eCoaching Tip 12 — Knowing What Students Know and Don’t Know

May 05, 2006 (Reviewed May 3, 2019)

eCoaching Tip 12: Knowing What Students Know and Don’t Know

This tip takes a brief look at a recent popular phrase — “making learning visible.”  We know now that one of the reasons discussion boards — and other forms of written expression  — are so powerful is that they  provide a window into what students know, what students think, and into what student think they know.

Teaching Techniques

Here are a couple of techniques you may want to try in your discussion areas to probe your students’ knowledge of core concepts or related ideas.

  • Ask students to read a chapter or an article and then to post 2-3 paragraphs sharing what they learned from that article, focusing on new information.  You might title this exercise, “I didn’t know that” or “An interesting insight  (or relationship, perspective) “   (Conrad, R. M. and Donaldson, J. A. (2004) p. 79)
  • Flip the focus inside out and have the students prepare a question for other students to answer or practice knowing.
  • Ask the students to identify one or two ideas that they already had in their knowledge base that they feel good about refreshing.
  • Ask the students to share what they  “wish” they knew about a topic or what they would like to know if they were asked to do “x.”

These suggestions are just another way of encouraging them to ask questions, but it helps students to focus on what is really well-structured in their heads, and what useful knowledge they can actually apply in an authentic context.  A focus on what they don’t know also helps to evaluate the learning experiences and design of your course; making this a good feedback loop for you as well.

More Background

A 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article by David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University reviews some of the literature on students’ perceptions of their own competencies.  That literature is consistent in demonstrating that students are not good judges of how well they understand material that they have read.  For example, “students often claim that they perfectly understand material they have just read, even though the material contains explicit contradictions that they have missed.” Not only are students poor judges of how much they know, the research suggests the following — that  “students overrate themselves, their talents, and their expertise.”

As to what to do about this, here is one suggestion proposed by Dunning. This suggestion is based on research by Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, on distributed training vs. massed training.  Distributed training is defined as those learning experiences  “in which students receive instruction in several short sessions spaced out over time.”  Distributed training also incorporates features of scenarios and simulations, where “desirable difficulties” are randomly inserted.  These types of experiences are often referred to as authentic contexts.  When students are asked to apply their knowledge within authentic contexts with random difficulties, two things can hopefully occur.  One, students develop more useful knowledge and they also become better judges of what they know and what they don’t know.

Distributed learning also links our own knowledge back to the principle that “Concept development is not a one-time event, but requires a series of intellectual operations over time.”  So, designing cycling and spiraling of knowledge experiences in our courses are good things to do!

What don’t you know about online teaching?  Comment in a blog posting under the blog entry “What I wish I knew.”


Conrad, R. M. and Donaldson, J. A. (2004) Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.   (

Dunning, D. (2006, May 05 2006). Not Knowing thyself. Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol.52: p. B2. Retrieved from

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by