Students begin your course with a whole host of prior knowledge about the topic—some of it incorrect or poorly understood. James Lang advises trying to figure out just what your students know—or think they know—early on in the term, in the first or second class period. As Lang notes, much learning research suggests that students will use whatever previous knowledge they have to process the information and ideas you present to them. It's worth knowing, as you begin your course, what ideas the students already have.
Lang suggests making up student information sheets that you distribute to the class. Each student must fill out his or her name, major or possible major, and email address (though you may very well already have these). In addition, "ask each student to write a short paragraph in response to two or three substantive questions about their past experiences with the course topic, or about their understanding of their ideas you will be presenting over the course of the semester."
In the short term, you can use the exercise to generate a first-day-of-class discussion on the course's subject matter and the students' misconceptions going in. More importantly, you can use the students' answers to help tailor your teaching in the weeks that follow to the specific group of students in front of you. -DG
Source: James M. Lang. On Course: A Week-By-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008. 31-35.