Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Design & Teach a Course

Recognize Who Your Students Are

Students are not only intellectual but also social and emotional beings, and all these dimensions interact to impact learning and performance. To plan an effective course, it is important to consider who our students are, taking into account their prior knowledge.

"We may exhibit an admirable command of content, and possess a dazzling variety of pedagogical skills, but without knowing what's going on in our students heads, that knowledge may be presented and that skill exercised in a vacuum of misunderstanding."
– Stephen D. Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher (2006)

Prior Knowledge

"[Students] come to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the environment and how they organize and interpret it. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge."
– Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, How People Learn (2000, p. 10)

New knowledge is built on existing knowledge. Thus, when you are planning a class it is important to determine what your students are likely to know coming into your course and (later in the planning process) how well they know it.

What your students know

If your course is part of a sequence of courses, it is a good idea to find out what material has been covered in the course preceding it. You can do this by talking to a colleague who has taught the preceding course, or asking for a copy of his/her syllabus, assignments, and/or exams. Pay attention not only to what topics have been covered but the extent to which students have been asked to apply particular skills and knowledge (for example, have they been required simply to identify theories or to do something more sophisticated, such as make predictions on the basis of different theoretical orientations? Have they been required simply to analyze aspects of stagecraft and lighting, or have they used these insights in creating designs of their own?). The extent to which students have been required to actively do something with what they have learned will determine how deeply they know it.

You might also talk to colleagues teaching "down-stream" courses (i.e., courses that come later in the sequence than your own) to determine what kinds of skills and knowledge they expect students to have leaving your course. This will help you determine the proper scope and pace of your own course.

Another good idea at the course planning stage is to check your students majors on the course roster, or, in the absence of a course roster, ask someone in the department about the kinds of students you are likely to have. If the majority of your students come from within your discipline, it might be reasonable to assume that they have certain kinds of background knowledge, skills and experience. On the other hand, if a large number of students come from outside your discipline, you might have to recalibrate. Finding out about your students majors in advance can also help you think about how to build effectively on their prior knowledge to make the material in your class relevant and engaging. For example, if a number of students in an anthropology class come from the design department, using examples and illustrations that relate to different cultural aesthetics or the use of objects in diverse cultural contexts will help students connect their disciplinary knowledge to the new material they are learning and to see its relevance to their own interests and future work.

How well they know it

New knowledge cannot be built effectively on a weak foundation, thus it is important to determine where students prior knowledge is "fragile", i.e., where it contains inaccuracies, naive assumptions, and/or misunderstandings of the contexts and conditions in which to apply particular skills. There are a number of ways to assess students prior knowledge. One easy way is to administer a simple diagnostic pretest during the first week of class. A well-designed pretest can identify areas of robust or weak understanding. If mastery of prerequisite skills is poor across the majority of the students, you may have to adjust the pace or scope of the course accordingly. If a small number of individuals lacks the necessary skills, this information can help you advise them appropriately, perhaps to seek outside tutoring or even, in some cases, to drop the class.

Another way to assess students prior knowledge early in the semester is to ask them to draw a concept map illustrating a key topic from your course (e.g., global climate change, Mexican immigration). A quick glance at the concept maps students draw can give you a good sense of how well students currently understand the issue and help you identify misconceptions and inaccuracies.

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Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L, & Cocking, R., eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.