Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Better Reading Comprehension When You Know That You Don’t Know

The more you already know about a topic, the easier it may be to comprehend and learn from texts about that topic. But knowledge has to start somewhere. So how can we help students learn from texts when they may have low background knowledge?

In their exploratory study, researchers from ETS found that lack of knowledge is not necessarily a barrier to comprehension. Rather, they suggest that students who can identify their lack of background knowledge are more likely to comprehend and learn new information than students who do not acknowledge they lack background knowledge. In other words, knowing that you might not know may lead to better outcomes.

To determine the role of background knowledge, the researchers pretested middle and high school students’ background knowledge through questions related to topics the students may have some but not complete knowledge of, such as ecology, immigration, and wind power. The pretest included an “I don’t know” option, along with correct and incorrect responses.

Students then took a scenario-based assessment in which they read multiple sources about each of the topics. This type of assessment mirrors real-world learning by encouraging readers to build their own interpretations of a topic, which helps researchers determine whether students comprehend what they read.

They found that students who selected “I don’t know” when answering background knowledge questions had better understanding of the content than those who provided wrong answers on these questions. In fact, students who selected “I don’t know” rather than answering incorrectly were nearly three times as likely to learn from sources that provided the correct information than students who had answered the pretest incorrectly. Students who selected “I don’t know” may also learn more than students who had a comparable level of weak background knowledge. The researchers suggest that the “I don’t know” readers may have set different reading goals prior to engaging with the sources than those who guessed incorrectly.


Possible Implications for Teaching and Learning

The results from this work support the idea that having and building background knowledge is key. Thus, teachers may want to assess existing knowledge and address knowledge gaps prior to instruction.

Teachers may also want to provide an “I don’t know” option or options that allow students to rate their level of certainty. Doing so may help teachers distinguish between students who recognize their own gaps in knowledge from those who may not be aware that they are wrong or that they simply do not know. This latter group of students may need more help in determining the accuracy of their judgments or may have incorrect knowledge that could interfere with learning.

The researchers further suggest that teachers may want to go beyond the role of background knowledge by teaching students how to set appropriate reading goals and use strategic reading approaches to learn new facts or correct existing misunderstandings.


The research reported here was conducted under NCER grant R305A150176: What Types of Knowledge Matters for What Types of Comprehension? Exploring the Role of Background Knowledge on Students' Ability to Learn from Multiple Texts.

This blog was written by Dr. Meredith Larson. Contact her for more information about this project.

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