Explore potential strategies.
Students may lack the background knowledge to fully comprehend readings.
If students lack background knowledge necessary to understand a reading or subtleties within it they may appear not to have read carefully or at all. For example, a student who does not know something about the colonial history of Africa might fail to comprehend significant parts of an author’s argument about present-day Nigeria. Students may also get confused and give up on a reading that presumes background information they do not have.
Students from different cultural backgrounds (within the United States as well as internationally) may misapprehend readings because they misinterpret idiomatic phrases or do not understand key cultural references.
Explain to students (in broad strokes) what you expect them to know going into your course. State your expectations or requirements in your syllabus and reiterate them at the beginning of the semester. For example, an instructor in a course on U.S. labor history might tell students that (a) she expects them to know basic U.S. history and (b) they will be responsible for doing fact-finding on their own if they encounter references to historical events with which they are unfamiliar. The instructor in an Environmental Science course might tell students that they are responsible for knowing certain concepts from biology and should consider dropping the course if they do not.
Administer a short pre-test to assess the extent of students’ background knowledge in certain areas. Depending on what you discover—as well as the goals of your course and its place within the broader departmental curriculum—you can consider providing more (or less) background information in your lectures, directing students to materials they should read or practice on their own, or discouraging students from taking the course altogether.
Where possible, give students important background information about the readings in advance. If one reading, for example, centers on 21st-century reinterpretations of a 6th-century Middle Eastern war, you may need to fill students in about the war itself. Similarly, if a reading is a response to a classic piece of philosophy, students may need some background information about the work that inspired it.
It may not always be possible—or even desirable—to contextualize readings (you may, for example, want the students to guess the context themselves); however, if students are consistently misunderstanding a reading, consider providing more background.
It also isn’t always necessary for students to understand all aspects of a reading in order for the reading to accomplish your learning objectives. To prevent consternation and confusion among students when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts, consider telling them what they are not expected to know. For example, in a course on cross-cultural psychology, you might inform students that while they are expected to know the psychological principles and theories featured in readings, they do not have to know the anthropological terms and references. In a course on environmental statistics, you could tell students they will need only a rough grasp of the biological principles and should focus their attention on issues of statistical validity.
It is not always possible to anticipate where students lack critical background knowledge. To stay abreast of where these gaps in knowledge are, and to help your students develop meta-cognitive skills, ask them to note unfamiliar vocabulary or confusing references. Depending on the nature of the missing knowledge, you could instruct students to seek the answers on their own, to bring their questions to class or submit them in writing, or to consult you or a TA for explanations.
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