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Bridging the Gap: The Art of Connecting Prior Knowledge to New Learning

The Early Career Framework states teachers should learn how to... Build on pupils’ prior knowledge, by linking what pupils already know to what is being taught (e.g. explaining how new content builds on what is already known). How Pupils Learn (Standard 2 – Promote good progress).

In the dynamic realm of education, teachers serve as architects of understanding, guiding students on a journey of discovery and learning. A fundamental pillar of effective teaching is the ability to build on pupils' prior knowledge by seamlessly linking what they already know to new content. This blog post explores the importance of teachers mastering the art of connecting prior knowledge to current lessons, elucidating how this approach not only enhances comprehension but also nurtures a deeper appreciation for learning. Grounded in academic references, we will uncover the transformative impact of fostering these connections in the educational landscape.

The Significance of Building on Prior Knowledge

1. The Cognitive Scaffold

Prior knowledge acts as a cognitive scaffold upon which new information can be securely anchored (Ambrose et al., 2010). Recognizing and leveraging this foundation allows teachers to facilitate smoother transitions between what students already know and what is being introduced, fostering a sense of continuity and coherence in the learning process.

2. Meaningful Learning Connections

Linking new content to prior knowledge creates meaningful connections (Bruner, 1966). Rather than presenting information in isolation, teachers who build on what students already understand provide a context that imbues learning with relevance and significance, paving the way for a more profound understanding.

Connecting the Dots: Strategies for Building on Prior Knowledge

1. Diagnostic Assessments

Diagnostic assessments are invaluable tools for understanding the existing knowledge base of students (Black & Wiliam, 1998). By identifying gaps and strengths in prior knowledge, teachers can tailor their instruction to align with the unique needs of each learner, establishing a solid foundation for new learning.

2. Active Questioning Techniques

Engaging students in active questioning encourages them to articulate what they already know (Hattie, 2009). By prompting discussions and reflections on prior knowledge, teachers not only gain insights into students' understanding but also create opportunities to bridge connections between existing knowledge and new content.

3. Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is a visual tool that allows students to represent their existing knowledge and visually connect it to new concepts (Novak & Canas, 2008). Teachers can guide students in creating concept maps, fostering a visual representation of the relationships between familiar and novel ideas.

4. Real-World Examples

Presenting real-world examples that relate to students' experiences aids in connecting prior knowledge to new content (Ambrose et al., 2010). By illustrating how concepts are applicable in everyday life, teachers make learning more relatable and provide a tangible context for understanding.

The Impact on Student Learning

1. Enhanced Retention and Recall

Building on prior knowledge enhances retention and recall of information (Ambrose et al., 2010). When students can link new content to what they already know, the process of encoding and retrieval becomes more efficient, resulting in a more robust and enduring understanding.

2. Increased Engagement and Motivation

Connecting learning to prior knowledge fosters increased engagement and motivation (Hattie, 2009). When students perceive the relevance of new information to their existing understanding, they are more likely to be actively involved in the learning process, cultivating a positive attitude towards academic pursuits.

3. Development of Critical Thinking Skills

The practice of linking prior knowledge to new content contributes to the development of critical thinking skills (Bruner, 1966). Students learn to analyse and synthesise information, discerning patterns and connections that deepen their cognitive agility and problem-solving abilities.

In the tapestry of education, the ability of teachers to bridge the gap between prior knowledge and new learning is a transformative force. By masterfully linking what students already know to current lessons, educators open doors to a realm of meaningful understanding and intellectual growth.

As architects of learning, teachers possess the power to shape not only what students learn but also how they perceive and engage with knowledge. In the deliberate act of building on prior knowledge lies the potential for an educational experience that transcends the acquisition of facts, fostering a lifelong love for learning.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Harvard University Press.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.

Novak, J. D., & Canas, A. J. (2008). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

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