Teach the Earth > Student Learning: Observing and Assessing > Knowledge Surveys

Knowledge Surveys

This module was developed for On the Cutting Edge by Karl Wirth at Macalester College and Dexter Perkins at the University of North Dakota.

Knowledge surveys play an essential role in all of my classes. The preparation of knowledge surveys helps me, as the instructor, identify and clarify the learning objectives of each course. Students use the knowledge surveys as a study guide and to monitor their learning. Student responses to survey questions are used to help students develop self-assessment skills, to evaluate student learning, and to evaluate the overall success of courses. - Karl Wirth

What are Knowledge Surveys?

Knowledge Surveys consist of a series of questions that cover the full content of a course. The surveys evaluate student learning and content mastery at all levels: from basic knowledge and comprehension through higher levels of thinking. Knowledge surveys can serve as both formative and summative assessment tools. The help students learn, help faculty improve their classrooms, and aid departments and programs as the explore new curricula or pedagogies.
Comparing survey results with course scoreThis plot shows knowledge survey results for 13 students enrolled in a Mineralogy class. The blue bars show their "knowledge" prior to taking the course. The purple bars show their knowledge after completing the course. To show that Knowledge Surveys actually do measure learning, the yellow line with triangles shows the overall course score (grade) of each student at the end of the course.
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Why use Knowledge Surveys?

Knowledge surveys are designed to promote student thinking and reflection about course content. For the instructor, knowledge surveys provide organization and clarity to course content, and provide valuable information relevant to assessment of student learning and teaching methods used in the classroom. Learn more

How to use Knowledge Surveys?

Students complete a course knowledge survey at the beginning of a course. This provides baseline information about their preparation and base knowledge. Students can then use the knowledge survey as a reading and study guide as they progress through course content. Portions of the knowledge survey can be administered just prior to each exam to help students assess their understanding and develop self-assessment skills. The complete knowledge survey is typically administered again at the end of a course to measure learning gains. Learn more


The literature on knowledge surveys is surprisingly skimpy.

Some important references (seminal and other helpful papers in bold text) are provided. (For web pages, the last date when the link was checked is given.) There are also sample questions that can be used as part of a Knowledge Survey.

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