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Research School Network: Why effective assessment of prior knowledge is so important This blog looks at the evidence behind the importance of assessing prior knowledge and how best to do so

Why effective assessment of prior knowledge is so important

This blog looks at the evidence behind the importance of assessing prior knowledge and how best to do so

by Durrington Research School
on the

Last weekend I recorded a video presentation for #rEdSurrey in which I talked about how we can best challenge and promote progress with our highest attaining students. One of the aspects I considered was the misconceptions many educators hold concerning our highest attaining students. One of these was to over value the relevance of strong problem-solving skills and reading comprehension common in our highest attaining students versus the strength and depth of their prior knowledge. In my talk I argue that it is important that we do not assume our students have prior knowledge, are aware of their prior knowledge or can make do without prior knowledge due to other well-developed skills such as reading.

When discussing this, I always direct people to Recht and Leslie’s (1998) paper looking at the effects of prior knowledge on good and poor readers recall on a baseball themed text. In their study of 7th and 8th
graders, students were defined into categories – good readers with strong prior knowledge of baseball, good readers with weak prior knowledge, poor readers with strong prior knowledge and poor readers with weak prior knowledge. On all measures children with greater knowledge of baseball recalled more than their peers with less prior knowledge. Furthermore, students with high reading ability but low prior knowledge were no more capable of recall or quality summarization of the text than students with low reading abilities but strong prior knowledge of baseball. From these results the authors concluded that knowledge of a content domain is a powerful determinant of the amount and quality of information recall, such that it can compensate for low reading ability when testing comprehension. The authors further conclude that prior knowledge creates a scaffold within memory for new students.

The Importance of Prior Knowledge:

A quick browse of the research surrounding prior knowledge indicated a huge wealth of studies, ranging from work in primary schools to studies conducted with masters level students. All studies demonstrated a clear consensus that prior knowledge should be considered as one of the most important factors influencing learning and student achievement, with the amount and quality of prior knowledge influencing both knowledge acquisition and student capacity to deploy higher order problem solving skills (Hailikari, 2008). Where prior knowledge is inadequate or fragmented there may be a mismatch between teachers’ expectations of student knowledge and reality, meaning that learning may be hampered from the very beginning. Moreover, learning without adequate prior knowledge can lead to simple memorization and surface level learning.

It has also been theorized that the level of prior knowledge can interact/​interfere with the effectiveness of different teaching strategies. For example, Rittle-Johnson et al (2009) argue that studying and comparing worked examples can be more effective than problem solving for domain novices that therefore have limited prior knowledge. However, for students with even a moderate degree of prior knowledge the reverse is true. This is potentially because these students can use existing knowledge structures to complete tasks without overloading their working memory.

How to assess prior knowledge:

Due to the evidenced importance of prior knowledge, one way to enhance students learning may be to determine and then use ways to assess prior knowledge. Thompson and Zamboanga (2003) argue that both teachers and students can benefit from effective assessment of prior knowledge. They argue it gives teachers valuable insights that may allow for the refining and adjusting of future teaching. As such deep understanding and reflection on student prior knowledge provides a good basis for improving teaching. Simultaneously students can use them as a means of self-assessment to become aware of their own knowledge base, even if they receive no feedback on this.

Unfortunately assessing prior knowledge is not straight forward. Telle Hailikari at the University of Helsinki, in studies of university students, points towards the following two things that need to be considered when assessing for prior knowledge:

1) What knowledge is being assessed?
2) How can we effectively assess prior knowledge?

In regards to what is being assessed we must consider that different prior knowledge types have their different pros and cons for supporting new knowledge acquisition and understanding. Prior knowledge can exist of declarative (factual) knowledge and procedural knowledge. While Hailikari’s studies look at the impact of prior knowledge on advanced chemistry course success at masters levels, we can extrapolate some of the points to younger educational settings. Results of the study indicated that a prior knowledge that consisted solely of facts did not contribute to enhanced student achievement in later courses. While such knowledge should not be discounted as worthless, prior knowledge that was more integrated and procedural (when combined with strong factual recall) resulted in a higher likelihood of success on new courses.

As such it is important that we ask ourselves when assessing prior knowledge of our students, what prior knowledge do we wish to assess and what methods would be best to achieve this. The are various research informed approaches to assessing prior knowledge, including:

Multiple choice questioning
Open questions
Free recall
True or false misconception test

The selection of a strategy should be considered in the context of what prior knowledge you want to assess and the ability of the students in your class. For example, while free recall can be a great way of gathering a picture of both declarative and procedural knowledge on a topic and gives student license to show all their prior knowledge, it can be ineffective with students that have poor literacy or verbalisation skills which do not permit them to demonstrate all their knowledge. Similarly, while self-assessment can support development of self-regulation, we must consider that students are generally poor judges of their own ability/​knowledge and therefore may give us unreliable data. Multiple choice questioning can be great for assessing declarative knowledge but requires extensive elaborative questioning to allow for an understanding of procedural knowledge. Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, much of the research suggest using a combination of methods.

There is also a consensus that prior knowledge assessment should be low stakes, and as such it is important that the language teachers use when setting these reflects this and that they should not be graded. For example in his study Hailikari found students responses (remember these were university students) suggested they felt they should have revised for their prior knowledge assessment, which would have of course defeated the point of the assessment in the first place. There are also some suggestions, although this is debated, that if prior knowledge assessments are being used to direct course/​scheme of work content (rather than individual intervention) than prior knowledge assessments should not require the student to put their name on the assessment to further reduce the stakes.

Whatever way we decide to assess prior knowledge, it is evident from even a brief review of the research that it is a powerful determinant and can have significant influence on student achievement. As such it is important that our curriculum plans allow for time to assess prior knowledge and are then flexible to any findings.

By Ben Crockett (@BenCrockett1)

Ben is an Associate Senior leader at Durrington High School. He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Effective Use of the Pupil Premium Fund” with Marc Rowland.

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