Prior knowledge refers to the information and skills a learner has already accumulated before entering a new educational endeavor.
In the context of formal education, each grade level supplies students with knowledge and skills that they carry with them to the next stage.
Prior knowledge theory is central to constructivist theory, which holds that learners construct knowledge through experience and practice. As prior knowledge builds up, learners can create more connections between concepts and develop more nuanced cognitive schemata.
Prior Knowledge Definition & Meaning
Prior knowledge represents all of the knowledge someone brings into a new learning experience that can be used to make sense of this new lesson.
When teachers are aware of students’ prior knowledge, it can help them develop instructional approaches that maximize the child’s learning experience. The learning process will be more efficient and effective.
“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” (Ausubel, 1968, p. vi).
Of course, there can be problematic issues as well. PK is not always beneficial. PK may be inaccurate or insufficient. This means that the teacher must design accordingly to redress certain errors or fill in learning gaps.
PK is often inactive. A student may have learned what they should, but the information is difficult to retrieve or has faded drastically.
In other cases, PK might include inappropriate information. Practices that apply to one learning context may not apply to others.
Prior Knowledge Examples
- Observed Knowledge: Sometimes, prior knowledge comes from observational learning. For example, Jessica knows how to cook pasta because she watches closely when her mother cooks at night.
- Getting Lessons Just Right: Mrs. Smith gives her students a formative test to see how much they know about a topic. She uses this information to make sure the first lesson starts at just the right level for the class’s current knowledge levels.
- Too-Easy Lessons Leading to Boredom: Mitchell went to an excellent kindergarten and entered first grade with advanced reading and writing skills. Now he is easily bored and becomes disruptive.
- Learning of Bad Habits: Sara has studied piano for over 10 years. But her new piano teacher disapproves of her technique.
- Compartmentalized Prior Knowledge: James is a very creative writer and has taken several workshops independently. However, that level of personal expressiveness does not transfer to writing reports in his undergraduate chemistry class.
- Prior Cultural Knowledge: Emily’s family has recently immigrated to a new country. Unfortunately, her second language acquisition is going a bit slowly. She often feels frustrated because she doesn’t understand a word her teachers say.
- Outdated Prior Knowledge: Javier is a non-traditional student and returning to school after working three decades in marketing. He was surprised to learn that Pluto is no longer considered a planet.
- Getting Ahead of Class: Gabrielle is a gifted third-grader. Unfortunately, her new school does not offer a gifted stream, so she often gets bored in class.
- Clashes of Experiences: Julie is surprised that her English teacher did not accept “bc” or “OTW” in her term paper.
- Strengths and Weaknesses: Tommy attended a Reggio Emilia kindergarten. He is self-disciplined and motivated, but it seems that his basic math skills are lacking.
- Cultural Differences in Prior Knowledge: New arrivals in this study abroad exchange program between Singapore and the USA are surprised to find that their math and science skills are light-years ahead of their classmates.
1. Assessing Prior Knowledge on Climate Change
Mr. Andrews always begins the semester in his Climate Change course by assessing students’ existing knowledge of climate change issues. By finding out what students already know, and don’t know, he adjusts his first lectures and reading assignments accordingly.
He explains that the assessment is not graded per se. It is just a way to ascertain what students have learned thus far in their academic studies. He even goes so far as to refer to the assessment as a “survey.”
The first part of the assessment presents a short narrative explanation of climate change that contains several common myths. Students are asked to underline those misconceptions and then write a statement that corrects each one.
Another section includes several True/False questions, followed by multiple-choice items that can be a bit tricky if not read carefully.
Mr. Andrews emphasizes the opportunity it offers to begin the term at the right starting point and that it benefits students.
2. Concept Maps
A concept map is a graphical representation of how concepts are interconnected. Each concept is placed in a circle or box and linked with connecting lines. The circles are called nodes and the lines are referred to as arcs, and often contain arrows to indicate the direction of influence. The thickness of the line can also represent the strength of influence.
Asking a new group of students to create their own concept map regarding a given subject is an excellent way to assess prior knowledge.
The instructor can quickly gain insight into students’ understanding of a complex subject and how various causal factors are related. This is particularly useful in courses that are heavy on abstract theory.
3. The Expertise-Reversal Effect
Believe it or not, sometimes knowing a lot about a subject actually impedes more learning. Yes, it’s true, and there is a term for it; it’s called the expertise-reversal effect. More formally defined: the expertise-reversal effect is when the effectiveness of instruction weakens with more knowledgeable learners.
“Instructional techniques that are highly effective with inexperienced learners can lose their effectiveness and even have negative consequences when used with more experienced learners” (Kalyuga et al., 2003, p. 23).
Therefore, before delving into complex subjects such as mathematics or chemistry, it is important that teachers have a good grasp of where their students’ level of prior knowledge exists.
If the class contains novice learners, then instruction can be devised accordingly. However, if the class is full of students already fluent in the domain of instruction, then starting at the beginning may actually be counter-productive.
4. Consulting Colleagues
There are a range of methods of ascertaining what prior knowledge students may possess. In addition to diagnostic tests, which are formal and sometimes intimidating to students when administered on the first day of class, speaking with colleagues can be quite beneficial.
Teachers that have taught a cohort of students will very likely have a solid grasp of their knowledge base and skills. They inform a new instructor regarding the abilities of students, in addition to offering insights into their attitudes and psychological attributes.
It is a worthwhile pursuit to find out as much about incoming students as possible. For example, one might learn that the students are diligent and motivated, but perhaps lack certain skills.
This might be practical in some situations but not others. For instance, graduate programs often have cohorts of students that take courses together according to a pre-determined schedule. Whereas in other contexts, student groups may be more randomly placed in various courses.
5. Correcting Inappropriate Knowledge
If teaching courses in computer programming, getting novice students to distinguish terminology and jargon that exists in different languages can be a formidable challenge. Sometimes language can overlap, while at other times a single term may have a completely different function depending on which programming language is being used.
This can make learning even more difficult than it already is for students that are new to the world of programming.
To make matters more confusing, novice students can struggle with the common meaning of words in the English language, or how it applies in other disciplines.
One strategy is to create a Word Wall. As the course progresses, new vocabulary terms are placed on the Word Wall.
This is done to help students remember the meaning of the jargon, and also gives the instructor the opportunity to reinforce key concepts. For example, at various times during the course, different students are instructed to choose a word and explain its meaning and function out loud.
The prior knowledge of students can have a significant impact on subsequent learning. The first step for understanding the possible effects is assessment.
This can involve a quick diagnostic such as a survey of student knowledge, consulting with colleagues, or asking each student to create a concept map that shows their comprehensive understanding.
Prior knowledge can sometimes be an impediment. Students might confuse concepts from previous learning experiences with those encountered in a new area of study.
There are many strategies instructors can engage to overcome obstacles. For example, creating a Word Wall can help reinforce the unique meaning of jargon.
On the other hand, when students are highly prepared for the next stage of their academic journey, prior knowledge can foster a smooth transition. Except of course when it doesn’t, as in the case of the expertise-reversal effect.
Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York.
Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Buehl, M. M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69(2), 145–186. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543069002145
Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38, 23-31.
Rittle-Johnson, B., Star, J. R., & Durkin, K. (2009). The importance of prior knowledge when comparing examples: Influences on conceptual and procedural knowledge of equation solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 836-852.