Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students performed poorly on an exam.

Students lack pre-requisite knowledge and skills.

Even when students have effectively learned the new material being tested on an exam, they may perform poorly if relevant, pre-requisite knowledge is weak or lacking. For example, on a physics exam, students may have difficulty solving a problem mainly because they lack sufficient calculus skills. Indeed, even when students have pre-requisite skills accurately learned, their exam performance may still suffer if those pre-requisite skills are applied so laboriously that they take up too much time or cognitive resources to allow successful exam completion.


Assess and address students’ relevant pre-requisite knowledge.

Give students practice that hones the necessary prerequisite skills.

Assess and address students’ relevant pre-requisite knowledge.

To determine if your students’ poor performance can be attributed to weak or missing pre-requisite knowledge, it is first necessary to identify what pre-requisite skills were necessary for completing the exam. That is, try to approach the exam as a student would and analyze what pieces of knowledge or particular skills are necessary to solve the problems. Then, you can create and administer a prior knowledge assessment that tests this pre-requisite knowledge. (Because this step is often difficult for faculty who are experts in their area, we encourage you to consult with an Eberly Center colleague for assistance.) The results of the assessment may lead to different courses of action: you may identify common gaps in students’ knowledge that you choose to review with the whole class, or the results may help students identify their own gaps for self-remediation. In the latter case, an instructor’s role might include articulating the strategies students could take to address those gaps, including seeking help from Academic Development, attending supplemental instruction (SI) sessions when available, taking or re-taking a pre-requisite course, or even dropping your course until they are better prepared.

Give students practice that hones the necessary prerequisite skills.

Sometimes students are able to apply pre-requisite skills in isolation, but they are not proficient enough with those skills to apply them effectively in combination with the other knowledge they are learning in your course. In this case, students may need to strengthen the necessary pre-requisite skills. Assigning exercises that target not only accuracy but also speed and facility with the pre-requisite skills can help. In addition, it may be useful to assign more complex problems (specifically, problems that gradually increase in complexity) so students get practice applying their pre-requisite skills in combination.

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