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Preemptive Assessment

Few instructors have ever taught a course in which all students enter sharing a uniform level of knowledge, theory, and skill. Even when factoring in filters such as year levels and course prerequisites, students will enter courses with a broad range of subject matter comprehension. Unfortunately, instructors are often unaware of these gaps until the results of the first significant assessment, at which point they are well into the course and it may be too late to adequately address them.

In order to preempt these situations, an increasing number of instructors are assessing new students’ pre-existing knowledge within the first two weeks of class.

Prior knowledge assessments are beneficial for both instructors and students. If the majority of a class is struggling with a certain subject, instructors may allocate more lecture time and learning resources to ensure their students have a firm understanding of the fundamentals. For students, the assessments serve as an early wake-up call, identifying where they struggle and how to address these gaps so they may succeed in the course. However, if the students feel they lack the necessary fundamentals and core competencies to succeed, they may still have time to drop the course without penalty.

There are a number of ways to assess students’ prior knowledge and skills. Here are three of the most common methods which may be used in a variety of academic subjects:

Concept inventories

These multiple choice or short answer assessments gauge students’ comprehension on fundamentals and core concepts. While structured and delivered like a midterm, they account for a small percentage of the final course grade.


These in-class or homework activities require students to reflect on their current knowledge and skill levels. Structured similarly to a survey or journal response, the self-assessments allow instructors to identify and act upon individual and class trends. Here is example from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center:

Have you designed or built a digital logic circuit?

  1. I have neither designed nor built one
  2. I have designed one, but have never built one
  3. I have built one but have not designed one
  4. I have both designed and built a digital logic circuit

Concept maps

Developed in 1972 at Cornell University, concept maps allow students to visually organize and illustrate their comprehension of core concepts. Students start with a “focus question” they must resolve and identify the key concepts relating to it. While concept maps may be used in any academic field, they are most often administered in STEM subjects.

Assessing the knowledge of skills of students as soon as they enter a course is a tremendously beneficial practice. It sets clear expectations for both students and instructors and better prepares the class for success.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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