Prior Knowledge


      Activating Prior Knowledge Strategy is very important, and can help teachers improve their lessons helpful. Using prior
knowledge, teachers can better understand what their students know about the topic. In addition, it helps students to make connections between what they already know and the new knowledge that they will learn in the class. According to Fisher, “Evidence supports Anderson’s (1990) claim that students who engage in explicit knowledge construction should be better able to retrieve and apply their knowledge than students who do not.” (2004, p. 1).  This means that if students have background knowledge about the topic they will be able to relate what they learn in the class to things they already know. Through my experience as a teacher, I would always start my lesson with a question for the students, so they could start thinking about the topic and making connections with their prior knowledge of it. That would help me to find out if their prior knowledge included misconceptions or not. This means that there is a role for prior knowledge in learning.

How could  prior knowledge be a barrier to understanding or a support to make a new knowledge?


Using what students already know will help them to understand new ideas. When teachers ask students about the topic, they remember details about the it, but do not know how that happens. For example, in response to the question “How Does Rain Happen?”, their answers are that when the sun heats water in the sea or oceans, it goes up to the sky. According to Fisher, “People construct meaning from their experiences in everyday life. Their knowledge is stored in long-term memory in part in the form of semantic networks. Research with the Force Concept Inventory and other assessment tools has shown that student learning increases significantly when students are given the opportunity to construct meaning about science in their science classes.” (2004, p.2). This means that they depend on their background and their prior knowledge about how does rain happen. In this case, the prior knowledge contributed to building new knowledge.


On the other hand, prior knowledge may be a barrier to understanding new ideas. According to Fisher, “I was waiting for a bus on a street corner in London when I struck up a conversation with the man standing next to me. I said, ‘I don’t go anywhere without my Macintosh.’ He said enthusiastically, ‘Neither do I.’ Our conversation continued for possibly several minutes before we realized that I was talking about my Macintosh computer (hanging on my right shoulder) while he was talking about his Macintosh rain gear (draped over his left arm).” That happened because of misunderstandings of the word that has different meanings for each of them. You can imagine the misunderstandings between two people from different cultures, who have multiple meanings for some words. I think they will need a long time to clarify their whole conversation. He goes on to say, about misunderstandings, “But when they occur in one-way information delivery (as in lectures or books), they can persist for weeks or semesters or quite often indefinitely.” (2004, p.1). This means that misunderstandings may distort the students’  prior knowledge because they believe that teachers do not make mistakes in their knowledge and any information from them is correct.


In the end, Fisher says, “Can teachers recognize that teaching students without knowing what they are thinking is like driving a car with their hands tied behind their back and a blindfold over their eyes? They have no idea what they are doing or where they are going, but they can do it at top speed!” (2004, p. 10).



Fisher, K. M. (2004). The importance of prior knowledge in college science instruction. In Sunal, D., Bland, J., Wright, E. L. (Ed.) Reform in Undergraduate Science Teaching for the 21st Century. Connecticut: Information Age Publishing Inc.

Shaffer, S. (2010). But I Already Know This. The Heart of the Matter. Retrieved from


2 thoughts on “Prior Knowledge

  1. Hello,
    This is a great post. I have never considered prior knowledge in this way before. I love the example of the computer versus the rain gear and could see how they could have easily walked away from each other never knowing they were talking about two different things! I can also see how this could happen in the classroom. As a learning facilitator it leaves me wondering how many times this has happened in my classroom and if it could be prevented? I am wondering if teaching and encouraging critical reflection would help?

  2. Amal, your choice to include the analogy of teaching students without knowing what they are thinking is like driving a car blindfolded is just perfect. I have often moved through a lesson, observing students’ responses to what I was teaching and evaluating their understanding based on what I observed. It was only upon posing probing questions that required them to explain their thinking (a really simple yet useful question is, “How do you know that to be true?”) that I discovered they did not “get” what I was trying to teach them at all. I may have observed them answering the question correctly, but without probing for an explanation, I didn’t know they were getting it correct for the wrong reasons and missing the entire point of the lesson. That’s why conferencing with students is such an essential assessment strategy. Great post!

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