Prior knowledge

What students know and how well they know it.

The importance of students’ prior knowledge

The most important characteristic determining student learning is prior knowledge. Students come to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence what they notice about the environment and how they organize and interpret it. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge (Bransford, Brown & Cooking, 2000) .
New knowledge is built on existing knowledge. Thus, when you are planning a class it is important to determine what your students are likely to know coming into your course and how well they know it.

How would you get some sense of the diversity of your class’s background?

1. What do students need to know at the start of your course?

1.1 describe the required prior knowledge

Describe the requirements for the start of your course in terms of prior knowledge. By describing this prior knowledge, you can check wether the requirements are fair and feasible. Determine where and when in the curriculum students have learned the prior knowledge.

1.2 talk to colleagues to find out what material has been covered in previous courses

If your course is part of a sequence of courses, it is a good idea to find out what material has been covered in the course preceding it. You can do this by talking to a colleague who has taught the preceding course, or asking for a copy of his/her syllabus, assignments, and/or exams. Pay attention not only to what topics have been covered but the extent to which students have been asked to apply particular skills and knowledge (for example, have they been required simply to identify theories or to do something more sophisticated, such as make predictions on the basis of different theoretical orientations?). The extent to which students have been required to actively do something with what they have learned will determine how deeply they know it.

1.3 Talk to a couple of students

Organize a meeting with a couple of students and talk about the points you’d like to have a more clear view on, e.g, topics covered, shortcomings.

2. How do you know what students actually know at the start of your course?

2.1 Organize an entrance test

Administer a simple diagnostic pretest during the first week of class. A well-designed pretest can identify areas of robust or weak understanding. If mastery of prerequisite skills is poor across the majority of the students, you may have to adjust the pace or scope of the course accordingly. If a small number of individuals lacks the necessary skills, this information can help you advise them appropriately, perhaps to seek outside tutoring or even, in some cases, to drop the class.

2.2Develop a self-assessment-entrance test

Give students the possibility to check wether or not they possess the required prior knowledge (and tell them what to do if they don’t possess it).

3 How do you know whether students are still on track during your course?

3.1 Give a short test after some lectures or organize a midterm assessment

Offer your students self-tests and be sure they take them seriously (e.g., by rewarding). The goal is to give the students (and yourself) insight in their learning progress.

Make in inventory of the results of the students. Trace the reason for common mistakes (e.g., due to a lack of prior knowledge, your explanations, misconceptions).

3.2 Ask for reactions during a session

Even with large groups it is possible to ask for reactions, e.g. ask the students to write down which topics they found difficult and to hand it in after the break/next lecture.

3.3 Let students raise their hand

Raising hands can be used in various ways:

- ask students to raise their hand if a certain topic is familiar for them.

- to check their opinion (agree/disagree)

- to answer a certain question (yes –raise your hand)

- …..

3.4 Ask students after the lecture

While leaving the lecture room, you could ask students what they think of the lecture and if they understood your lecture. From their reactions you’ll notice what was easy to follow and what wasn’t. Use it in your preparation of the next lecture.

4. How to fill gaps and prevent the arising of gaps?

4.1 Describe the required prior knowledge in advance

Determine the topics you want to cover in your course and determine the required prior knowledge. Make this information available for the students. Give suggestions how to overcome possible gaps (e.g., extra material in the electronic learning environment). This extra preparation should only be necessary for a couple of students (if lots of students need extra preparation, you should adapt your entry level or the curriculum).

4.2 Refresh prior knowledge

Refreshment of prior knowledge is always necessary. Students learned the knowledge in another context, which differs from your course.

Try to speak their language in talking about the concepts and facts they learned in previous courses. If you, at the start of your course, use other symbols and words than the ones they were used to, students might get lost.

4.3 Start easy

Start with with the context or with examples that students will recognize in their own life or from previous courses.

Refer to assignments in previous courses so that the knowledge and skills are ‘called up’.

4.4 Let them explain to each other

Students can help each other in filling the gaps in prior knowledge. Collaboration forces students to explain the material to each other and in this way diminish arrears.


Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, How People Learn (2000).