The Impact of Prior Knowledge

When students enter your class, they bring with them different degrees of background knowledge relevant to the content of your course. These differences are not reflections of intelligence or ability but relate to students’ previous academic or cultural experiences. Being sensitive to students’ prior knowledge and recognizing where relevant gaps exist is critical to support their learning in your course.

1. Some assumptions faculty make about students’ prior knowledge can be problematic.

Checking our assumptions regarding knowledge students bring to class can be especially relevant for introductory courses. In the same class, there might be students from high schools with Advanced Placement courses sitting beside a student who did not have this opportunity. You might have students who are familiar with theorists or content relevant to your class alongside those who have had no prior exposure.

For some courses, there are pre-requisites that help ensure students have appropriate prior knowledge before enrolling in a given class. When these exist, it helps to include information regarding pre-requisites on course syllabi and to be sure students meet these requirements.

2. Lack of prior relevant knowledge can impact student learning.

If students begin a course without the necessary prior knowledge, they may have difficulty making sense of course materials and consequently fall behind. This situation can have a negative impact on their ability to successfully meet Student Learning Outcomes for the course. Moreover, if students’ prior ‘knowledge’ about a topic is inaccurate, they may be adding new information atop assumptions that are incorrect.

3. Surveys can help you gauge students’ prior knowledge before your first class session.

One benefit of a pre-semester survey or one done the first week of class is that it can help to identify gaps in students’ knowledge and enable faculty to create strategies to address this challenge. This type of survey differs from one where you may ask students to describe their motivation for taking the course or to inquire about how they learn best. Rather, such a survey focuses solely on the prior knowledge you assume students both have and need to be successful in the course. For example, you might ask,

  • What is their familiarity with core concepts and themes?
  • Have they studied or do they know something about the theories you will cover?
  • Can they define basic terms that you assume they already know and that are essential to understanding course concepts?

This type of survey can be conducted using Qualtrics. You may choose whether or not you wish the survey to be anonymous.

4. Other gauging strategies can be used during your first session.

Posing key questions about course content can lead to brainstorming discussions or to small group exercises that yield a sense of where students are in their thinking. This strategy can provide a general impression of what your students already know about course content. In order to find out where they are individually, however, a non-anonymous survey on the first day can be useful.

5. You may need to adapt your course syllabus if the content you want to cover and your students’ prior knowledge do not align.

Based on the survey results, you may need to consider

  • Adjusting the amount of time spent on a given topic to help students fill in knowledge gaps. For some courses at AU, support is provided through such resources as the Academic Support and Access Center or the Math Tutoring Lab
  • Working with TA’s (if they are assigned to your class) to provide students with additional support
  • Modifying the breadth of content that you can reasonably cover in the semester
  • Scaffolding readings and assignments by providing students with, for example, specific points to consider as they read, guidelines for how to function as an effective team member, or opportunities to submit rough drafts to be sure they are on target for written assignments

6. Reading assignments may prove challenging for students who lack relevant prior knowledge.

To help students fill in gaps in their prior knowledge, consider supplemental, more basic readings in addition to, not in place of, required course readings. This approach is not designed to compromise course rigor but to give students the support needed to be successful in your class. Students need to play a role in this process by talking with faculty about difficulties when they occur and actively seeking the help they need.

7. Classroom discussions can creatively activate prior knowledge.

Helping students make connections between course concepts and across different courses can enable students to draw upon prior knowledge. Including assignments and course activities that encourage analysis, synthesis, making predictions, metacognition, and self-reflection also serves to activate what students already know and understand.

8. Respond mindfully when prior ‘knowledge’ is inaccurate.

This situation can arise with both individual written work and in class discussion. In the case of written work, ask yourself how to ensure students will take your feedback in the constructive spirit in which it is intended. For suggestions in the case of class discussion, see item #4 under “Facilitating Class Discussions and Navigating Difficulty Conversations.

9. Partner with students as they take ownership of their learning.

Learning cannot be the professor’s responsibility alone. Students need to acknowledge what they do not know and develop a plan, with the professor’s help, to address gaps. It is critical to create a classroom environment where students are willing to acknowledge what they need to learn.

10. Resources are available with more information on the issue of prior knowledge.

One useful resource is How Learning Works: 7 Research –Based principles for Smart Teaching by Susan A. Amrose et al.