Other knowledge – from prior or current courses or from everyday life – can interfere with students’ ability to perform well in your course
Students come into your course with a vast array of knowledge that they have learned in other courses and through daily life. Thus, they are not coming to you as a “blank slate” and will bring this prior knowledge to bear on new information. If this prior knowledge is inaccurate, incomplete, or simply inappropriate for your current course, it can interfere with students’ learning in your course. For example, students in an American History course often come in with the belief that slavery was the cause of the civil war rather than the South’s attempt to secede from the Union. So, in teaching students about causal explanations, they refuse to accept the accurate and more complex explanation, reverting to their simplistic and long-held view. Similarly, many students come to college having learned to write the standard 5-paragraph essay and will try to apply this template to all of their writing tasks, even when it is inappropriate (e.g., lab reports, persuasive memo, case analysis).
A more complex example involves the complications that anthropology students face in learning the concept of cultural relativism, in which one tries to understand a community’s practices within the context of its culture rather than judge those practices based on the students’ own cultural beliefs and knowledge. First, it is very difficult for students to suspend their long-held beliefs about what is right and wrong—for example, when trying to understand the practice of infanticide in another culture. Second, when students are asked to write an anthropological argument on the practice of infanticide, they may revert to a different style of argument (e.g., persuasive argument) and write a paper that evaluates the practice rather than applying the concept of cultural relativism.
Administer to students a prior knowledge assessment that taps into how students perceive or misperceive common terms, methods, concepts, or technical language in your discipline. You can then use the results to identify areas of mismatch between students’ prior knowledge and what you aim to teach and address those areas before moving on. For example, concept inventories are assessments designed to gauge students’ self-reported level of understanding (e.g., familiarity, ability to use when cued, ability to apply appropriately, ability to explain to a peer). Such concept inventories can be adapted to test for students’ possible misconceptions.
Find out what is being taught in courses related to yours (including high school) so you are better informed regarding what knowledge students bring to your course. Speak to instructors of relevant courses to identify areas of match and mismatch in the use of terminology, notation, approach, and importance of different features (e.g., in physics emphasizing the direction of a force versus in statics the location of a force). In some cases, you may see areas of mismatch that can be easily made more consistent—for example, with terminology or notation changes. In other cases, there may be differences that are not just conventions but rather reveal different emphases across subdisciplines. In these cases, being aware of differences will enable you to indicate them to students so they can more easily see and use their relevant prior knowledge.
At the beginning of the course, explicitly cue students to relevant knowledge from other courses. As the semester progresses, students will view identifying relevant knowledge as part of the natural problem-solving process and hence you can reduce or eliminate your help in cueing them.
Don’t make assumptions about students’ knowledge of disciplinary norms (e.g., what an argument is in anthropology or what makes an effective lab report). For example, just because students have been reading papers in a given genre throughout the semester does not mean that students have inferred the unique features or structure of the genre, particularly to the level required to write such papers on their own.
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