Background Knowledge Probe

Active learning

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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 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 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 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

  • 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.  Students are asked to determine and write out 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 ad 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; a few 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 come up with 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 get an idea of how much exposure students had to Shakespeare's play. He prepared a Background Knowledge Probe activity that asked students to list the plays which they were familiar with.  Next to each play, they were to note whether they read it, seen 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 at all. In general, most students were 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 have already seen or read the latter. She also alerted students to the major 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.

See Also:

Keywords:background knowledge, prior knowledge, active learning pk   Doc ID:104169
Owner:Timmo D.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2020-07-20 15:22 CDTUpdated:2023-07-19 09:20 CDT
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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