‘Pre-Assessment’ or ‘What do you already know?’


I think most teachers will agree that some of the most satisfying moments in the classroom happen when students bring something personal or original to the proverbial table. When a student identifies a concept that may be three weeks away in the scheme of work, or when they interject with a golden nugget of information that shows knowledge beyond even the demands of the specification. We like these moments because they tell us that the students are potentially as in love with the topic or subject as we are (and this is something we’ve been desperately trying to get them to think since the start of term). “Success”, we cry. But at the same time (and it may be that this is just my own experience) these moments are linked with the feeling of surprise. In responding to these inspirational revelations from the students, when we remark “I’m really impressed that you know that”, our tone of voice often does little to mask how unexpected these comments may be. Now that’s not to say we should discourage these wonderful contributions from the students, far from it. But perhaps we should evaluate whether the surprise of these ‘curveball moments’ indicates that we may have underestimated their knowledge (or engagement) from the start. Indeed we may have overlooked what might be remarkable potential from the students.

These signs of potential will often manifest themselves at some point as the unit of work or year progresses: A student might exceed expectations in a specific topic whereas they’d previously been underperforming elsewhere. Another student may start to ask quite unusual questions about the topic. Yet another, who had shown little engagement in class, all of a sudden performs very well under testing.

My question therefore is this: Why should we wait until the topic is well under way to be ‘surprised’ by a student response? Wouldn’t it be better to check for this potential before the unit even begins?

Which is a characteristically convoluted way of getting to the point about the need for pre-assessment.

Whereas other forms of assessment are most likely to appear at the end of units or midway through, pre-assessment involves finding out how much students know about a topic, before you start teaching it. Essentially; activities that check for prior knowledge. In this way, it will come as no surprise when Student X shows an unexpected, encyclopedic knowledge of trench warfare, when Student Y (who ‘hates’ Shakespeare) writes beautiful poetry or even when Student Z can already calculate the values of a tangent.

Pre-assessment audits are a fantastic tool to assess not only for potential, but also to differentiate prior understanding and even to give recognition for students’ own areas of expertise. I’d like to think that placing value on what students already know, replaces the teacher as the sole oracle of knowledge and gives rise to a community of individual contributions. If I’m about to teach Romeo and Juliet, rather than believing that I am the one who gets to reveal to delicacies of the narrative, wouldn’t it be worth knowing that one of my students had already seen the Globe production of the play that previous summer (or that another five of them had already seen the film).

I fear the painful scenario where at the end of the lesson I bravely ask the students “how many of you already knew at least 50% of what we covered today?” only to witness a sea of hands gradually rise up. Pre-assessment can go some way to making sure that students are leaving each lesson with new knowledge and skills as opposed to politely undertaking activities that lacked challenge.