Background Knowledge Probe

Facilitating Background Knowledge Probe active learning activities in physically-distanced learning spaces

Time and Effort

Instructor Prep TimeMedium
Student Activity TimeLow
Instructor Response TimeMedium
Complexity of ActivityMedium


Background Knowledge Probe is designed to collect feedback on students’ prior learning, including knowledge or beliefs that may hinder or block further understanding. Students complete a short survey prepared by the instructor at the beginning of a course, the start of a new unit or lesson, or before introducing a new topic.


Use it when you want...

  • To identify the most effective starting point and level for a given lesson,
  • To identify gaps in students' foundational knowledge around which you will be building future activities,
  • To focus students’ attention on critical material,
  • To provide a preview of the content that is to come, or
  • To review content they already should know about a topic.

What students will need


The following workflow is meant as guidance for how you can facilitate a Background Knowledge Probe learning activity within a classroom with a physical distancing layout.


  • Focus questions on specific information or concepts students will need to know to succeed in subsequent assignments.
  • Prepare open-ended questions, short-answer questions, and multiple-choice questions that probe students’ existing knowledge of that concept, subject, or topic. Ask at least one item that most students will be able to answer correctly, and at least one that students may struggle to answer.
  • Create Top Hat questions to present in class.


  • Direct students to answer the questions presented using Top Hat with their laptops/mobile phones.
  • Make a point of announcing that these probes are not tests or quizzes and are ungraded. Encourage students to give thoughtful answers that will help you make effective instructional decisions.
  • Review the responses in class.


  • Review responses and draw conclusions.
  • Communicate the results at the next class by telling them how that information will affect what you do as an instructor and how it should affect what they will do as learners.

Accessibility and Room Considerations

  • Classroom furniture is not to be rearranged to facilitate activities. If you need a different general assignment classroom to meet your instructional needs, contact your curricular representative.
  • If students are to move around the room during an activity, consider the mobility, location, equipment, and furniture needs of all students.
  • The physical distance between students (particularly in large lecture halls) may make it difficult for students to hear one another when they are asked to speak.
  • This same physical distance may increase the noise level in the room as students try to speak to one another. This noise level may cause issues for some students. To this end, it is recommended that group size be limited to pairs (ideally) or triads at most. Activities requiring larger group sizes should utilize text-based chat solutions like those found in Zoom.
  • The technologies recommended here should meet most campus accessibility requirements. However, you should check with the McBurney Disability Resources Center for guidance on any specific accommodations for your students.

Technical Documentation


Angelo, Thomas A.and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: a Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass, 1993. pp 121-125.

See Also:

Keywords:background knowledge, prior knowledge, active learning, remote instruction, physical distance   Doc ID:104169
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Remote Instruction
Created:2020-07-20 15:22 CDTUpdated:2021-06-29 09:49 CDT
Sites:Remote Instruction
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