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Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Teaching Tip: What Students Know and Believe

Reproduced courtesy of Teaching, Learning and Assessment Office, DePaul University

Some of the contemporary views on student learning suggest that students tend to draw on what they already know or believe as they take in new information and concepts.  Because each student brings with them a unique, pre-existing knowledge structure, teaching something seemingly concrete could actually produce a variety of interpretations within a classroom.

For example, consider what happens when children learn about fractions for the first time.  Many children have trouble accepting the fact that one-fourth is larger than one-eighth because according to their previous knowledge, eight is larger than four (Natl. Research Council, p.15).  When teaching students at any level, the instructor should not expect that the students will simply abandon their initial ideas and beliefs.  Rather, it may be more effective for instructors to determine and explicitly draw on their students’ pre-existing knowledge and beliefs in order to help their students develop new ideas. 

How can you quickly determine your students’ prior knowledge on a topic?

You might try one of the classroom assessment techniques suggested by Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross.  The following two techniques are taken from their book Classroom Assessment Techniques.

  1. Focused Listing, as the name implies, focuses students’ attention on a single important term, name, or concept to help instructors assess what the students believe to be the most important points related to that particular topic.  The instructor can then gauge how to adapt the curriculum so that it builds upon students’ pre-existing knowledge structures.   
    1. Select an important topic or concept that the class is about to study and describe it in a word or brief phrase.
    2. Ask your students to write that word or phrase at the top of a sheet of paper as the heading for a Focused List.
    3. Ask your students to write down the most important points they associate with the word or phrase.  Set a time limit and/or a limit on the number of items you want your students to write.  Two or three minutes and five to ten items are usually sufficient.
    4. Use this data to determine how your students understand the topic they are about to study, and then to adapt the curriculum so that it incorporates their understanding (p. 126-131).  
  2. Misconception/Preconception Check helps instructors discover common misconceptions and preconceptions students have that are likely to interfere with their learning in a given course.  Unlearning incorrect or incomplete knowledge is more difficult than mastering new knowledge.  Therefore, instructors should try to address any commonly held misconceptions early in the term.
    1. Start by identifying some of the most troublesome, common misconceptions or preconceptions students bring about topics relevant to your course. 
    2. Create a simple questionnaire to elicit information about students’ ideas and beliefs in these areas.
    3. Use the students’ feedback to tailor your curriculum so that it explicitly addresses any commonly held misconceptions (p. 132-137).

Recommended Reading:

Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A
Handbook for College Teachers
. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.
Washington: Natl. Acad., 2000.

Zull, James E. The Art of Changing the Brain. Virginia: Stylus, 2002.