Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

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.