The Scando Review
The Scando Review
How prior knowledge impacts learning

How prior knowledge impacts learning

Part 2

In the last part, we discussed the importance of prior knowledge in learning. Today, we shall discuss how insufficient and inappropriate prior knowledge can affect learning.

Even when a student’s prior knowledge is accurate and activated, it may not be sufficient to support subsequent learning or to elicit desired performance. If a student has some relevant knowledge about the topic he or she is going to learn, both student and teacher may assume that students are better prepared than they truly are for the task ahead.

To get a clear understanding of this, we have to take a look at two of the most important types of knowledge that appear across many of the knowledge typologies: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge is the knowledge of facts and concepts that can be stated or declared. It can be thought of as knowing the ‘what’s. For example, the ability to name the parts of the nervous system or to explain the law of thermodynamics are examples of declarative knowledge. Procedural knowledge involves knowing ‘how’ and knowing ‘when’ to apply various procedures, methods, theories, styles or approaches. The ability to calculate integrals and draw with a 3D perspective are examples of procedural knowledge.

Declarative and procedural knowledge are not the same. Students may understand facts and concepts, but it does not guarantee that they may know how to apply that knowledge. Research on science learning shows that even when students can state scientific facts, they are weak in applying that knowledge to solve problems, interpret data, and draw conclusions.

The knowledge of knowing ‘what’ is a very different kind of knowledge from knowing ‘how’ or knowing ‘when’.

Studies conducted by Berry and Broadbent in 1988, Reber and Kotovsky in 1997, and Sun, Merrill and Peterson in 2001 show that students can often perform procedural tasks without being able to articulate a clear understanding of what they are doing or why. For example, business students may be able to apply formulae to solve finance problems, but they may not be able to explain the logic or principles underlying their solutions. Similarly, design students may know how to execute a particular design without being able to explain or justify the choices they have made. While these students have sufficient procedural knowledge to function effectively in specific contexts, they lack the declarative knowledge of principles that allow them to adapt to different contexts.

The knowledge of knowing ‘what’ is a very different kind of knowledge from knowing ‘how’ or knowing ‘when’. The teachers must be clear about the knowledge requirements of each task. We should not assume that because our students have one kind of knowledge, they would have the other. It is important to assess the amount and nature of students’ prior knowledge before designing the instructions.

Other than insufficient prior knowledge, the other issue when it comes to prior knowledge is inappropriate prior knowledge. In some circumstances, students draw from prior knowledge that is inappropriate for the learning context. Even if this knowledge is not inaccurate, it will not help in the learning of new material.

Knowledge from one disciplinary context may obstruct learning and performance in another disciplinary context if students apply it inappropriately. According to research conducted by Beaufort in 2007, college composition courses sometimes contribute to this phenomenon by teaching a generic approach to writing that leaves students ill-prepared to write well in particular domains. Students may apply styles and conventions from their general writing classes to disciplinary contexts which may not be appropriate. For example, they may use the style of an opinion piece while writing a laboratory report. Beaufort says that this intrusion of inappropriate knowledge affects both students’ performance and their ability to internalise the rhetorical conventions and strategies of the new discipline.

This misapplication is the same in cultural knowledge as well. For example, when Westerners draw on their cultural knowledge to interpret practices like veiling in the Muslim world, there is a chance that they may misinterpret the meaning of the veil to the woman who wears it.

It is important to help students avoid making inappropriate associations or applying prior knowledge in the wrong contexts. Teachers should be extra careful to avoid these mistakes and should deliberately activate students’ prior knowledge.

In the next part, we will discuss the impact of inaccurate prior knowledge on learning.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

How do you describe the term “prior knowledge” to your students?

Can you think of how teachers could help students avoid making inappropriate associations or applying prior knowledge in the wrong contexts?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!