It’s one of the most basic questions to ask, but it’s easy to forget about it in the swing of a lesson.

What do you already know about…?

A couple days ago, I forgot to ask this question. After 30 minutes into class during which students were drawing area models for multiplying fractions, I finally asked this question. Most of my students recalled learning about multiplying fractions last year, then many students quickly shared they completely remembered the process.

At this point, I wish I had a reset button for my classroom. As much as the activities were challenging and reestablishing an understanding of multiplying fractions, I immediately envisioned what this lesson could have been if I asked what students already knew at the start of class. Instead of students working independently and following guided examples for area models, this lesson could have been a peer teaching session. Students who remembered the process could have taught students who were rusty or inexperienced with multiplying fractions. My questions could have been more targeted to individual students as I heard explanations and dialogue about the concept. Most importantly, this lesson could have been a large confidence booster for students and a great opportunity to enhance collaboration among students.

I sometimes wait to ask what students know about an idea to build suspense and surprise; however, I need to ask what students know when it comes to content where I have hints that students have a decent amount of prior knowledge. The other day was a reminder for me that good questions can be the simple ones I tend to forget.

[cross posted to trigotometry]

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Great point! I started rambling about Quadratics in college algebra assuming everyone knew that terminology. They knew lots of stuff, but that word was foreign to many of them.

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Exactly! Asking this question reveals what students already know as well as their misconceptions/gaps. Thanks for the comment Megan!

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Hello! Great little post here. Sounds frustrating yet illuminating. As I was reading this, a question popped into my mind, but you answered it pretty quickly in this post. In my Curriculum and Instruction classes, my professors often suggest that we do some sort of oral or written diagnostic assessment before a lesson to see what students know about a topic, and if enough students understand it, the topic does not need to be covered in great detail. But I’ve always wondered about the students who do not have prior knowledge on the topic. We can’t just leave them behind!

None of my classes ever address that, but I really appreciate your suggestion of peer teaching. I do have a question though. Students can learn a lot from each other, but depending on who is paired with whom, do you think that peer teaching could ever be less effective than simply the teacher helping the students who don’t have prior knowledge?

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I think it depends on the student and the topic at hand. For instance, I’ve noticed some students don’t do well with peer teaching because they will get distracted easily or the concept is more abstract. Peer teaching is great for reviewing something like basic equations, but the method will be useless if a student does not recall/never internalized the property of equality. In that situation, the student would just be memorizing stuff from someone else. There are benefits to pulling students aside to work with them, but (like you’ll see when you teach full time) it’s all variable. What’s best for specific students at a specific time with specific content influences what instructional strategies I use on that day. The hardest part of teaching is keeping that reality in mind and being flexible. Thanks for the comment!

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