How Learning Works (ch. 1): Using the first day of class to discover your students’ prior knowledgePosted: August 21, 2011
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,