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Background Knowledge Probe (ALC)

Active Learning

This KB document is part of a larger collection of documents on active learning activities that take place in Active Learning Classrooms (ALC). More Active Learning documents

Using background knowledge probe activities to check students' prior knowledge in an Active Learning Classroom (ALC).
Time and Effort
Instructor Prep Time Medium
Student Activity Time Low
Instructor Response Time Medium
Complexity of Activity Medium


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, at 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

  • Laptop, tablet, or mobile phone
  • Classroom with campus wireless connection


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


  • Focus questions on specific information or concepts students will need to know to succeed in subsequent assignments.
  • Prepare 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 Top Hat question set or create a Canvas survey.


  • Present the question.
  • Ask students at each table to agree on an answer for the table.
  • Direct one student to respond for the table.
  • Review the responses in class.


  • None

Accessibility and Room Considerations

  • None

Technical Documentation


Example 1

A Fundamentals of Electric Circuits professor wants to determine what his students might already have learned — whether through course work or on-the-job experience — about measuring current, voltage, and resistance.  To find out, he prepares a Background Knowledge Probe that contains five illustrations representing the displays of the following instruments:  voltmeter, ammeter, ohmmeter, deflection multimeter, and digital multimeter.  Each illustration clearly indicates a different reading or readings through the pointer positions and switch settings or digital readouts shown.  Using TopHat, students at each table are asked to determine and provide the readings for the five instruments shown. The responses indicate that most students were more familiar with digital instrument displays and that most of them had some idea of what the readings on at least one of these instruments meant. He also saw, however, that most students did not use standard electrical engineering notation in their responses and that there was quite a range of prior knowledge. A few students had no idea how to respond, and a few others got everything correct (Modified from Angelo 122-123).

Example 2

On the first day of the Survey of English Literature course, the professor wanted to get an idea of how much exposure students had to Shakespeare's plays. He prepared a Background Knowledge Probe activity. Using a Google Doc, she asked each stable to complete the survey and select the plays which they were familiar with. Next to each play, they were to note whether they had read it, had seen it performed, or had watched a movie based on it. The results from the activity were short and predictable — Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth. A few students had greater exposure, and some had no entries at all. After the activity, she shared the list and leads a discussion about the major differences between the text they would read and the film versions they had watched (Modified from Angelo 122-123).


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

Keywordsbackground knowledge probe, active learning classroom, prior knowledge, active learning classroomDoc ID118445
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-05-10 07:11 CSTUpdated2023-07-10 10:22 CST
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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