Prior knowledge

As they try to learn new material, what students already know about the topic  has a strong effect on new learning. Students may underperform and learn less due to lack of prior knowledge. In summarizing decades of research, one group of researchers concluded

Students come to every learning situation with prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the situation, how they organize and interpret it. This affects their ability to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge. 

Bransford, Brown & Cocking, How People Learn: Brain, Mind & Experience, 2000, p.10

Generally, prior knowledge facilitates new learning. However, four common prior knowledge conditions can impede learning (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman 2010):

  1. Insufficient prior knowledge. When students lack relevant background knowledge, learning is likely to be fragmented and incomplete. Students will struggle to identify the meanings of new terminology, differentiate main ideas from detail, grasp how one idea relates to another, and build a coherent representation of the lecture material. According to survey results, more than half of freshmen and seniors report that they come to class unprepared sometimes, and an additional 19% report being unprepared often or very often (NSSE Annual Results, 2016 and 2017).
  2. Inaccurate prior knowledge. Student misconceptions of the subject matter are common, and can interfere with new learning. Some misconceptions are minor glitches that students work out on their own; others can be tenacious, resistant to instruction, and lead to serious misinterpretations of new material (Vosniadou, 2013; Taylor & Kowalski, 2014; Bensley & Lilienfeld, 2017).
  3. Inappropriate prior knowledge. Students may use inappropriate or irrelevant prior knowledge to interpret lecture material. For example, the terms, averageconfidence, and random, have very different technical meanings in statistics than in common colloquial usage. Students who have the colloquial definitions in mind will be confused by a statistics lecture on these topics (Kaplan, Fisher & Rogness, 2009).
  4. Inert prior knowledge. Students may possess relevant prior knowledge but may not access it or be able to use it when needed. Students’ inability to transfer recently acquired concepts to new contexts can be a significant obstacle for learning. (Bransford & Johnson 1972; Schwartz & Bransford, 1999; Schwartz, Chase, Oppezzo, & Chin, 2011).

Recommendations to help students develop appropriate prior knowledge

On any given class day, a significant number of students may not benefit from class because they lack sufficient or accurate or relevant or useable background knowledge. Instructors can use a number of strategies to address these, depending on the specific prior knowledge problem.

Prior Knowledge Assignments that target the facts, skills, principles, and ideas students need in order to benefit from class. Assignments are likely to be most effective if they address specific prerequisite knowledge and skills. Not all homework assignments do this. To illustrate, suppose an instructor plans to lecture about theories of economic growth. Her primary learning goal is for students to be able to analyze and evaluate the perspectives. What kind of assignment would help students prepare to do this?

A typical assignment might ask students to read about the theories before class, e.g., “Tuesday we will examine theories on economic growth. So, read chapter 10 in the text.” By reading the chapter students will become familiar with new concepts and explanations of the factors that affect economic well being and economic growth. But if the learning goal is for students to be able to analyze and evaluate theories, then the reading assignment may not be much help.

Alternative assignments could involve students in practicing the kind of thinking that will help them understand the upcoming lecture, such as:

  • Provide students with a matrix that lists different factors that affect economic growth and ask them to read the chapter and fill out the matrix for each theory, e.g., describe how each theory explains different stylized facts on economic growth.
  • Provide students with a matrix that identifies criteria used to evaluate growth theories. Ask students to read the chapter and then use the matrix to evaluate the theories on each criterion.
  • Do not assign the chapter to read. Instead, provide students with examples of growth experiences, including developing economies that have experienced high rates of growth, lesser developed economies that have low rates of growth and consequently remain poor. Ask students to speculate about what causes these to occur.

Each assignment engages students in a bit of analysis or evaluation, which will prepare them to better interpret and understand the upcoming lecture. It may seem counterintuitive, but students are better able to understand an instructor’s explanation if they first experience the problem the explanation is intended to solve (Schwartz & Bransford, 1999; Schwartz, Tsang, & Blair, 2016). Even if their initial efforts are incomplete and underdeveloped, these assignments familiarize students with the “problem” they will need to do in class, i.e., analyze and evaluate theories. As a result, they should be better able to grasp the teacher’s explanation of similarities, differences, strengths, and limitations of the theories.

Assignments that improve learning from text. Instructors cannot control all the factors that influence student learning outside of class. However, they can implement strategies that, if students use properly, can improve learning from text. These include:

Read-Recite-Review. Students read a passage of text, put it aside and try to recall as much of it as possible, judge how well they knew the material, and then review the passage to fill in gaps in what they could remember. This approach is an effective and efficient way to “enhance memory for the text content and acquisition of flexible knowledge” (Nguyen & McDaniel, 2014, p, 107).

Embedded or guiding questions. Questions that probe students’ understanding can be embedded in reading assignments. Research has demonstrated these are an effective way to enhance comprehension. However, students may skip over or ignore the questions. Instructors need to implement a way to ensure that students will answer the questions as they read, e.g., use online materials in which students must submit answers to questions before continuing with the reading (Nguyen & McDaniel, 2014; Stiegler-Balfour, Benassi, Tatsak, & Taatjes, 2014).

Student-generated questions. Self-generated questions can also enhance student comprehension, particularly when students generate and answer questions that explore conceptual knowledge (Nguyen & McDaniel, 2014).

Activate prior knowledge. At the start of class, some instructors review material from the previous class or the assigned homework for the day. An alternative approach is to engage students in recalling the material. To activate their relevant prior knowledge at the start of class, students can:

  • do a short task to recall relevant concepts from the previous class or homework, e.g., write down everything they remember from the homework readings, write down everything they remember about specific concepts, take a brief, low stakes quiz
  • work in pairs or small groups to review specific concepts from the previous class period or reading assignments

Prior knowledge assignments serve a second purpose. They provide timely feedback to the instructor about the breadth and depth of students’ knowledge which can be used to plan class activities. Assignments can reveal gaps in understanding and potential misconceptions that will interfere with students’ understanding. Consider how the goals, content, organization, and presentation of a class period might differ depending on whether students understand, don’t understand or misconstrue key concepts on which the new material is based. Using prior knowledge assignments for formative assessment can help instructors plan and prepare for class to meet the exigencies of students’ thinking.

Summary

Prior knowledge assignments help students develop the knowledge and skills they need to learn new material they will encounter in class. Instructors also can use the assignments to gauge student understanding, misconceptions and gaps in knowledge, and to guide decisions about the objectives, organization, and content of instruction.

Recommended Reading

Ambrose, S. A., & Lovett, M. C. (2014). Prior knowledge is more than content: Skills and beliefs also impact learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 7–19). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Nguyen, N. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Potent techniques to improve learning from text. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 259–273). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Stiegler-Balfour, J.J., Benassi, V.A., Tatsak, H., & Taatjes, A. (2014). The influence of guiding questions on skilled- and less-skilled readers’ understanding of written discourse. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 259–273). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bensley, D. A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Psychological misconceptions: Recent scientific advances and unresolved issues. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 377–382.

Bransford, J. D. (1979). Human cognition: Learning, understanding and remembering. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind & experience. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bransford, J. D., & Johnson, M. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717–726. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(72)80006-9

Kaplan, J., Fisher, D., & Rogness, N. (2009). Lexical ambiguity in statistics: What do students know about the words association, average, confidence, random and spread? Journal of Statistics Education, 17. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10691898.2009.11889535

Nguyen, N. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Potent techniques to improve learning from text. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 259–273). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

NSSE Annual Results. (2017). Engagement insights: Survey findings on the quality of undergraduate education. Retrieved from http://nsse.indiana.edu/html/annual_results.cfm

Taylor, A., & Kowalski, P. (2014). Student misconceptions: Where do they come from and what can we do. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum (pp. 259–273). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php

Vosniadou, S. (Ed.), (2013). International handbook of research on conceptual change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.