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The context: I use this exercise in a 300-level “Life and Letters of Paul” class at a church-related college. The course primarily serves religion majors and has a prerequisite of an introductory survey of the Bible course.

The pedagogical purpose: On the first day I give a background knowledge probe (BKP) to assess the depth and extent of students' prior knowledge about Paul. For me, this probe serves a diagnostic purpose, but for students, it serves as both a review and a preview of material. With its group work, the probe also helps form community in class. Some higher-level learning objectives are addressed as students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the responses of other groups.

This same kind of exercise can be used at any time in a course to review and preview course subject matter.

Description of the strategy: The BKP involves three steps. First, I give students a concept inventory quiz that includes wrong answers which reveal common misconceptions about Paul. The probe also includes a focused listing exercise where students brainstorm about a topic or phrase by jotting down as many related terms as they can in two to three minutes about an important concept in Paul (e.g., “righteousness”). By asking students to generate ideas themselves, this type of listing can uncover factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, as well as attitudes and beliefs. Second, I form small groups of three or four students and ask them to compare their answers before compiling a composite sheet with the group response. Third, groups share their composite answers with another group, noting similarities, differences, and things that surprise them or that they disagree with. The sequencing of this process is important since students are involved in higher levels of thinking as they engage through the different tasks of the activity (see Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 1956).

Why it is effective: One of seven principles of learning outlined in a recent book on learning is that students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning (Ambrose et al., How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, John Wiley & Sons, 2010). The authors argue that when prior knowledge is activated, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate, it helps learning. But when it is inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, or inaccurate, prior knowledge hinders learning. With the BKP, I am given feedback about student knowledge and misconceptions that can be built on (or corrected) as the course moves forward. Moreover, students are actively engaged with each other and with course content from the very first day of the semester which helps set a positive tone for the course.