unfortunately may ignore or distort the new information so that it fits into their old framework of understanding (American Psychological Association, 1992; Pintrich, 1988; see also Chapter 4). This suggests the following:
At the beginning of every course, try to gauge the students' prior knowledge of the subject. What are the prerequisites for your course, and have all student taken the prerequisites? There are several ways to identify what students already know (Davis, 1993; Angelo and Cross, 1993); one of the simplest is introduce a topic and then ask a question which brings out their knowledge such as ''What's going on here? How do we know that?" If student answers are recorded, the same questions can be posed again at the end of the topic or term to evaluate students' progress.
A more comprehensive way to learn about students' prior knowledge is to give a brief diagnostic pretest-ungraded and anonymous. The diagnostic pretest might include a list of key concepts, facts and figures, or major ideas. Ask students to indicate their familiarity with each topic.
During the term, frequent diagnostic mini-quizzes can help identify which students are keeping up and which need help. These quizzes also help students to identify the areas on which they need to work. Reading the quizzes will give the instructor a good indication of where to start the next class.
Most undergraduate courses include students with a range of academic abilities, interests, skills, and goals. Differences in preparation, abilities, and learning styles are likely to be more noticeable when new information is abstract and complex. Individual students do not make uniform progress; sometimes a student reaches a plateau after a burst of learning. Try to sample how well your students are learning. Typically, when teachers want to assess students' learning, they tend first to think of giving tests or quizzes; however, there are alternatives to the standard test or quiz. Informal ways can be used to determine whether students are learning the material throughout the term. Some suggestions (see, for example, Davis 1993; Silberman, 1996) to try are to:
Ask questions during class. Give the students time to respond. Try to get a sense of whether students are keeping up by asking questions for which answers require students to apply a given concept or skill to a new context.
Ask students for their questions. Rather than ask, "Do you have any questions?," ask instead "What questions do you have?" This implies that you expect questions and are encouraging students to ask them.
Give frequent, short, in-class assignments or quizzes. Pose a question or problem on an overhead or the board, give students time to respond, perhaps in writing, and have students compare answers with their neighbors. Open-ended questions such as "How does food give us energy?" "What does it mean when we say a battery is dead?" or "Which light bulb will be the brightest, and why?" are but a few examples.