Breaking the Cycle of Knowledge Gaps

By Andrea Suria

Andrea Suria is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, concentrating in Microbiology. She has been a teaching assistant at UConn for three years. Her research interests include beneficial host-microbe interactions and natural product discovery.

Thirty minutes into my lab section, I find myself walking from group to group encountering the same question: How do I dilute this chemical? What was supposed to be a simple first step in a lengthy protocol has quickly become a roadblock throughout the room. Even though I reviewed an example problem ten minutes ago, and even though I know they have done dilutions in several pre-requisite courses, without fail, I have students that struggle with the algebra required to complete this task.

It’s a familiar situation for professors in any discipline: How do you ensure students aren’t getting left behind because of gaps in fundamental knowledge?

While the students in my lab class who are confident in their math skills zip right through this first step, others spend half an hour trying and failing to set up the right equation, even with my help. These students who lack the fundamental knowledge of dilutions end up fixating on the equation they don’t understand and lose sight of why they are using that chemical in the first place. These gaps that interfere with learning occur in all fields. A student learning a foreign language can get tripped up forming sentences if they never learned how to properly conjugate verbs. Another student struggles writing a research paper because they don’t know how to find peer-reviewed references.

What can be done to fill in these knowledge gaps, or try to prevent the gaps from widening further?

Administer un-graded pre-assessments

Frequently, students don’t know what they don’t know. It can be hard, for both students and professors, to find the gaps in fundamental knowledge without some clarification of what that expected knowledge is. Giving out a pre-test at the beginning of the semester, which may be marked for completion but not correctness, can shine a light on the areas your students need more help with, without fear of it impacting their grade.

Caleon and Subramaniam (2010) provide an example of such an assessment used in a physics section on waves, where emphasis is placed on asking how confident a student is in their answer and the reasoning behind it. These assessments revealed that students can have “illusions of knowing,” meaning they are confident in wrong answers, or provide the right answer for the wrong reason (such as guessing).

With the answers to these assessments, professors can tailor their course material to spend some portion of class time reviewing pre-requisite topics that the majority of students did not understand. Professors can also choose to encourage individual students to seek help in filling in missing knowledge outside of class, as in the next strategy.

Incite motivation

For my math-phobic students with high anxiety, researchers have found that the mere anticipation of solving a math problem can light up regions of the brain associated with visceral threats and pain reception (Lyons & Beilock, 2012)—just thinking about doing math can be painful! How can we, as professors, counteract this perceived threat?A gif of Wynona Rider looking confused while math symbols flash on screen

Increasing motivation can help alleviate a student’s anxiety, which in turn diverts mental resources back to cognitive performance and “working memory” (Wang et al., 2015). The more intrinsically motivated a student is to learn about a topic, the more likely they are to retain the information and call upon it when they need it.

One step to motivate students is to lessen the fear that comes with not knowing the right answers. One study that examined why students do or do not utilize tutoring centers found that fear was the biggest inhibitor to attendance (Grehan et al., 2016). Students that did not utilize tutoring centers were embarrassed to seek help, as well as afraid of failing or being singled out. Creating an inclusive environment, where students are encouraged to ask questions and utilize the resources available to them, and not reprimanded for their knowledge gaps, is one step toward inciting motivation.

Students in the Grehand et al. (2016) study also noted peer influence as a large motivator. Taking the results from pre-assessments and building study groups from them can provide the opportunity for students to explain things to each other. If groups are constructed to combine students who don’t know a certain topic with others who do, students may not feel as alone for not knowing something, and be more willing to ask questions and seek help from their peers.

Another step to motivate students is to provide assignments with choice. When students can relate their interests to an assignment they become more engaged.

For example, if I wanted students to write a literature review in microbiology, I would allow them to focus on any of the thousands of bacteria we know of, ranging from pathogenic to essential for life. Choice can also come in the form an assignment is given (Hanewicz et al., 2017). If you allow your students to either draw a detailed diagram of a certain topic or write a paragraph describing it, they can play to their personal strengths while demonstrating the same knowledge.

Provide moments of reflection

Students often fall behind in lecture courses when they feel they can’t keep up with and assimilate all the notes they are taking. Introducing breaks to have students think about what they are learning, as they are learning it, can help reinforce topics that will become fundamental knowledge.

Questions to reflect on could include:

  • Why are you learning this?
  • What did you previously know about this topic?
  • What was most confusing about this topic?
  • How would you explain this topic to another student?
  • How will understanding this topic help you understand a future topic?

For a more comprehensive list of metacognitive questions, see Tanner (2012).

In my lab, I encourage students to answer these types of questions in their lab notebooks after collecting data. Reflecting on learning in lecture courses can occur by discussing with a neighbor or submitting weekly answers to an online discussion board.

Answers to these questions will also provide continuous feedback, allowing you to determine when and where new gaps might be forming in your classroom—and giving you the chance to alleviate gaps before they widen in upper level courses.

  • Caleon, I.S. and Subramaniam, R. (2010). Do Students Know What They Know and What They Don’t Know? Using a Four-Tier Diagnostic Test to Assess the Nature of Students’ Alternative Conceptions. Res Sci Educ. Vol. 40:313–337.
  • Grehan, M., Mac an Bhaird, C., and O’Shea, A. (2016). Investigating Students’ Levels of Engagement with Mathematics: Critical Events, Motivations, and Influences on Behavior. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology. Vol. 47(1): 1-28.
  • Hanewicz, C., Platt, A., Arendt, A. (2017). Creating a Learner-Centered Teaching Environment Using Student Choice in Assignments. Distance Education. Vol. 38(3): 273-287.
  • Lyons, I.M., Beilock, S.L. (2012). When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math. PLoS ONE. Vol 7(10): e48076.
  • Tanner, K.D. (2012). Promoting Student Metacognition. CBE Life Sci Educ. Vol. 11(2): 113-120.
  • Wang, Z., Lukowski, S.L., Hart, S.A., Lyons, I.M., Thompson, L.A. Kovas, Y., Mazzocco, M.M., Plomin, R., Petrill, S.A. (2015). Is Math Anxiety Always Bad for Math Learning? The Role of Math Motivation. Psychological Science. Vol. 26(12): 1863– 1876.