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Prior Knowledge - Mental Hooks for Learning: IgnitED Research Insight

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Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator

Welcome to another installment of IgnitED Research Insights, which aim to build stronger connections between learning science and instructional practice.

All new content and skill knowledge mentally connects to existing information in our brains, and each student brings relevant experiences, skills, and content knowledge to every learning experience. In this installment, we talk to educator Cindy Green, high school English and AP Literature instructor at Virtual Arkansas, about coherent ways to build and activate prior knowledge to maximize learning.

Let's Face Facts

An end view of a tall stack of hardcover, thick books.Centuries of research has shown that appropriately activating prior knowledge improves both recall and interest - in other words - learning. In fact, understanding, building, or activating a student’s prerequisite content and skill experiences has been shown through different theoretical perspectives to be a critical factor in long-term, lasting, and accurate learning. All learners come with existing content, skills, and cultural knowledge. Educators can maximize student learning by understanding, building upon, and leveraging these components within the learning experience.

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”

David Ausubel, Ph.D.: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.112045/page/n5

“One aspect of previous knowledge that is extremely important for understanding learning is cultural practices that support learners’ prior knowledge. Effective teaching supports positive transfer by actively identifying the relevant knowledge and strengths that students bring to a learning situation and building on them.”

National Research Council (2000): https://www.nap.edu/read/9853/chapter/6#78

“Learning ultimately begins with the known and proceeds to the unknown. Connecting everyday experiences with classroom topics and intentionally engaging preexisting knowledge with new classroom content can promote meaningful and lasting learning.”

Linda Campbell, Ph.D. & Bruce Campbell, Ph.D.: https://www.corwin.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/25914_081222_Campbell_Ch1_excerpt.pdf

Learners benefit most from instructional experiences that build coherently and directly upon relevant cultural, content, and skill knowledge they already have. Educators play a critical role in understanding the prerequisite knowledge learners have and supplying or activating it in their learning.

Hear from a Practitioner

We talked to educator Cindy Green, high school English and AP Literature instructor at Virtual Arkansas, about some of the activities she uses to identify and activate her students’ prior cultural, content, and skill knowledge.

Q: When you think about leveraging prior knowledge in your students’ learning, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

A: When I first start teaching them to analyze, they think, “Well, I don’t know how to do that,” or they’re unfamiliar with, let’s say, poetry. So, I bring something [in] from their real life. I use music – that’s how I start. I [spent a week] at a teacher’s institute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several years ago, and so I’ve started using music in that way. I wanted them to start analyzing a song first because if it comes to argument or defending their idea of “evidence” in the song, they’re much more likely to do that and feel more confident about it than they do with a piece of literature.

They’re more comfortable [with music] than literature or poetry, but they don’t realize that they’ve been looking at some version of that when they’ve been hearing lyrics from their favorite songs or artists, so we start there, and then I always tell them, even at the beginning of the year, “You may hate me or love me for this, but you’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life.”

Q: You teach in a virtual setting, and use online meeting software (like Zoom) to activate your students’ prior knowledge through pre-questioning, guided inquiry, and guided practice by combining all of these in a strategy called Socratic seminar, right? Could you describe how that works in a virtual space?

A: In a Socratic Seminar, the “inner circle” is the actively talking group, and then your “outer circle” is either listening or taking notes.

My students have already prepared questions and answered their questions. That's another thing – students have a hard time coming up with multilevel, layered questions and knowledge questions, so I provide them at the beginning, and they start to create them themselves to[ward] the end of the year.

When they go to create their own, I have a template [they can use]. "If I could change this about a character, this is how I would," and "[this is] why.” [It has] all of those [critical thinking] questions, so when they're creating their own, it gives them a template to go by to build [their own] questions. I have them answer those [questions] and turn them in so that they are held accountable and they’re prepared. They also have to bring up some text from whatever we're studying, so they come prepared with that [material].

At the beginning of the class, I determine who's going to start in the inner circle. I take volunteers at first, and if I don't have enough volunteers, I nominate [students for that role]. So, [for] the ones that are [in the] inner circle, their [devices’] cameras are on. Everyone else will turn their cameras off, so you know who your active speakers are. Everybody with a camera off is now in the … chat. They can talk to each other [in the chat] but not disturb the inner circle.

I always put a student in charge of outer circle and a student in charge of inner circle to help me. I also require my students to speak [a certain number of] times. That holds them accountable to participate, that helps your quiet students, it kind of gets them to participate, helps your students who overly talk to limit [themselves], because once they hit their limit, they're going to be moved to the outer circle, and someone else is going to come in. Once somebody in the inner circle has met their minimum, I move them to the outer [circle] and I put someone else in. I do all that in chat so it never disturbs the conversation.”

Hear the interview with Cindy Green in this video:

Relevance to Blended & Personalized Learning

Blended or personalized practices in a classroom can build or activate prerequisite knowledge in a cohesive and engaging way.

  • Teachers can be aware of their students’ backgrounds, invite them to relate or describe their relevant knowledge, and be explicit about what is being taught and how it relates to different examples and contexts, including previously learned, culturally relevant, ones.
  • Students can recall and apply prior knowledge in different contexts, for example through asking questions, problem-based learning, or when analyzing text.
  • Technology can be used to link new ideas back to familiar ones (for example, through graphic organizers), provide opportunities for review and practice, and to supply background knowledge to each learner as needed.

Explore the strategies below to see how you can both learn more about students’ prior knowledge, skills, interests, and level of mastery before beginning a unit or content focus, as well as leverage that knowledge in meaningful ways to ensure deeper learning overall.

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Profile photo of Saro Mohammed

Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator

Saro Mohammed is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator.