Prior Knowledge


The new information or concepts students encounter in the classroom always interact with students’ prior knowledge. Prior knowledge is the existing body of information or learning a student has done before attempting to learn something new (Alexander, Kulikowich, and Schulze, 1994) and can come from formal education and prerequisite courses as well as personal, religious, and cultural experiences. Prior knowledge can often aid new learning, but it may impede learning if it is insufficient, incorrect, or misapplied. Furthermore, prior knowledge may present as biases that affect a student’s confidence, motivation, or openness to learn new ideas. Instructors and students who readily acknowledge and unpack these biases will more readily find where learning is helped or hindered by past experiences (Ambrose, et al. 2010).  

Accurate and Innacurate Prior Knowledge

A student’s prior knowledge can hinder understanding of new concepts if the student’s beliefs, ideas, models, or theories are flawed (Dunbar, Fugelsang, & Stein, 2007; Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Alvermann, Smith & Readance, 1985). Understanding how students organize their knowledge through connections and transfer of learning can help you teach a new concept or refute a misconception (Bransford, 2000). A misconception, especially one resulting from a strongly held belief or idea, is likely to be resistant to refutation because it requires that a student break mental connections that have likely been reinforced through repeated experience (Ambrose et al., 2010). Accordingly, a more gradual and interactive approach to correcting inaccurate knowledge is often helpful. For example, when learning physics concepts, students can make and test predictions based on their existing beliefs about how forces will act on stationary versus moving objects. When the evidence contradicts the students’ expectations, the students may be motivated to determine where their knowledge was inadequate and to seek knowledge that would account for their observations. Another strategy is to ask students to justify their reasoning to reveal internal contradictions (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Appropriate and Inappropriate Prior Knowledge

A student’s prior knowledge is most beneficial when it is appropriate, that is, consistent with the usages and conventions of the subject being explored. Teaching and learning relies on the twofold act of identifying this common foundation and then creating new connections and shared meanings (Rorty, 1989; Ambrose, 2010).  

Inappropriate prior knowledge does not establish a shared foundation. It is not necessarily inaccurate, but it can lead to misapplications and misunderstandings. This is a common struggle for students whose attempt to learn a new concept is obstructed by a previously held belief or association. For example, students in a psychology class may struggle with the concept of negative reinforcement because they have a previously held association with the word “negative” and punishment (Ambrose, 2010).  

An instructor can help students identify their prior knowledge and practice determining whether it is appropriate or inappropriate in a given context (Ambrose, 2010).  

Screening for Prior Knowledge

In the classroom, an instructor will do well to understand and address inconsistencies or impediments regarding students’ prior knowledge. Some form of screening is best conducted at the beginning of a course or prior to introducing a new topic. It can be as informal as asking a class to share what they know about a topic or as a pre-course survey. Tools like formative assessments and concept inventories can help screen students for what they know or think they know about a topic (Simonsmeier et al., 2022). An initial survey of a class, like the Background Knowledge Probe, or a brief discussion in class, can be used across disciplines to identify areas that do not need review or to identify preexisting misconceptions that may hinder a student’s learning. Instructors can gain useful insight into students' preconceptions about a discipline or their perceived ability to succeed, as Baylor professor Shaune Eide discusses in this Seminar for Excellence in Teaching. When designing a course, talk to colleagues and find out what students are expected to have learned in their previous or prerequisite courses. 

Activating and Transferring Prior Knowledge

Accurate prior knowledge is only helpful when it is activated and primed to transfer to new concepts. Familiarity with a concept facilitates integration and retention of new material (Bransford, 2000), but student may not always recognize and activate appropriate prior knowledge. Instructors can help activate appropriate prior knowledge by reminding students of their familiarity with a concept and inviting them to build upon it (Peeck, Van den Boshch, & Kruepeling, 1982; Christen and Murphy, 1991).

Reflective questions, carefully chosen examples, or activities that encourage students to draw connections with a previous course or from their own lives can activate and integrate appropriate and helpful prior knowledge (Ambrose et al., 2010; Bransford, 2000; Christen and Murphy, 1991). For example, in a physics classroom working with the difference between centripetal and centrifugal forces, the instructor may reference a carnival swing ride or a merry go round. In a chemistry class, an instructor may ask students to predict or draw the outcome of an experiment graphically before it happens. For a more literature-based classroom, prior knowledge activation may entail asking about students’ own personal experiences that are relevant to the topic.

Instructors cannot escape the effects of students’ prior knowledge. But they can intentionally design experiences that foster learning by dispelling misconceptions and activate appropriate and accurate prior knowledge. In this way, students build connections between prior knowledge and new concepts that open the way to further exploration in a subject. 


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