Background Knowledge Probe in Large Courses (Remote Instruction)

Facilitating Background Knowledge Probes in large classes during remote instruction

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

ExampleUse 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 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 in large courses within a remote learning environment.


  • 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 student may struggle to answer.
  • Create questions to present in synchronously online.
  • Create a Blackboard Collaborate Ultra session in which the activity will take place. If your class enrollment is over 250, you will need to set up your session for a Large Scale Session (250+) under Session Setting.

Online (Synchronous)

  • Direct students to the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra 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 Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. 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 what 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 results of the survey to direct your lecture or discussion to students' gaps in knowledge and misperceptions.


  • Review responses and draw conclusions on students' gaps in understanding.

Access and Accessibility Considerations

  • Be aware that some students might not have the 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.

See Also: