Prior Knowledge

This post was inspired by the book How Learning Works.

How Learning Works by Ambrose et al

“It is not what students do not know that hurts them but rather what they do know”

Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works : seven research-based principles for smart teaching (First, Ser. The jossey-bass higher and adult education series). Jossey-Bass.

I was a brand new assistant professor entering the classroom for the first time. In spite of my assiduous—at times agonizing—preparation, I was anxious that my delivery might fall flat. I was idealistic and naïve, brimming with optimism, yet without a wisp of pedagogical grounding.

It was the fall of 2014, and I was like many young teachers in higher ed: engaged and engorged with my own disciplinary knowledge, but lacking the scholarly underpinnings of effective teaching and learning.

I labored under this implicit assumption: I’ll tell them exactly what they need to know in a fun and engaging style that drives home the importance of the material.

You can’t argue with that ambition, but the hidden premise—that students automatically assimilate new facts into their existing mental structures—is woefully off base. It completely overlooks the role that prior knowledge plays in learning. Students connect new information to preexisting beliefs, values, experience, and assumptions that vary widely from person to person (Ambrose, 2010). This prior knowledge serves as the subconscious foundation on which new knowledge is constructed.

Ambrose, et al, state “it is not what students do not know that hurts them but rather what they do know” (p. 12, 2010). Only through understanding the forms prior knowledge takes can we begin to use it as a help rather than a hindrance.

Prior knowledge that is active, appropriate, sufficient, and accurate aids learning. Prior knowledge that is inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, or inaccurate hinders learning (see figure 1).

Prior knowledge from the book How Learning Works by Ambrose et al (2010)
Figure 1. Qualities of prior knowledge. How Learning Works p.14

Examples

To explore real life cases, let’s consider a typical sentence from the mouth of a librarian:

“As a college student, you must decide when to seek out peer-reviewed journals, popular articles, and ordinary websites.”

Sounds like something I would say.

I’ve chosen the above sentence for two reasons: 1) it’s fundamental to a university librarian’s thinking, and 2) it contains a kernel of each type of prior knowledge.

Activated Knowledge: Journals

When librarians begin blathering about peer-reviewed journals, students are unlikely to know precisely what they mean. Few high school graduates have encountered those three words in exactly that order.

Yet, there’s a well-known concept lying dormant that’s just waiting to be exploited. The simple act of relating the word journal in this new context to something they already know, magazines, will tap into their existing understanding:

“By journal I mean something like a magazine, but often more scholarly; a journal is any regularly published collection of articles that’s in print, online, or both.” We can thus activate their prior knowledge.

Sufficient Knowledge: Peer Review

Peer review is an important concept for understanding research in the sciences and humanities. Yet, a discussion of peer review with undergraduates is prone to insufficient knowledge. It is likely to trigger thoughts of 18-to-23-year-old college students looking over each others’ work. That is accurate, but doesn’t go far enough.

As with the word journal, a helpful analogue can establish students’ existing knowledge and build on it:

“How many of you have had a teacher ask you to swap papers with a classmate and provide each other with suggested improvements?”

[Several students nod or raise their hands]

“That’s how peer review works, but it’s usually done by people, like many of your professors, with PhDs in the field.”

Having laid this foundation, the instructor can elaborate on peer review’s finer points. However they proceed, it all hinges on establishing sufficient prior knowledge.

Appropriate Knowledge: Popular Articles

Ambrose, et al, refer to a psychology class that discusses behaviorism. Negative reinforcement, the removal of an aversive stimulus in order to increase a desired behavior, is misunderstood by more than half the class. The cause of the confusion is the implicit association of negative with bad and, by extension, punishment. As a result, sixty percent of the students get it wrong on the test. Try as they might, the professor simply can’t overcome the interference of inappropriate prior knowledge.

Any in-depth discussion of academic research will elucidate the distinction between peer-reviewed and popular sources. But any librarian or instructor who does so risks making an inappropriate link in students’ minds. Popular, in everyday parlance, refers to that which is very widely used, read, known, or liked, as in popular music. For our purposes though, popular is that which pertains to regular people, as in popular vote. A concise explanation should aid learning:

Popular articles aren’t necessarily the ones that got the most clicks or the most shares. Popular here means for everyday people. They’re written for the average person in society.” A statement such as this should foster appropriate prior knowledge.

Accurate Knowledge: Websites

The foregoing examples show how to harness prior knowledge that is active, sufficient, and appropriate. It almost doesn’t need mentioning that, to be useful, prior knowledge must also be accurate.

Today’s college students have been Internet users since preschool, and over the years they’ve been given all sorts of Internet advice by teachers and parents. One that I consistently encounter is the notion that dot-org websites are more trustworthy than dot-coms because they are not trying to make money. I was even taught this in graduate school, but it is based on a misconception. This typical dialogue shows how I draw out and correct my students’ prior knowledge:

“Have you had teachers tell you before how to avoid misleading websites?”

Nods of agreement.

“What advice did they give you?”

The dot-org notion usually comes up first.

“Has anyone else heard that from their teachers?”

More nods.

“I hear that all the time, but let me ask you: who here has their own website or blog?”

A hand or two goes up.

“Basically anyone in the world can do what you did: buy an available domain for $8.99, install WordPress with a nice-looking theme, and start publishing content within a few minutes. There is no one policing the motives of dot-org, dot-com, or any other websites. More to the point, no one is fact-checking the web. We need different rules to guide us if we are to avoid misinformation.”

This brief exchange engages students and gently, but effectively corrects their prior knowledge.

Conclusion

I hope the preceding examples convincingly conveyed prior knowledge in all its forms, both helpful and hindering. Even a seemingly innocuous statement like the one I provided can succumb hindrance. Here’s the sentence again:

“As a college student, you must decide when to seek out peer-reviewed journals, popular articles, and ordinary websites.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

Early in my career, I naively spoke such sentences blithely unaware of which sorts of prior knowledge were invoked. My naivete almost certainly resulted in misunderstanding and confusion. But with a little conscientious inquiry, any instructor can carefully draw out prior knowledge that is active, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate, much to the benefit of students. Instructors are free and encouraged to contemplate such examples from their own teaching disciplines.

References

Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works : seven research-based principles for smart teaching (First, Ser. The jossey-bass higher and adult education series). Jossey-Bass.

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