Teacher for Learning

Prior Knowledge

We know without a doubt that the single most important thing your students bring to class is their prior learning and experience. This knowledge is a special kind of baggage that can either contain essential building blocks to advance toward mastery or be a heavy weight that slows down learning.


Prior knowledge can help or hinder learning


Using students’ own experiences to generate examples helps learners to make connections and increase retention. Examples include scaffolding learning from earlier classes and experiences.


Insufficient, inaccurate, or incorrect information can slow or halt learning. For example, you may have heard of the famous physics education study where scientific misconceptions persist even in Harvard graduates about why we have seasons or whether a feather dropped from a height would fall slower than an anvil that is dropped. Even after having learned and been tested, students persist on reverting back to “intuitive” stances about scientific misconceptions, which ultimately can hinder any potential learning that would need to scaffold onto these basic grade school concepts.

Strategies to determine and acknowledge students’ prior knowledge

You can identify some common misconceptions in your discipline by considering your student’s prior learning and connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge.

  • Determine your students’ prior learning:
    • Use diagnostic assessments such as self- and peer assessments, brainstorming, and mind maps. Look for patterns among the students’ responses.
  • Connect new knowledge to prior knowledge:
    • Be explicit about connections.
    • Link between courses.
    • Links within courses.
    • Links to students’ own knowledge and experience.

Extend Activity

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Identify a concept that is often misunderstood in your discipline. Can you think of an analogy that can help make the concept make sense to students?

How Learning Works
Organize Knowledge
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