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The Importance of Prior Knowledge

How Pupils Learn (Standard 2 – Promote good progress)

ECTs need to learn that… Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.

Prior knowledge is one of the most influential factors in learning (Ausubel, 1968, cited in (Hattie and Yates, 2014), p. 114). Whilst children may possess the appropriate prior knowledge, they may not make connections between this and the new content, hence the importance of prompting children to recall previous learning before the presentation of new knowledge (Howard-Jone et al., 2018).

Prior knowledge is defined as a multidimensional and hierarchical entity that is dynamic in nature and consists of different types of knowledge and skills.

Prior knowledge has long been considered the most important factor influencing learning and student achievement.

The amount and quality of prior knowledge positively influence both knowledge acquisition and the capacity to apply higher-order cognitive problem-solving skills.

We increase the likelihood that our students will be able to recall and use what we teach by helping them engage their prior knowledge and connect new information to their prior understanding. New learning is constructed on prior knowledge. The more we understand about what students already think, and the more we help them engage their prior understandings, the more likely they are to learn well – and the less likely they are to misinterpret the material in our courses.

Research into short term memory shows that cognitive load affects learning (Cooper, 1998), that the combination of intrinsic load and extrinsic load overburdens the mind and makes learning difficult, sometimes impossible (17), that novices often incur a high cognitive load in trying to solve problems (Sweller, 1988), that certain strategies can help to reduce the load (Larkin et al., 1980), that worked examples help students in mathematics (Cooper & Sweller, 1987), and that using graphics and text, the split attention effect, does not improve student learning (Sweller et al., 1990). This branch of research into memory is concerned with developing appropriate instructional materials. The importance of prior learning and the storage in long term memory of important conceptual frameworks or models is another perspective into research on memory.

Prior knowledge is defined as 'the knowledge, skills, or ability that a student brings to the learning process' (Jonassen & Gabrowski (1993). Other theorists have also provided vague definitions, using numerous terms to refer to prior knowledge [as current knowledge, world knowledge, expert knowledge and pre-knowledge]. Prior literature reviews (Alexander, Shallert & Hare, 1991; Dochy; Dochy & Alexander, 1995) have also identified the large number of terms available as a problem with the knowledge literature.

Research also indicates that there is a strong relationship between prior knowledge and performance. Because literacy is now essential to commerce and domestic life, the need to acquire good reading and writing skills is urgent. As Kurfiss (1995: 32) notes:

Reading is not simply a matter of absorbing individual words; is a progressive effort to construct a "model of the meaning of the test" (Armbuster, 1984)...Effective readers remain absorbed by texts... poor readers often do not recognize their own failure to understand a word or passage...

This research confirms Resnick's (1981) results that showed that prior knowledge explained a greater amount of variance than any other variable. Investigations using causal modelling techniques also support the importance of prior knowledge. Most studies considered the direct effects, but there are other learning variables related to prior knowledge that are essential for student performance. These include accessibility and availability of information and the structure of prior knowledge. In addition, methods of assessment have been shown to influence the observed effect of prior knowledge on performance. However, misconceptions and inconsistent information has hindered this research.

An important message is that the positive effects of prior knowledge are apparent when objective methods are employed. However, while, superficial methods like familiarity ratings have consistently failed to show a clear relationship between prior knowledge and learning outcomes, a closer examination of these studies often reveals that flawed assessment methods are useful for exploring learning processes that provide explanations for the prior knowledge effect. Thus determining prior knowledge levels should be a primary consideration in designing studies and assessing performance.

Research also highlights the paradoxical nature of prior knowledge: inaccurate knowledge hinders students' development, and lack of it makes it impossible for them to progress (Pintrich, 1993). On the other hand, addressing misconceptions through instruction and alerting students beforehand that new knowledge may be inconsistent with what they already know, helps them to learn (Biemans & Simons, 1994). By contrast, prior knowledge plays a mediating role in generating constructive activity (Chan et al., 1992), and the quality of study materials can affect a student's prior knowledge and indirectly his/her performance (Dochy, 1992). Research also shows that prior knowledge is potentially an important contributing variable in explaining post-test variance (Dochy, 1992).

Prior Knowledge and Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive load theory states that when acquiring new knowledge, novel information is processed in the working memory, which has a limited capacity, and a new cognitive schema is constructed in the long-term memory (Sweller et al., 1998). Cognitive load negatively influences engagement (Kirschner et al., 2011), self-regulated learning (Hughes et al., 2018), and achievement (Leppink et al., 2014; Chang, 2018).

Paas et al. (1994) listed the influential factors of cognitive load as subject characteristics, task characteristics and subject–task interactions. Prior knowledge is a subject characteristic, and students with more prior knowledge may have more working memory capacity available to process their current learning tasks (Mihalca et al., 2011). According to schema theory, prior knowledge is a critical factor in forming a new cognitive schema to gain new knowledge (Bartlett., 1995). Prior knowledge decrease cognitive load leading to good learning engagement (Myhill and Brackley, 2004; Mihalca et al., 2011). Students with low prior knowledge need more assistance to decrease cognitive load, while those with high prior knowledge more easily form new schema and perceive a lower cognitive load (Myhill and Brackley, 2004; van Riesen et al., 2019).

Cognitive load has a negative relationship with self-regulated learning (Hughes et al., 2018). Both cognitive load and self-regulated learning use up students’ cognitive resources. High cognitive load leads students to choose superficial learning strategies (Galy et al., 2012). Mihalca et al. (2011) assumed that students with a higher level of prior knowledge would have more working memory available to identify their current state of learning and academic needs and be better able to choose their own learning strategy. Prior knowledge influences the effectiveness of help with different cognitive loads. Help provided by instructional support is effective under conditions of low cognitive load with high prior knowledge, but with high cognitive load and low prior knowledge it is ineffective (Seufert et al., 2007).

The Chartered College of Teaching have published an article on this topic called A Good Start: The Pedagogical Challenge of Engaging Prior Knowledge for all Pupils by Christopher Taymay (2018) which you can read here.


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701. .

Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017) Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771. .

Allen, B. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.

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Clark, R., Nguyen, F. & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. John Wiley & Sons. Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

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