How Do You Know What You Know?

I recently received this question on my Effortful Educator Facebook page

What advice would you give to a young adult student who can’t tell whether she knows the material?

Great question. What should we tell our students who understand they don’t know all of the material, but cannot pinpoint exactly what they know and what they don’t know? Or, how can students assure themselves they know the material or inform them they don’t know the material?

The simple answer is assessment. Before I dive into the topic of assessment, though, I want to discuss another aspect of this situation: the student comprehends she may not understand some of the material. That’s huge.This is a somewhat overlooked aspect of studying and learning…almost seems like it’s assumed that people just understand this, but they do not. I spend a lot of time in class with students just trying to get them to this point. Quite often, our students don’t realize what they know and what they don’t know…and there’s real value in spending time teaching them methods for resolving this problem. So, that this learner already understands she may not grasp some or all of the material is already a step in the right direction. 

But, as the original question states, what’s next? What should this student do to decipher what she understands and what she doesn’t?


Perhaps the easiest and most effective method for determining what one knows and what one doesn’t know is attempting to answer questions about the material. It’s much harder to fool yourself into believing you know something you don’t when attempting to answer simple questions about the subject. If you answer certain questions correctly, you know your stuff. If you cannot answer questions correctly, or if you rely on guessing, you don’t know the material well enough. You have now identified what you know and what you don’t know…and your studying can now be tailored to spending more time on the material you don’t know. Your studying will be more efficient and effective because of the initial assessment of knowledge. This may seem obvious to us (teachers), but I can promise you it isn’t very obvious to our students. Many students have poor study habits and don’t understand how to identify the holes in their knowledge. 

Okay, so by questioning my knowledge, I can recognize what I know and what I don’t know…but where do I find these questions?

There are several options here:

  1. Don’t make things more difficult than they have to be. Ask your teacher/professor if they have a bank of questions or know of a good study/review guide.
  2. There are a plethora of websites that offer different question banks for subjects. In my classroom we use Quizlet a lot for studying terms. One thing I really like about quizlet is that I can go on the site and make the decks for my students or students can create their own decks to study with and share with other students. We also use Albert for studying purposes. Albert is great because it provides 100s to 1000s of questions per specific class subjects. Most questions are multiple-choice and Albert provides an explanation for why each answer is either correct or incorrect. The site also provides practice exams for Advanced Placement classes, the ACT, and SAT. 
  3. Students can create their own questions from their notes and class materials. There’s power in creating their own questions to study with, however, this can be quite time consuming and might not be as efficient (and, if they don’t know the material, the quality of questions may be quite low) as finding already-made questions.

Once students have the questions to study with, they have the ability to identify terms/concepts they don’t completely understand and, therefore, can study/practice much more efficiently and effectively than simply rereading or highlighting their notes. 

I have a very explicit conversation with my students covering this topic. Most of the time, they are surprised by how simple assessment of knowledge and studying should be:

  1. Find questions.
  2. Attempt to answer questions.
  3. Decipher what they answered incorrectly.
  4. Study that material first.

It shouldn’t be complex at all, but I believe our students see this task as cumbersome and overwhelming. Most of the time, they revert back to the safer studying habits that fool them into believing they know information they do not. Then, they are surprised by their lower grade on formative assessments. Altogether, this is a dangerous cycle that learners of all ages display.  How do we break this cycle? Conversations, like this, about proper study habits and then modeling of these strategies in class. It’s a win-win-win situation. Students are happier with their grades and are studying more efficiently/effectively. You are happier, as a result. And, usually, parents are happier, too. I urge you. Do your part. Fight the good fight. 🙂

How would you tailor this conversation for your class?

What advice would you add for this student?

What other methods can you think of for students to find questions to study?

5 thoughts on “How Do You Know What You Know?

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  1. Fantastic post! When students ask me how to prepare for an exam, I tell them to use a two step procedure. First identify what you don’t know. I suggest reviewing their notes, their problem sets, and the book, and after today I will also be telling them to try to answer sample questions. Best place for sample questions in my classes is old exams. Second, resolve those knowledge gaps. They can do this by reading further, talking to friends in the class, coming to office hours, or posting questions on the class discussion board. That’s it–Just those two steps!

  2. One of my student’s weekly assignments is to create a practice quiz utilizing the objectives, they exchange tests, and then report back their areas of weakness. I did find that I had to emphasize to not only study what the specific question they got wrong is asking, but to look at their understanding of that topic area. For example, if you missed a question about what causes blood pressure to be high, you should look at your overall understanding of how blood pressure works.
    Great post, thanks for sharing!

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