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Background Knowledge Probe in Large Courses (online)

Using Background Knowledge Probes activity to measure prior knowledge in large online classes
Time and Effort
Instructor Prep Time Medium
Student Activity Time Low
Instructor Response Time Medium
Complexity of Activity Medium


Background Knowledge Probe collects 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. In large courses (150 +), it can be difficult to facilitate active learning. This document walks you through planning and implementing this approach in your large course.

Example: Use polls to ask questions that review the lecture's main ideas. This activity can facilitate the collection of student answers, capture gaps in knowledge, and facilitate deeper discussions.


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 should already know about a topic.

What students will need


The following workflow is meant to guide how to facilitate a Background Knowledge Probe learning activity in large courses within an online learning environment.


  • Focus questions on specific information or concepts students need to know to succeed in subsequent assignments.
  • Prepare open-ended, short-answer, and multiple-choice questions that probe students’ existing knowledge of that concept, subject, or topic. Ask at least one item that most students can answer correctly and at least one that students may struggle to answer.
  • Create questions to present synchronously online.
  • Create a Zoom session in which the activity will take place.

Online (Synchronous)

  • Direct students to the Zoom session during scheduled class time.
  • Present the question to students using one of these approaches:
    • For simple questions, you can use the Polling features in Zoom. The question can be created just before the class starts. Only one question can be created at a time. If you have teaching assistants in the session, they can create the question as you introduce the topic. Multiple Choice and Yes/No Choices.
    • If you have more complex questions, need different question types, or want to have questions created before the start of class, you can use Top Hat to present questions.
  • Give the students time to reflect and respond, then review the responses.

Online (Asynchronous)

  • Direct students to an anonymous survey using the Canvas Quizzes tool after they complete an activity and before a synchronous lecture or discussion.
  • Provide a deadline that gives you enough time to review the results. Use the survey results to direct your lecture or discussion to students' gaps in knowledge and misperceptions.


  • Review responses and identify students' gaps in understanding.

Access and Accessibility Considerations

  • Some students might not have the network bandwidth to participate in synchronous sessions. Make sure students turn off their cameras to reduce bandwidth. Students can also use the dial-in phone connection for audio instead of their network connection.
  • 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.

Keywordsprior knowledge, backgroundDoc ID103599
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-03 13:14:52Updated2024-04-16 12:40:22
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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