How Learning Works (ch. 1): Using the first day of class to discover your students’ prior knowledge

As promised, here is a link to How Learning Works, the text discussed at last Thursday’s Orientation for TAs. This publisher’s website offers pdfs of excerpts, along with links to order the book for yourselves.

Chapter 1 (which is available for free as Excerpt 1)  features a good discussion of students’ prior knowledge, and describes in some detail how it affects their understanding of your course material.  As the chapter reminds us, it is very risky to assume that you know what students know, or think they know, on the first day of a new class:

Students do not come into our courses as blank slates, but rather with knowledge gained in other courses and through daily life. This knowledge consists of an amalgam of facts, concepts, models, perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes, some of which are accurate, complete, and appropriate for the context, some of which are inaccurate, insufficient for the learning requirements of the course, or simply inappropriate for the context. As students bring this knowledge to bear in our classrooms, it influences how they filter and interpret incoming information (13)

The whole chapter is worth thinking about, but for now I’d simply recommend that you take a few minutes in your first class to ask your students about their prior knowledge of your subject-matter.  This can be done informally, with a show of hands to a few questions, or more formally, by responding in writing to a brief survey or series of questions.  Your questions could cover the following:

  • Earlier courses taken in the subject, and the institution where these were taken (an important detail at a transfer-heavy school like UH)
  • Their familiarity with a few key concepts in your subject area (ask them to elaborate on what they’ve learned about it from earlier courses)
  • The distinction between ordinary language and your subject matter’s technical terms

Your job will be to assess where they are in their understanding of your subject matter, and then begin to the areas where they need to build, refine, or correct what they already know, or think they know.  The first day is just the beginning of what will be a semester-long process of helping them to learn how to recognize and address their own gaps in knowledge.

Have a good first day,



2 Comments on “How Learning Works (ch. 1): Using the first day of class to discover your students’ prior knowledge”

  1. I like the idea of a common campus reading and look forward to “How Learning Works” arriving on my doorstep soon (someone beat me to the library’s copy). Thanks for the link to the first chapter. Reading it from the perspective of a librarian (i.e., someone who rarely has the luxury of working with the same students for more than one or two class sessions), I kept wondering how to find the time to assess students’ prior knowledge in a useful way, but what I found more striking was the emphasis on making explicit what we often assume. Clearly laying out for students the connections between what they know and what they’re learning can be incorporated into any class, even the fabled “50-minute one-shot” at the library.

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Thanks, Miranda, that’s a good point. Even a one-shot presentation can have a moment where the presenter asks for a show of hands about who has visited the library catalog before? Done a keyword search? and so forth. (the answers will sometime surprise you, one way or the other) But the basic principle of moving students from their familiar knowledge and skills into new areas still holds true, I believe.

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