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May 05, 2006

E-Coaching Tip 12: Knowing what students know and don't know

This e-coaching tip takes a brief look at a recent popular phrase -- "making learning visible." We know now that one of the reasons discussion boards -- and other forms of written expression -- are so powerful is that do provide a window into what students know, what students think, and into what student think they know.

Teaching Techniques

Here are a couple of techniques you may want to try in your discussion areas to probe your students' knowledge of core concepts or related ideas.

  • Ask students to read a chapter or an article and then to write 2-3 paragraphs sharing what they learned from that article, focusing on new information. You might title this exercise, "I didn't know that" or "An interesting insight (or relationship, perspective) " (Conrad, R. M. and Donaldson, J. A. (2004) p. 79)
  • Flip the focus inside out and have the students probe what they don't know or "wish" they knew about a topic or what they would like to know if they were asked to do "x."

This is just another way of encouraging them to ask questions, but it helps students to focus on what is really well-structured in their heads, what useful knowledge they can actually apply in an authentic context. A focus on what they don't know also helps to evaluate the learning experiences and design of your course; making this a good feedback loop for you as well.

More Background

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University reviews some of the literature on students' perceptions of their own competencies. That literature is consistent in demonstrating that students are not good judges of how well they understand material that they have read. For example, "students often claim that they perfectly understand material they have just read, even though the material contains explicit contradictions that they have missed." Not only are students poor judges of how much they know, the research suggests the following -- that "students overrate themselves, their talents, and their expertise."

As to what to do about this, here is one suggestion proposed by Dunning. This suggestion is based on the research by Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, on distributed training vs. massed training. The distributed training is defined as those learning experiences "in which students receive instruction in several short sessions spaced out over time." This distributed training also incorporates features of scenarios and simulations, where "desirable difficulties" are randomly inserted. This type of experiences is often referred to as authentic contexts. When students are asked to apply their knowledge within authentic contexts with random difficulties, two things can hopefully occur. One, students develop more useful knowledge and they also become better judges of what they know and what they don't know.

Distributed learning also reminds us and links our own knowledge back to the principle that "Concept development is not a one-time event, but requires a series of intellectual operations over time." So, designing cycling and spiraling of knowledge experiences in our courses are good things to do!


Conrad, R. M. and Donaldson, J. A. (2004) Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction, Jossey-Bass (www.josseybass.com).

Dunning, D. (2006). Not knowing thyself. Chronicle of Higher Education Vol. 52: B2. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i35/35b02401.htm

E-Coaching Tip 12: Knowing what students know and don’t know



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013