Activating prior knowledge

Activating prior knowledge to increase learning

Research has shown that a student’s prior knowledge often confounds an educator’s best efforts to deliver a new subject accurately. A large number of findings show that learning is derived primarily from prior knowledge, and only secondarily from the presented materials. Prior knowledge can be explained as a combination of the student’s preexisting attitudes, experiences, and knowledge.

Prior knowledge can be different to newly presented material, and consequently, students could fail to understand the meaning of the new material. It’s easier to learn a subject when students already knows something about that subject area and when different concepts in that area mean something to them and to their particular background.

If prior knowledge is properly activated then it can be used to help improve student acquisition of new information. Both comprehension and retention are improved when new information can be related to the students existing knowledge base. We must also realize that learning is not a series of isolated events. Instead, each learning event is related to another learning event. If links can be made evident to students, tremendous increase in knowledge can be gained. In activating prior knowledge an educator can:

Set a knowledge baseline

Use a test or a survey before the start of a course. This will allow the student to think and explore further what they already know about a subject. It will also show to them right from the start were they lack knowledge or were they are making wrong assumptions. Give out the collective results of a test to the whole classroom and make sure that you identify areas where the class as a whole is strong or weak.


Activate discussions

Initiate several discussions that will require participants to use prior knowledge. Right from the start of a course and throughout the course an educator can ask participants to predict or guess the outcomes of a certain scenario or topic. Make sure that the discussion topic has not yet been presented. In doing so the student will need to reflect on what they already know.


Ask for reflection

In introducing a new topic an educator can pause for few minutes and ask students to write a short sentence relating to the new topic reflecting again on their previous experience. If the course taught is part of a sequence of courses then you can ask students to discuss the key concepts learned from the previous courses at the beginning of the class.

Prior knowledge is the foundation of seeking new knowledge. Curiosity and exploration of new knowledge begins with what we already know. A new experience enriches and unites prior knowledge, present experience, and potential future use in a coherent way. In designing courses that can help retain and transfer knowledge we can neither overemphasize nor ignore prior knowledge.

Marios Siathas, General Manager, EIMF