indirect, such as self-reports, inventory of prior courses and experiences, etc.  Below are links to some methods that instructors at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere have employed.

Concept Inventories

Concept inventories are multiple choice or short answer tests that target fundamental concepts within a domain. These tests are designed to uncover systematic misconceptions.

  • Example 1: Mechanics This link contains sample items from the Mechanics Baseline Test (Hestenes & Wells, 1992).  The test is designed for students who have received some formal instruction on mechanics and is meant to assess conceptual understanding, not quantitative skills.
  • Example 2: Statics This link contains sample items from a Statics Inventory developed by Paul Steif, Carnegie Mellon.

Concept maps

Concept map activities can reveal the underlying structure or organization of students knowledge of a concept or constellation of concepts. These are very helpful when the kinds of causal theories and relations among ideas are critical to them understanding the course materials.

Self-Assessment Probes

Self-assessment probes are indirect methods of assessment that ask students to reflect and comment on their level of knowledge and skill across a range of items.  These items can include knowledge and skills that are prerequisites for the course as well as items that will be addressed in the course.


For me examples are like pictures; worth a 1,000 words. In last week’s post I wrote about the need to intervene in the development of student self-assessment skills, leaving the process less to chance and making it more the result of purposeful intervention. At a recent Teaching Professor Workshop, I saw an assignment that illustrates that kind of intervention. It was from a 100-level, Introduction to U.S. Government course, but is adaptable to any course. The assignment has two parts and they are the first and last pieces of work students complete in the course.

First Assignment – Personal Goals Statement
Prepare a paper (at least 750 words) that identifies your personal goals for this course. This statement should be specific and detailed. The paper should also contain a description of how you plan to meet your goals. If it helps, you are welcome to set weekly goals and a time schedule. You should do whatever will help you think through why you are taking this particular course and how it fits in with your overall learning goals.

Last Assignment – What Have You Learned from the Class?
Write a self evaluation paper (at least 750 words) in which you analyze how well you met your personal goals for the course. If your goals changed, discuss how and if unforeseen goals emerged, describe what they were. Conclude the paper by assigning yourself an overall-grade based on your performance in the course. That grade will constitute 10 of the 30 points available for this assignment.

What a great way to help students start the course thinking about how it might be relevant to them. The instructor of this course reports that many students have personal goals related to grades. He understands that and accepts it. His goal is to help students see that there is more to the course than just a grade—that the content is meaningful and useful independent of the grade.

I don’t think many students think in terms of specific learning goals. For many, doing so will probably start out feeling like just another one of those required assignments, but having to come up with goals is a useful exercise, even if at that time students aren’t all that committed to their goals. Beyond goals, you could ask student to identify two or three things they’d like to learn in the course. You might need to explain that other than learning things related the content, they might want to develop a learning skill; like how to write better, or how to ask questions, or how to construct an argument.

You could follow up after the first paper has been submitted by sharing two or three learning goals you have for students. You may even want to share a learning goal you’ve set for yourself, such as how to use a particular instructional strategy. Discussion of individual and course goals should happen regularly during the course. If what’s happening in class one day directly relates to a student goal, you could point that out. After providing feedback to the class on a set of assignments, you might ask them what progress they think they are making toward various learning goals. Don’t expect a vibrant discussion the first time you ask, as this is not a question students are used to answering. Yet even brief mentions of goals will remind students that goals should be a part of their thinking about this course.

The real value of the assignment is the final paper where students return to their goals and assess how well they reached them. You could prompt students to provide examples illustrating how their goals were achieved. If a goal hasn’t been reached, there needs to be a discussion of why. Ask if they were starting the course over, would they set the same goals or others?

Many different iterations of the assignment are possible. In a variety of forms, it’s an assignment that develops self-assessment skills by challenging students to make the course meaningful to them. Courses should not be something instructors do unto students. In any learning endeavor, students should have goals. They should be able to articulate what they hope to take from the experience. Here’s an assignment that provides the opportunity to develop those skills.

What are some ways you help your students create goals and assess their progress? Please share in the comment box below.

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Tagged with assessment strategies, assessment techniques, assignment strategies, informal self-assessment, self-assessment

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