Prior Knowledge: Why it matters and what we can do

Stephanie Hepner
Learn Better
Published in
13 min readMar 21, 2018


“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows” — David Ausubel (1968)

When we learn new material, we do not do so in a vacuum. In fact, we have a very hard time learning new information that is unstructured or random (Hattie & Yates 2014).

Read this:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life (Bransford and Johnson 1972).

How much of that passage can you remember?

Photo by Alin Meceanu on Unsplash

Now what if I told you that the title of the passage is “Washing Clothes.”

Reread it. How much do you remember now?

Prior knowledge is important for learning. In fact, prior knowledge has a bigger impact on learning than differences in IQ (Hattie and Yates 2014).

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to build on students’ prior knowledge.

Here’s an example: a teacher I know used to work with disadvantaged students. One of her students was pregnant with her third child. The student confided in her teacher: “Miss, I don’t understand. My mother told me that if I never kissed a boy I wouldn’t get pregnant. I’ve been so careful!”

Others respond to this story with disbelief. Surely, they say, by the time you’re pregnant with your third child you figure these things out.

But it’s pretty likely people said things like “be more careful next time” or just assumed this girl was irresponsible in the first place. It’s pretty unlikely that someone took the time to ask her if she knew how she got pregnant in the first place and addressed her misconception.

Or maybe you’ve experienced this: you assign a formal writing activity. Maybe it’s an essay or a lab report, maybe it’s a written investigation in math or a research project in social studies. And the students hand in work with sentences like:

  • Suddenly, Napoleon realized he was cornered. His heart was racing, his palms sweating, he quickly reviewed his options. Seeing no way out, he fled to Rochefort, hoping against hope for asylum from Britain.
  • The drop of HCl hung precariously from the end of the pipette, suspended for long seconds while the lab partners fiddled with the calibration machine. Just as the drop threatened to fall, destroying the accuracy of the solution, the partners confirmed that the experiment could go on.
We need to teach formal writing conventions just as much as the content of what students write about. Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

What’s going on here?

This doesn’t conform to the standards of history essay writing or lab report writing.

A likely culprit? Students are using what they know about ‘good’ creative writing and applying it to all writing assignments.

Sometimes student prior knowledge isn’t active.

Sometimes it’s incorrect and based on misconceptions.

Sometimes they think they have enough background knowledge, but it’s actually insufficient.

Sometimes they use prior knowledge inappropriately, applying it to a topic or content that it doesn’t fit.

Learning science research has some strategies to help.

Strategies to Activate Prior Knowledge

Ausubel, the same psychologist who argued that prior knowledge is the most important factor in learning, studied advance organizers. Advance organizers make explicit links between knowledge that students already know and new concepts. Advance organizers may take many shapes:

  • A short story relating an abstract concept to a real life application (for example, if students are about to learn about statistical tests, they may read a story about a teacher assessing and comparing her students’ performance with a test score (Gurlitt et al 2011).
  • Providing a concrete example that exemplifies the type of knowledge about to come.
  • A matrix outlining specific examples of several related concepts (Gurlitt et al 2011; Kauffman and Kiewra 2009).
  • Definitions of key terms, along with examples of them.

In most studies, students are given advance organizers before they are exposed to new information and their performance is compared to others who did not have access to the advance organizer. Advance organizers have been found to be especially helpful for novices, students who are just beginning to learn new content.

One drawback of using advance organizers is that students need to read it independently and make sense of it. For weaker readers or students who struggle academically in other ways, this may not be ideal.

As a solution, some researchers use learner-generated advance organizers, where learners come up with real-life examples before learning a concept (Ambrose and Lovett 2014).

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Another line of research looks at the power of explanatory answers and elaborative interrogation in activating prior knowledge. In this work, Pressley et al (1992) reviewed research suggesting that the following types of prior knowledge activating activities improve learning:

  • Having students predict what a reading or lesson will be about and justifying that prediction based on their prior knowledge (Fielding et al 1990).
  • Answering questions about content before being exposed to it and justifying those responses based on prior knowledge (Pressley et al 1990).
  • Elaborative interrogation — explaining why questions about to-be-learned facts — based on prior knowledge (Pressley et al 1988; Woloshyn et al 1994). As an example, Canadian students were asked questions such as “Why would it make sense that the first educational radio station was in Alberta?” before learning facts about Canadian history.

Interestingly, this study concluded that even when students got these initial questions wrong, they learned subsequent information better due to their activated prior knowledge.

Metacognitive prompts can also activate prior knowledge. Kramarski and Mevarech 2003 suggest connection prompts that ask students to make connections between their prior knowledge and new information, for example:

  • What is the difference or similarity between this and what I already know?
  • How do I justify my conclusion?

Anticipation guides and other informal pre-assessments can be a powerful way to activate prior knowledge. Often, anticipation guides include controversial statements that are phrased as true/false. Students respond quickly to the statements, giving the teacher an immediate view of the prior knowledge of the class. As a follow-up activity, students may justify their opinions based on their prior knowledge, integrating elaborative interrogation.

Worked Examples provide students with a fully-solved example problem before starting to work on solving a problem for themselves (Renkl 2011; Renkl 2014). Worked examples are especially powerful when they are combined with self-explanation: having students generate the reasons for the steps followed in the worked example doubles the effectiveness of the strategy (Hattie 2009; Renkl 2005). Some studies suggest that worked examples without instructional explanations are effective; many studies show that it is more effective to interleave worked examples with problems to be solved than to present all of the worked examples first and then have students solve their own (Pashler et al 2007).

Asking students to create a concept map of what they already know is a powerful strategy to activate prior knowledge (Kinchin 2014). One of the benefits of this strategy is that it can be an ongoing learning activity, where students add to their concept maps — or redraw them completely — as they learn new material, deepen their understanding of the concepts, and confront misconceptions. Comparing a concept map from the beginning and end of a course or unit can be a powerful prompt for reflection.

Sometimes we need to assess prior knowledge of the content and the skills. An example might be if students will be using an Excel spreadsheet for accounting work. In this situation, students might have accurate and activated prior knowledge of the actual content (the accounting principles) but may not have the appropriate prior knowledge of how to use the program. Asking students to create a demonstration or how-to guide, or even just list the steps to complete a task can be a quick way to activate their knowledge of a technical skill.

Strategies to Assess Accuracy, Sufficiency, and Activation of Prior Knowledge

Pre-assessment can be a simple way to for students to activate their prior knowledge and for teachers to assess it. Pre-assessment can be in the form of a test modeled after the final exam, a short quiz which focuses on common misconceptions, or an informal anticipation guide. One study recommends holding a formal ‘final’ exam on course pre-requisites, one week after the course begins, to ensure all participants have the required background knowledge (Felder and Brent 2016).

Pre-assessment has two benefits: it activates student prior knowledge as they’re taking the assessment, improving their learning of subsequent concepts and it allows the teacher to quickly assess where there are gaps in student knowledge that need to be addressed.

Concept maps also allow teachers to evaluate the depth and accuracy of student prior knowledge. Because concept maps require students to indicate the relationship between concepts and information, teachers can assess not only how students organize their knowledge but also the accuracy of the links which demonstrate their deep understanding of the content (Novak and Cañas 2008).

Concept inventories are a type of pre-assessment that doesn’t focus on content, per se, but rather on the underlying concepts. This type of inventory can give important insight into the depth of students’ understanding as well as any misconceptions they have (Ambrose et al 2010).

Self-ratings by students can give teachers a quick understanding of their students’ prior knowledge. A simple list of concepts and content and a rating from “I have heard of this term,” through “I could define it,” “I could explain it to someone else,” ending with “I can use it to solve problems” (Ambrose et al 2010).

Strategies to Address Problems with Prior Knowledge

Sometimes students have adequate prior knowledge but they don’t apply it in new situations because for them it is context dependent. For example, maybe they learned the information for chapter 12 and don’t think to apply it to the content in chapter 14. Some strategies that help:

  • Teaching students the abstract concepts that connect the specific content helps students make connections and reduce context dependence (Ambrose et al 2010; Schwartz et al 1999).
  • Structured comparisons, where students make connections between the similarities and differences of problems, to help students apply their knowledge adequately in new situations (Loewenstein et al 2003).
  • Instructor prompts can also help students see the connection between problems (Gick and Holyoak 1980).
Prior knowledge is a building block of learning. Help students understand the limits of that analogy to improve their prior knowledge. Photo by Ryan Fields on Unsplash

When students misapply prior knowledge from one context to another, there are several strategies that can help:

  • Explicitly teaching students when and where content is applicable helps (Ambrose et al 2010).
  • When teachers use metaphors or analogies to illustrate ideas, they should also take time to have students identify the limits of that comparison (Spiro et al 1989). In what ways is the content not like the metaphor? Where does the analogy break down?
  • When we activate students’ prior knowledge, we need to be intentional about which prior knowledge we activate. In many disciplines subject-specific terminology has a different connotation than the same word in general use. Activating prior knowledge about the subject-specific context, rather than just what the words means in general, can avoid inappropriate application of prior knowledge.
  • Creating charts or graphics (such as a Venn diagram) that shows the similarities and differences can help. For example, if students are working on discipline-specific writing tasks, taking time to delineate how an essay in history differs from a literary essay will help students avoid inappropriately using the incorrect conventions in their writing.

When students have inaccurate prior knowledge, simple reteaching may help if the inaccuracies are factual. When the inaccuracies are the result of deep conceptual misconceptions, it is harder to address. Some strategies that help:

  • Bridging, where you take a concept that all students know accurately and build on it to gradually dispel the misconception. A common example of this is students’ misconception that a table does not exert force on a book which is lying on the table. Using bridging, the teacher started with a compressed spring (which students agreed exerted force) and generalized to foam, then pliable wood, then the solid table (Ambrose et al 2010; Clement 1993).
  • Asking students to make and test predictions based on their prior knowledge can be a powerful way for them to see their misconceptions. If their prior knowledge leads to a prediction which never come true, then students can re-examine their prior knowledge and assumptions and address their misconceptions (Ambrose et al 2010).

The Take-Away

Prior knowledge can be the most important element of new learning. And it can be a huge hindrance to learning. Research-based strategies can help us activate prior knowledge, assess whether students’ prior knowledge is adequate, appropriate and accurate, and respond immediately if there are problems.

These strategies can help students learn better.


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Stephanie Hepner has taught middle and high school special education/learning support and English in New York, Brussels, and Stockholm. She is passionate about bringing insights from learning science to teachers, as a way to improve learning for all students.



Stephanie Hepner
Learn Better

I am passionate about helping people achieve their greatest potential.