Moving Beyond KWL Charts To Assess Prior Knowledge

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FLL2010110by John Barell,

Recently, a curriculum coordinator at a Montreal IB World school asked me how we might assess students’ prior knowledge without using the standard KWL chart format.

It occurred to me that one of the most powerful means of challenging students to think of what they already know is by using a problematic scenario. Such a scenario is usually a complex, ill-structured situation that embeds within it significant curricular concepts that stimulates inquiry at the beginning of a unit and can be used as one of the summative assessments.

Here’s one I presented to a Milwaukee fifth grade class studying the US government:

“The President has issued an Executive Order stating that upon graduation from high school all students, male and female, must contribute a year of service to their country.  You can serve in the military, your local community or in other areas of the country.”

The questions students raised, after a few howls of “Not Fair!” included:

Can he do that?

What does he mean by “service”?

What are our rights? What’s the Bill of Rights?

What does the Constitution say about being in the military?

Who has what powers in our system? The judges? The Congress?

Can a governor do this? What if we refuse to go?

Their questions gave us a good pre-assessment of what they knew and didn’t know about the contents and history of the US Constitution, the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights.

Here’s another, “You are a member of a team of scientists investigating the deterioration of the great coral reefs of the world. You are charged with developing a way or ways of protecting these valuable habitats. Upon examining photos of the deterioration, for example in the Caribbean, identify what you think you know and need to find out in order to create a viable plan presented to local authorities who can effect change. Your plan must evidence knowledge of coral reef biology, cost effectiveness, interdependence and long-range consequences.”

Here questions will range from those related to coral reef life cycles, to their ocean environments and how human activities are affecting them.

But we can also use more highly structured, convergent examples: “You have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  It calls for several ingredients (chips, sugar, butter, eggs, flour)  It makes 8 cookies. But you wish to make 24 for a birthday party.  How will you change this recipe?”  (Grade 2, item on state standardized test)


Using KWL For Inquiry

Teachers at Parkside ES in Leander ISD, Texas, proceeded to figure out a way for students to become more self-directed through using inquiry:

K  What do we already know about the problem?  Identify important facts. (Kinds of ingredients? 8 and 24? birthday party? How to multiply and divide?)

W  What do we need to find out? What are they asking us to do?  What’s the problem to solve?

H  How will we go about finding out how to make 24 cookies?  What’s our plan?

L  What are we learning along the way?  At the end of the process?

Here, we are assessing students’ prior knowledge with their questions about what they need to determine and the extent of their knowledge about how to set up equations. How to multiply? Can they identify what’s important and not?

Designed as summative assessments, these scenarios serve as diagnostics at the commencement of a unit and they empower students when we use some of their questions to supplement our own lines of inquiry. Problematic scenarios can, therefore, serve as pre-assessments of students’ prior knowledge through the kinds of number of questions they ask.

Of course, the questions they do not ask may be just as revealing.

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; Moving Beyond KWL Charts To Assess Prior-Knowledge