Prior Knowledge


Prior knowledge is the already existing body of information or learning a student has done before attempting to learn about a new topic and can be divided into broad overall knowledge or subject specific knowledge (Alexander, Kulikowich, and Schulze, 1994). A common problem facing professors and students in higher education is a lack of important prior knowledge and skills relevant to more advanced courses (Hailikari, Katajavuori, and Linblom-Ylanne, 2008). The ability for students to comprehend and engage with new subjects at a high level requires background information (Henry, 1990). Subjects that require a clearly defined prior knowledge may cause problems for learning because not all students have identical or the prerequisite background knowledge. Mismatch between the instructor’s expectations of students’ knowledge can diminish learning. Furthermore, students’ prior knowledge may include incorrect assumptions that hinder learning or contextual lenses that limit their ability to attend to new or alternative information that doesn’t conform to their preconceived pattern of knowledge acquisition.

Screening Tools

Pre-course questionnaires, grade point average, standardized test scores, discipline-specific course grades, formative assessments, and concept inventories can help screen students for their pre-existing knowledge. These screening tools are most effective if they specifically assess the ideas or material that the student will be engaging with throughout the semester (Simonsmeier et al., 2022). For example, a student’s overall GPA includes topics from several disciplines and thus is not the best measurement for assessing a student’s prior knowledge. Instructors can also gain useful insight on students' preconceptions about a discipline or their perceived ability to succeed, as Baylor professor Shaune Eide discusses in this Seminar for Excellence in Teaching. Conversely, pre-semester questionnaires assessing specific topics and skills from previous courses (chemistry, organic chemistry, and mathematics) directly correlates to grade outcome (Hailikari, Katajavuori, and Lindblom-Ylanne, 2008).

For an assessment to be useful it should measure what it is intending to measure. Many publicly available questionnaires or concept inventories can be directly incorporated into your class planning. For biology, the University of British Columbia has developed the “Questions for Biology” (Q4B) that have been validated for several different topics such as meiosis, population dynamics, speciation, statistical reasoning, experimental design, and transcription and translation. Other tools, like the Background Knowledge Probe, are more open-ended processes that can be used across disciplines.

When to Screen for Prior Knowledge

Doing a formal pre-semester screening for discipline-specific background knowledge can help instructors reassess initial expectations of student knowledge and help decide if small amounts targeted review is necessary. This could be useful to identify any misconceptions that students have about core ideas that could be addressed early in the semester before blockages in learning occur. Screening students for their prior knowledge is something that can be implemented frequently throughout the semester at the beginning of new units or topics. Frequent assessment of your student’s background knowledge related to specific topics can help you be flexible, informed, and better prepare you as a teacher to instruct your students. 

Activating Prior Knowledge

Students will attempt to connect new information with what they already know. Asking reflective questions or doing activities that makes students think of their “old” knowledge will help them better understand something new and can increase comprehension (Christen and Murphy, 1991). For example, in a physics classroom where an instructor is attempting to explain the difference between centripetal and centrifugal forces, they may reference a carnival swing ride or a merry go round. Alternatively, 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 be asking about one’s own personal experiences or other similar stories that are relevant to the topic. The method of activating prior knowledge can be very creative and implemented in ways that encourage class discussion and reflection about material.

Start General and Become Specific Over Time

It is important to provide everyone with the same opportunity to learn. In addition to doing prior knowledge assessments, the way the information is transmitted to the students is important. While presenting information to an introductory class, an instructor should assume that all the students have limited knowledge or experience related to the topic that they are learning on any given day. This approach will encourage the instructor to present the information in a generalized manner that it is able to be obtained and built upon without large amounts of prior knowledge being a necessary requirement. This type of generalized approach may reduce misinterpretations and provide all the students with a similar starting point allowing them to all flourish over the semester as topics become increasingly more specific. Similarly, if the information in later classes is compounding from initial course work, then starting off general to make sure all the students are on the same page will strengthen later performance.       


Understanding and using prior knowledge as an instructor can allow you to understand the needs of your students more in-depth. Determining what approaches may need to be taken in order to maximize student learning in both the classroom and in an online setting is incredibly beneficial for the students. A large portion of these tools are now readily available to professors and can be utilized to positively impact student learning.


Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., and Schulze, S. K. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interest. Am. Educ. Res. J. 31, 313–337. doi: 10.3102/00028312031002313

Christen, W. and Murphy, T. (1991) Increasing Comprehension by Activating Prior Knowledge. ERIC Digest. ED328885, 1991-03-00, 1-6

Hailikari, T., Katajavuori, N., and Lindblom-Ylanne, S. (2008). The relevance of prior knowledge in learning and instructional design. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 72(5), 113.

Henry, J. (1990). Enriching prior knowledge: Enhancing mature literacy in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 61(4), 425–447.

Simonsmeier, B., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk L., and Schneider M. (2022) Domain-specific prior knowledge and learning: A meta-analysis, Educational Psychologist, 57:1, 31-54, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2021.1939700

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