Coronavirus Response – Resources for Educators
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High Leverage Teaching Practices for Remote Teaching

Eliciting Prior Knowledge

In-Depth Analysis
Prepared by Raffaella Borasi, Center for Learning in the Digital Age

Use this webpage as a resource to inform the design of specific learning activities aiming at eliciting your students’ prior knowledge. While created specifically for online/remote settings, many of the considerations reported here are applicable to face-to-face instruction as well.

Watch VIDEO as introduction

Explore by clicking on “+” across the page

Plan implementations of this practice (using the Summary Handout)

Reflect on your implementations (using Journal Template)

(If desired) Add to the In-depth Analysis and Summary Handout

Research on how people learn has pointed out the importance of building on students’ prior knowledge – but eliciting that knowledge may be challenging, especially if you are teaching remotely and cannot easily observe students’ reactions or ask impromptu questions.  On the other hand, online tools can provide powerful new ways to both elicit and record your students’ prior knowledge, which will be useful regardless of your teaching context.

  • Helping students activate relevant prior knowledge and be more ready to use/build on that knowledge for a learning activity
  • Enabling each student to benefit from other peers’ prior knowledge
  • Helping teachers identify common misconceptions, and thus better plan instruction that can address them
  • Helping teachers identify common misconceptions, and use them to create surprise that may increase students’ interest in the topic
  • Helping teachers identify students who may need additional support/ scaffolding
  • Students may try to tell the teacher what they think s/he wants to know:
    • Elicit prior knowledge at the very beginning of a module, before introducing any related content
    • Word your prompts carefully to avoid “leading questions”
    • Don’t assign grades to tasks intended to elicit prior knowledge
    • Keep replies anonymous
  • Students may not feel “safe” about sharing their prior knowledge
    • Don’t assign grades to tasks intended to elicit prior knowledge
    • Keep replies anonymous
    • Set conducive classroom norms and develop trust through initial low-stakes activities
  • The way you choose and word your prompts will be critical to the success of the activity
  • Creating a record of the prior knowledge elicited is valuable, as it will allow students to revisit it at the end of a module/unit, and thus be able to recognize and better appreciate what they learned as a result of that module/unit
  • Word your prompts carefully and keep them open-ended, so as to avoid “leading” questions
  • Don’t assign a grade, so students will feel “safer” in sharing what they do not know
  • To spark interest in the topic, whenever possible elicit and show a diversity of responses
  • To show learning/ growth, create and revisit records at the end of the unit/module

Summary Handout (PDF) (Word)– 1-page summary you can print out and use as reference

Journal Template (PDF) (Word)– editable document to record your experiences with this practice

In-depth Analysis (PDF) (Word)– Document version of the content of this page, which you can personalize if you wish by adding your own notes

Key instructional decisions

(click on each item to show options, along with their pros & cons)

WHEN

Advantages Limitations
  • Gives time to the teacher to process the information thus gathered, and possibly make changes in his/her plan if needed
  • Doesn’t take up class/ synch time
  • “Activation” of relevant prior knowledge will be less immediate
Advantages Limitations
  • Allows the student to immediately activate (and use) the relevant prior knowledge
  • May feel less like an assessment and more as part of the learning process – and thus help with “safety” concerns
  • Gives little time to the teacher to make adjustments in his/her plan if needed

Level of PRIVACY

Advantages Limitations
  • Students will benefit from each other’s prior knowledge
  • Instructor will know individual students’ responses
  • Some students may take the task more seriously
  • Some students may not feel “safe”
  • Some students may try to tell what they think the teacher wants to hear
Advantages Limitations
  • Some students may feel “safer” by not having to share with peers
  • Instructor will know individual students’ responses
  • Some students may take the task more seriously
  • Some students may still not feel “safe”
  • Some students may try to tell what they think the teacher wants to hear
  • Students will not benefit from each other’s prior knowledge
Advantages Limitations
  • All students will feel “safe”
  • Students will benefit from each other’s prior knowledge
  • No accountability on the part of individual students
  • Teacher will not be able to know where each student is
Advantages Limitations
  • All students will feel “safe” and will be most honest
  • It will still allow each student to activate relevant knowledge
  • Teacher will not be able to learn from it
  • Students will not benefit from each other’s prior knowledge

RECORDS created

Advantages Limitations
  • Each student can late revisit his/her own starting point
  • Teacher can revisit each student’s record, and use it as a baseline for assessing what the student learned
  • May take extra time for each individual student
  • May feel more intimidating to students
Advantages Limitations
  • Can be revisited at the end to see how the class as a whole progressed
  • When using certain online tools, it may take little time to create such record
  • Cannot be used to evaluate individual learning by either teacher or student
  • May take some extra time and effort during the activity (but likely not much)
Advantages Limitations
  • Takes the least amount of time
  • Feels “safest” for the student
  • Can still activate prior knowledge
  • Neither teacher nor students have a record to revisit later

Useful online tools

  • Any Learning Management Systems (such as Schoology, Google Classrooms, Canvas, Blackboard) has built-in functions that allow students to:
    • submit an electronic copy of their work that it is accessible just to the instructor; this ensures each student’s prior knowledge to remain private,while also automatically creating an individual record that both teacher and student can revisit later;
    • take an online quiz or test – which can once again be shared only with the instructor, while also creating an individual record;
    • post their work in a discussion boards, so it can be publicly shared, while also creating an individual record.

    In most cases, LMSs allows for multiple types of artifacts in addition to typed text (including videos, voice recordings, digital photos, etc.).

Even if your institution has not invested in a Learning Management System, there are stand-alone apps (such as Padlet and Flipgrid) that allow students to post their individual reflection, journal, or other artifact, in a kind of online discussion board -so they are publicly accessible to the rest of the class, and can be revisited later.  In addition to written text, students may be given the option to post a short video or voice message.

Using an online survey (whether within a Learning Management System, or through stand-alone apps like Survey Monkey) will allow you to collect students’ responses to questions eliciting prior knowledge in a way that allows anonymity, as well as easy and quick ways to get a collective record.  Depending on the system, as the instructor you may or may not be able to also access individual student responses.

There are a number of electronic polling tools available (such as Poll Everywhere, or features built in synchronous session platforms such as Zoom) that will allow you to quickly set up an anonymous poll during a synch session, have students respond in the moment, and then quickly create a collective record that can be immediately shared with students.

Platforms like Zoom  or Google Meet allow students to share their prior knowledge orally during an online class session – even within a smaller group (thus providing a higher level of privacy than sharing synchronously to the entire class) if the platform allows for break-out rooms.  Collective records of the sharing could be kept by having a note-taker posting notes in a Padlet or Google doc.

There are a number of apps (like Kahoot and Quizzlet, just to mention a few) that allow the instructor to easily set up online quizzes and tests, and then create a collective summary of responses that can be shared with the class.  These tools can also be used as a form of pre-test to elicit student prior knowledge, with the added advantages of being able to share information about students’ prior knowledge anonymously, create a collective record that be revisited later, and also have an individual record for the instructor to evaluate.

Options worth considering

(click on each item for comments about that option)

  • Every student will respond individually, and thus have a voice
  • Anonymous, so students will feel safe to share what they do not know or are concerned about
  • Teacher will not know where each student stands
  • Allows to collect and share at least some “collective” results, while keeping individual contributions anonymous
  • The collective record may be publicly revisited later as needed
  • Private, shared only with the instructor
  • Format allows for a greater variety of tasks and questions than a survey
  • Will help the teacher get a detailed “baseline” for each student 
  • Students will likely take it more seriously than a survey
  • Because it is ungraded, students will feel more “safe” to share what they do not know (and may still have some concern even if ungraded)
  • Students can get individualized feedback from the teacher
  • Could be done at the beginning of a class, but if done online it will save precious synchronous time
  • Private, shared only with the instructor
  • Every student will respond individually, and thus have a voice
  • Needs to be much more open-ended than a pre-test, so it may not get to specifics about each student prior knowledge, but on the other hand may reveal some other important things
  • Provides an individual record for student and instructor to revisit later (but not a collective/public one)
  • Every student will respond individually, and thus have a voice
  • Publicly shared – so students will benefit from other peer’s prior knowledge, but may also feel less “safe”
  • Needs to be much more open-ended than a pre-test or survey, so it may not get to specifics about each student prior knowledge, but on the other hand may reveal some other important things
  • Provides an individual and collective record for student and instructor to revisit later
  • Every student will respond individually, and thus have a voice
  • Anonymous, so students will feel safe to share what they do not know or are concerned about
  • Teacher will not be able to know what each student knows
  • Aggregated class results can be shared immediately – and possibly used to create conflicts that may generate curiosity in the topic
  • Can be “controlled”/ facilitated by the teacher (unless it takes place in small groups/ breakout rooms)
  • Allows for students to build on each other’s contributions
  • Not every student will be able to participate
  • There will not be a collective record to get back to and revisit, unless some kinds of notes are taken during the event and saved
  • Could be done both synchronously or asynchronously
  • Every student will respond individually, and thus have a voice
  • Publicly shared – so students will benefit from other peer’s prior knowledge, but may also feel less safe
  • The information gathered may be less specific and more indirectly related, but it is also likely to be more authentic, as it will feel less like an assessment and thus students may be more open
  • More indirect, but perhaps the most effective way to figure out what students already know and can do
  • Most effective to activate prior knowledge needed to build on for the learning activity to follow
  • Difficult for the teacher to capture information for each individual student
  • The assigned task needs to be sufficiently open-ended to allow for many solutions at various levels of complexity