How prior knowledge impacts learning
Prior knowledge is the learning one has before formal or conscious learning happens about a specific topic. In this article, we will discuss the influence of prior knowledge on learning.
According to Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist known for his work on psychological development in children, students connect what they learn to what they already know. They tend to interpret incoming information and sensory reception through the lens of their existing knowledge, beliefs and assumptions.
Researchers agree on the fact that students must connect new knowledge to previous knowledge in order to learn. However, the extent to which a student draws on prior knowledge to construct new knowledge depends on the nature of his or her prior knowledge and the instructor’s ability to harness it.
Researchers suggest that designing specific questions for students to trigger recall can help them use their prior knowledge to aid the integration and retention of new information.
According to the book How Learning Works, written by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele Di Pietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norma, when students connect what they are learning to relevant prior knowledge, they learn and retain more. In fact, a student’s capacity to stick with the new knowledge improves if he or she has prior knowledge. Let us look at an example. In the study, ‘Football knowledge and the acquisition of new results’, P E Morris, M M Gruneberg, R N Sykes and A Merrick studied participants with variable knowledge of football. The participants were presented with football scores from different matches, and their recall was tested. In this test, people with more football knowledge were seen to have recalled more scores.
The study described above shows how prior knowledge can positively impact learning. However, the students may not bring their prior knowledge spontaneously to bear on new learning situations. Therefore, it is vital to help students activate their prior knowledge to build on it productively.
Let us look at the famous study by researchers Gick and Holyoak, conducted in 1980. They presented college students with two problems that required them to apply the theory of convergence. They found that even though the students knew the solution to the first problem, most of them did not think of applying an analogous solution to the second problem. When the instructor asked the students to think of the second problem in relation to the first, most of them were able to solve it. In this instance, we can see that some minor reminders from the instructors helped the students activate their prior knowledge. They drew from their prior knowledge and applied it to the current situation.
If students are asked to generate relevant knowledge from their previous courses or their own lives, it can help facilitate their integration into the new material.
Researchers suggest that designing specific questions for students to trigger recall can help them use their prior knowledge to aid the integration and retention of new information. Elaborative interrogation is a technique used to improve learning and retention effectively.
Let us look at an example of elaborative interrogation. In 1991, educational psychologists Martin and Pressley conducted a study on Canadian citizens. They asked Canadian adults to read about events that had occurred in the various Canadian provinces. Without any instructional intervention, participants failed to use their relevant prior knowledge to situate events logically in the provinces they occurred. They also had difficulty remembering specific facts. When researchers asked a set of ‘why’ questions, participants were forced to draw from their prior knowledge of Canadian history and relate it to new information. This intervention used by the researchers to activate prior knowledge is called elaborative interrogation.
Researchers have also found that if students are asked to generate relevant knowledge from their previous courses or their own lives, it can help facilitate their integration into the new material. However, if the knowledge acquired is inaccurate or inappropriate for the context, exercises to generate prior knowledge can be a double-edged sword. Therefore, problems involving inaccurate and inappropriate prior knowledge should be addressed.
In this part, we discussed the acquisition of prior knowledge. In the next parts of the article, we can cover more on accurate, insufficient and inappropriate prior knowledge.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of the importance of prior knowledge in learning?
Can you think of the role played by teachers in helping students connect new knowledge with prior knowledge?
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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