It’s easy to unintentionally make assumptions about the background knowledge students bring with them to class. How can we check the assumptions we make, and how can we assist students who do have background knowledge gaps?
In August 2022, I facilitated a workshop on implicit bias and course design. My overall goal was to engage with faculty on the assumptions we make about students, how that impacts what we do in our courses, and how we can proactively change our practice to move beyond the obstacles those assumptions place before our students.
In our time together, we collaboratively compiled a list of presumptions that we make about our students. The ideas that were placed on the Google Jamboard were noteworthy; for that reason, I wanted to revisit some of what we shared. If you would like to see the raw responses, you can view them in this Canvas resource (just be sure you have logged in with your BSU credentials).
In our time together, there were many assumptions that we all shared. It appeared to me that many of them hovered around one major idea; we make assumptions about the background knowledge our students bring into the university and, more specifically, into our courses.
I would like to dive deeper into this assumption. What obstacles, if any, does this create for our students? And, if it does, what can we do to remove the obstacles?
Are There Obstacles?
There are many reasons why we might make some assumptions about what background knowledge a student has. We might assume that they should have a foundation of knowledge for our course topic because, perhaps, the course has prerequisites.
Beyond that, it is also just practical for us to have a starting point. You must begin your course design somehow, right? For that reason, there is nothing nefarious or inherently wrong about this assumption.
Problems can arise, however, when we have a student who enrolls without the necessary background knowledge. In a situation where your course builds on a previous one, a student could quickly fall behind as the knowledge gaps grow larger.
The learner may become frustrated early on and make the tough decision to drop the course. And, if this course is required, they may give up on the major altogether. I would venture to say that most of us do not want students to feel like our course is an impossible task. We can want a challenge, sure, but not an impossible feat.
How Do We Remove the Obstacle?
I think the answer to this comes from one of our faculty colleagues, “Read my syllabus as a scared freshman I once was.” In other words, empathize. Putting ourselves in the shoes of our learners for a brief moment will allow us to think about how a student experiences our course in week one.
Students can be nervous about whether they are prepared for a course, and many times in that first week, they are deciding if they can complete the course successfully, which will look different for each student. As I empathize with our learners, I can think of a couple strategies that we can incorporate that will help them decide if they are ready for our course, empower them to fill in any knowledge gaps, and protect our own bandwidth.
Provide an Explicit List
On the first day of class, you could provide a checklist to the class that outlines the necessary background knowledge to be successful in your course. If you want to take that a step further, you could provide a resource or two that a student could use to help bring them up to speed if they feel they need to revisit that concept.
You would not need to create the resource; that would certainly take a lot of energy on your end. But you could find a resource on the web that you could link them to. Or, perhaps, it is a simple definition that you would need to provide. You just want to give them a chance to catch up.
This does not absolve us of any responsibility for assisting students throughout the semester or of our need to differentiate learning for our students who are at various levels. But it can help your students determine if they feel ready for the course and empower them to review and/or begin to learn previous material that could prove useful later.
Provide a Self-Check
Another option would be to create a quiz in Canvas that would cover the background knowledge that you assume students have. It would not be a required or graded quiz, and I would recommend setting it up so that you would not have to manually grade any of the answers (if that is possible for your field or topic). Keep this simple for you but impactful for them.
In Canvas, you can draft automatic feedback for quiz questions that have a right or wrong answer and do not require a student to type an answer (i.e. multiple choice, true false, etc.). After a student submits the quiz, they would see which questions they missed and any text that you drafted for feedback. I might recommend including some resources for students to check out if they want or need a refresher on the topic of that quiz item.
For a correct answer, you could write something that explicitly states they answered correctly but still links to a resource they can check out if they do not feel comfortable with the topic or just happened to guess the correct answer.
For an incorrect answer, you can remind the learners what the correct answer is and then link to the resource.
Creating a quiz like this could require more bandwidth than you are currently able to spare; that is totally fine. Try taking this in smaller steps, especially if there is a course you teach often. You could provide a checklist of background knowledge one semester. Then the next time you teach it, you could provide a resource next to each item, and when you are ready, you can try out the self-check quiz.
Overall, the goal is to provide as many support opportunities to our students as we can without overwhelming us. I believe if we find time to pause and ask if this is explicitly clear for folks who do not think like me or have the experiences that I have, we can design our courses more inclusively and in a manner that empowers student learning.
There is so much more to unpack from our time together, but my heart was warmed to see so many show up to reflect on our teaching practice a week before classes were scheduled to begin. I believe this shows the growing commitment to inclusive excellence in our campus community and the desire to see our students flourish.
What do you do to assist students with background knowledge gaps? We’d love to hear your innovative ideas in the comments!
Shane Lanning is an Instructional Consultant in the Division of Online and Strategic Learning. Their academic background includes an MA in Linguistics and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which they earned at Ball State, and they are currently pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. They previously taught as an Instructor of ESL in the Intensive English Institute where they developed a passion for international students and internationalization efforts; moreover, Shane strives for an inclusive teaching practice and is interested in exploring how to best achieve community in a rapidly evolving educational landscape.