Students' prior knowledge and threshold concepts in a first-year biology course: The lecturer as middleman


Constructive alignment focuses on alignment between curriculum, learning outcomes, teaching activities, and assessment. This study argues that for lecturers to set intended learner-centred outcomes, they need insight into students’ prior knowledge of a discipline’s threshold concepts. Little is known about how a syllabus’s assumptions of prior knowledge match up to what first- year students know. Yet this insight is necessary; new knowledge is built on existing knowledge, and learning is about moving to higher cognitive levels. To gain this insight, at the start of the 2018 academic year, 292 first year biology students voluntarily answered two formative, online multiple-choice assessments on DNA and RNA synthesis. The responses showcased their knowledge gaps versus what the syllabus expected. Data analysis of their responses was used to shape teaching activities. This study extends constructive alignment by showing how quality teaching in content-dense disciplines such as biology further requires that lecturers gauge students’ prior knowledge.
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