Background Knowledge Probe (classroom)

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Facilitating Background Knowledge Probe active learning activities in a classroom

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

  • No special requirements for this approach.


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


  • 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 a paper survey, an online, survey, or present your open-ended question on the screen.


  • Direct students to answer the questions presented through the survey.
  • 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

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   Doc ID:104169
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2020-07-20 14:22 CSTUpdated:2021-08-20 13:19 CST
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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