How accurate are our assumptions about our students' background knowledge?

Allen A. Rovick, Joel A. Michael, Harold I. Modell, David S. Bruce, Barbara A Horwitz, Thomas Adamson, Daniel R. Richardson, Dee U. Silverthorn, Shirley A. Whitescarver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Teachers establish prerequisites that students must meet before they are permitted to enter their courses. It is expected that having these prerequisites will provide students with the knowledge and skills they will need to successfully learn the course content. Also, the material that the students are expected to have previously learned need not be included in a course. We wanted to determine how accurate instructors' understanding of their students background knowledge actually was. To do this, we wrote a set of multiple-choice questions that could be used to test students' knowledge of concepts deemed to be essential for learning respiratory physiology. Instructors then selected 10 of these questions to be used as a prerequisite knowledge test. The instructors also predicted the performance they expected from the students on each of the questions they had selected. The resulting tests were administered in the first week of each of seven courses. The results of this study demonstrate that instructors are poor judges of what beginning students know. Instructors tended to both underestimate and overestimate students' knowledge by large margins on individual questions. Although on the average they tended to underestimate students' factual knowledge, they overestimated the students' abilities to apply this knowledge. Hence, the validity of decisions that instructors make, predicated on the basis of their students having the prerequisite knowledge that they expect, is open to question.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Advances in Physiology Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999


  • Course prerequisites
  • Prerequisite knowledge

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology


Dive into the research topics of 'How accurate are our assumptions about our students' background knowledge?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this