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Priming involves introducing new material before the lesson occurs. It is a way to prepare students for an activity with which they usually have difficulty. This often happens the day or morning before the lesson and can be done with one student or as a class. Sometimes, teachers prime students right before their lesson, like when they show students pictures from a book they are about to read. Priming is an effective strategy for several different reasons:

  • It reduces anxiety for students who need predictability.

  • It often results in higher achievement in learning.

  • It can be done quickly and with little preparation.

  • It helps students transition from one activity to another.

Priming in the Classroom

Keep in mind, while priming is effective for students with Autism, it has also been proven to be effective for students with and without a variety of disabilities. Many teachers build priming into their lessons for the entire class.

Sometimes teachers do the priming, and other times a peer may be trained to prime another student in his or her class. It is up to you, as the teacher, to determine how the following examples may be applied in your classroom.

The priming effect is an interesting cognitive process studied by social psychologists. Here I discuss the effect, along with several key terms that are important in understanding the phenomenon: schemata, accessibility, priming, and perceptual salience.


Imagine you just discovered that your wife is (or you are) pregnant. Suddenly, you see babies everywhere - in the store, in the park, in commercials, and on billboards. This is a prime example of a social cognitive process called priming. You've probably experienced the priming effect many, many times without realizing it. To best understand the priming effect, we first need to discuss schemata and accessibility.

Schemata is simply the plural form of schema. A schema is a mental framework or concept we use to organize and understand the world. If you see an animal, you can quickly decide if it's a bird, mammal, etc. Each basic animal category is an example of a schema. We have a schema for every important category or structure that exists in our world.


How do we decide which schema to use? The decision usually occurs below the conscious level and is partially determined by the level of accessibility, which can be defined as the ease with which a schema is brought to mind and used to make judgments. A schema that is highly accessible is more likely to be used than one that is not highly accessible. For example, imagine you were walking along a forest trail and thinking about bears. If you heard a growl and saw a bush moving, you are most likely to assume that a bear is close by rather than a dog.


A schema can be highly accessible all the time. For instance, someone with a phobia of bears would probably always be thinking of them while in a forest. A schema can also be highly accessible just temporarily, due to something that has just happened. For example, imagine you live in an old, creaky house and one night watch a scary movie on television. When the movie ends, you go to bed but lay awake, unable to sleep because of the noises echoing throughout the house. Each time you hear something, an image of an intruder coming to kill you in your sleep pops into your head.

Just like seeing babies everywhere when you are pregnant, this is another example of priming, which is an increased sensitivity to a particular schema due to a recent experience. In other words, priming is when an experience or exposure to a stimulus puts a particular schema at the forefront of our mind. When this in turn influences our judgments and decisions, it's called the priming effect.

A scary movie can act as a primer or cue, inducing your fear and making you suspicious of common noises in your house that, under different circumstances, you would probably consider harmless. Instead of using an everyday schema (such as old house noises) to interpret the sound, watching the scary movie results in a different schema (intruder noises) becoming more accessible, changing your interpretation.

Perceptual Salience

There is another cognitive process called perceptual salience that increases the accessibility of a schema, sometimes in partnership with priming. Perceptual salience is the perceived significance of information that is the focus of attention. In other words, an object's degree of perceptual salience is the extent to which it stands out and grabs people's attention as important. For example, continue imagining a night when you had watched a scary movie and then laid awake in bed. Because you were primed, sounds were much more salient than usual; you were much more aware of them than you otherwise would be.

Now, even if you could explain away the sounds that are normal for your house, what do you think would happen if you heard a new sound - one that you had never heard before in your house? You would probably pay even more attention to that sound, right? It would have an even higher level of perceptual salience than the other sounds in your house and make the 'intruder noises' schema even more accessible.

There are many different examples of how this priming works. For example, exposing someone to the word "yellow" will evoke a faster response to the word "banana" than it would to unrelated words like "television." Because yellow and banana are more closely linked in memory, people respond faster when the second word is presented.

Priming can work with stimuli that are related in a variety of ways. For example, priming effects can occur with perceptually, linguistically, or conceptually related stimuli. Priming can have promising real-world applications as a learning and study aid as well.

Priming is named as such to evoke the imagery of a water well being primed. Once the well has been primed, water can then be subsequently produced whenever it is turned on. Once the information has been primed in memory, it can be retrieved into awareness more readily.1


There are several different types of priming in psychology. Each one works in a specific way and may have different effects.

  • Positive and negative priming describes how priming influences processing speed. Positive priming makes processing faster and speeds up memory retrieval, while negative priming slows it down.

  • Semantic priming involves words that are associated in a logical or linguistic way. The earlier example of responding to the word "banana" more rapidly after being primed with the word "yellow" is an example of semantic priming.

  • Associative priming involves using two stimuli that are normally associated with one another. For example, "cat" and "mouse" are two words that are often linked with one another in memory, so the appearance of one of the words can prime the subject to respond more rapidly when the second word appears.

  • Repetition priming occurs when a stimulus and response are repeatedly paired. Because of this, subjects become more likely to respond in a certain way more quickly each time the stimulus appears.

  • Perceptual priming involves stimuli that have similar forms. For example, the word "goat" will evoke a faster response when it is preceded by the word "boat" because the two words are perceptually similar.

  • Conceptual priming involves a stimulus and response that are conceptually related. Words such as "desk" and "chair" are likely to show priming effects because they are in the same conceptual category.

  • Masked priming involves part of the initial stimulus being obscured in some way, such as with hash marks. Even though the entire stimulus is not visible, it still evokes a response. Words in which certain letters are obscured are one example of masked priming.

Psychologists believe that units (or schemas) of information are stored in long-term memory. The activation of these schemas can either be increased or decreased in a variety of ways. When the activation of certain units of information is increased, these memories become easier to access. When activation is decreased, the information becomes less likely to be retrieved from memory.

Priming suggests that certain schemas tend to be activated in unison. By activating some units of information, related or connected units also become active.

So, why would it be useful for related schemas to become activated and more accessible? In many instances, being able to draw related information into memory more quickly might help people respond faster when the need arises.

For example, schemas related to rainstorms and slick roads may be linked closely in memory. When you see that it is raining, memories about possible slick road conditions may also come to mind. Because your mind has been primed to think of this information, you might be better able to think quickly and react rapidly when you encounter a dangerous, wet stretch of road on your drive home from work.

Teachers and educators can also utilize priming as a learning tool. Some students perform better when they know what they can expect. Tackling new material can sometimes be intimidating, but priming students by presenting information before a lesson is given can help.

Priming is often used as an educational intervention for students with certain learning disabilities. New material is presented before it is taught, allowing the student to become comfortable with it.

For example, students might be allowed to "preview" the books or materials that are going to be used as part of a lesson. Because they are already familiar with the information and materials, they may be better able to pay attention during the actual lesson.

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