Questioning to ascertain prior knowledge is a very popular practice and generally a good one. However, there is a danger when posing questions to the whole group that we only get a sense of what a few students know rather than everyone. Taking a response from everyone would take much more time than teachers have, so we need to think of some other ways.
Here are some good techniques for ascertaining what everyone knows which I picked up when I attended Anita Archer’s professional development.
Pose a question or statement and ask students to discuss this with a partner. Move around the room listening to conversations but do not interrupt. You can make notes and put the student’s name next to the point. Stop the discussion and share what you have gathered. ‘Joe made the point that ….’; ‘Susie remembered that ….’; ‘Allison could tell her partner about …’. Alternatively, you can avoid using names and say, ‘As I moved around the room, I heard the following things about …’
2. What did my partner say?
Pose a question or statement and ask students to discuss this with a partner. Stop the discussion and ask, ‘What did your partner say, Luke?’ This is a good way to include students who generally do not contribute as you can deliberately ask the less vocal partner.
3. Write it down.
Students are asked to write down whatever they know/remember about a topic. Give them a few minutes to do this. Move around the room and see who is writing and what they are writing. You will quickly gain a sense of students’ prior knowledge. You can put a mark by any points that are accurate and relevant. This is an excellent way to engineer out inaccurate information. Ask those students whose papers you have marked to stand up and share their prior knowledge with everyone.
4. Multiple choice questions.
Use a few multiple-choice questions to ascertain prior knowledge. The key to their effective use in finding out what students know is to use simultaneous voting. Students can use their fingers where 1 is the thumb and 5 is the little finger. I find these difficult to check because all I see is a sea of fingers. Electronic voting is popular and effective, as are A-E cards. All you have to ensure is that students are not influenced by others and that’s why the selection of the response has to be simultaneous.