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Background Knowledge Probe

Using Background Knowledge Probe activity to measure prior knowledge in a classroom
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.


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

  • There are no special requirements for this approach.


The following workflow is meant to guide how to facilitate a Background Knowledge Probe learning activity within a classroom.


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


  • Direct students to answer the questions presented through the survey or by using Top Hat.
  • Make a point of announcing that these probes are not tests or quizzes and are ungraded. Encourage students to give thoughtful answers to 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

  • None

Technical Documentation


Example 1

A Fundamentals of Electric Circuits professor wanted to determine what his students might already have learned — whether through coursework or on-the-job experience — about measuring current, voltage, and resistance.  To find out, he prepared a Background Knowledge Probe containing five illustrations representing the displays of the instruments:  voltmeter, ammeter, ohmmeter, deflection multimeter, and digital multimeter.  Each illustration indicated a different reading or readings through the pointer positions, settings, or digital readouts.  Students were asked to determine and write the readings for the five instruments shown. The responses indicated that most students were more familiar with digital instrument displays and that most 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 and vocabulary in their responses and that there was quite a range of prior knowledge. A few students had no idea how to respond; others got everything correct. He decides to start the next class with a small-group warm-up exercise. He assigns students to groups of four and gives them clean copies of the knowledge probe handout. Students have fifteen minutes to develop correct readings for all five instruments (Angelo 122-123).

Example 2

On the first day of the Survey of English Literature course,  the professor wanted to know how much exposure students had to Shakespeare's play. He prepared a Background Knowledge Probe activity that asked students to list the plays they knew.  Next to each play, they were to note whether they read it, saw it performed, or watched a movie based on it. The list from the activity was short and predictable — Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth. A few students had longer lists, while some had no entries. Most students were generally familiar with an abridged or dramatically altered version of the original plays. At the next class session, he shared the list and let them know he had substituted King Lear for Macbeth because many had already seen or read the latter. She also alerted students to the significant differences between the text they would read and the film versions they had watched (Angelo 122).


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

Keywordsbackground knowledge, prior knowledge, active learning pkDoc ID104169
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-07-20 15:22:35Updated2024-04-16 12:40:22
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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