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If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the student already knows.  Ascertain this and teach him accordingly. -Ausubel, 1978

Pre-AssessmentProof Points

Asking students to explore personal beliefs, attitudes, past experiences, and current understandings is an essential precursor to effective teaching and learning.  What is already known or felt largely shapes how any individual will interact with a new learning situation.   When teachers give students the opportunity to explore their prior knowledge and beliefs and then thoughtfully look and listen at what is revealed they are gathering information for responsive instruction.  This style of teaching intentionally connects what students already know with the desired outcomes.

Approaches to investigating prior knowledge vary from time-intensive methods such as interviews and think-aloud to the quick, practical, and easy to implement strategies identified below.  Each explores pre-existing understanding from a unique perspective.  Regardless of the method used to activate and probe for prior knowledge, the important thing is that gaps in understanding and misconceptions are revealed; the two major targets of instructional planning.


Anticipation Guide (individual)
Similar to a pre-post test, this prior knowledge task asks students to agree or disagree with a series of topic related statements.  It can be repeated after an instructional sequence to identify changes in student understanding.

Card Sort
A Card Sort is a variation of the traditional matching worksheet. This Card Sort process includes the added feature of requiring participants to rank items before completing the sort. This procedure is a kinesthetic and effective way to stimulate focused student dialogue.
Card Sort Template

Carousel Brainstorm (group)
Chart papers containing statements or issues for student consideration are posted at strategic locations around the classroom. Groups of students brainstorm at one station and then rotate to the next position where they add additional comments.  When the carousel “stops” the original team prepares a summary and then presents the large group’s findings.  A Carousel Brainstorm is an active, student-centered method to generate data about a group’s collective prior knowledge of a variety of issues associated with a single topic.

This simple, quick, kinesthetic, and engaging approach generates large quantities of data about student opinions, attitudes, or understanding about an issue or topic.  If a Consensogram is later re-administered, differences between the initial and final results are indicators of how attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge have changed as a result of the intervening learning experience.

Fold Over Diagram (individual)
A strategy that enables to compare existing working definitions with more precise textbook definitions for a set of terms related to a specific topic.

Four Corners Inquiry (group)
This method requires student to express their opinions about issues using a four part rating scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.  Each corner of a classroom becomes a particular selected area where students gather to discuss the reasons for their like responses to the question that was posed.

Interview Design (group)
An Interview Design guides students to ask and answer questions and then to analyze the class’ collective findings.  The teacher creates questions and students rotate systematically so that each student responds to all questions and receives feedback about their own question. The Interview Design quickly generates large amounts of group data.

Likert Scale Builder (individual)
A well-known paper and pencil method for assessing students’ prior attitudes or beliefs about a topic using a rating scale.

Matched Pairs (individual)
This approach generates quantitative data about a student’s ideas, opinions, or understanding. A chart is employed that depicts a continuum along two polar extremes (e.g., Happy…….Sad) for a set of ideas or issues related to a topic.

Right Angle Perspective (individual)
People often confuse their beliefs and their actual knowledge of a subject.  This thinking diagram, forces a student to distinguish between what they believe and what they know.

Think-Ink-Pair-Share (individual)
One powerful way to get students to reveal what they know or believe about a topic is to begin by having them commit heir thoughts to writing.   To assess what the group knows, have students discuss their ideas in pairs, and then to share them with the large group.

Walkabout Review (group)
Similar to a Carousel Brainstorm or Gallery Walk, this student-centered and inquiry-based activity generates large amounts of information about a class’ views, beliefs, or opinions about a topic.