What does it mean to “activate prior knowledge” and why is it so important to learning? Psychologists have known for a long time that prior information plays a key role in learning. If learners know information about a topic, they connect with that previous knowledge and build on it in a process called elaboration (Schwatz, Son, Kornell & Finn, 2011). If there is little or no previous knowledge, the learner must build foundational knowledge from the ground up, which makes learning more difficult. This is why novice learners take longer to learn new information than experts in the field.
When an instructor designs activities to activate prior knowledge before teaching new content, this produces the most complex learning. Below are descriptions of three activities that prompt the long-term memory for previous knowledge and prepare students to learn new content.
An alphabet brainstorm is a quick and lively way to activate prior knowledge before teaching a new topic. Students are asked to think about everything they know about a particular topic—make sure to select a broad topic for the prompt. Students are given a brainstorming grid with a cell for each letter of the alphabet. The grids can be printed or shared as a Google document. Students can even use a whiteboard if one is available in the classroom.
Students can work independently for the first 5 minutes or so to generate initial ideas, and then get in small groups to compare their grids and explain or define their terms. If there is time, groups can share notable associations or groups can pass the grids around the class or share the electronic documents for all to see.
For example, a literature class might be reading a novel that takes place during World War I. To fully appreciate the meaning of the novel, it will be helpful for the students to contextualize the story within the political and historical landscape of World War I. The instructor knows key concepts that are crucial to understanding the plot and inherent meaning. While students probably studied World War I in high school history class, it may have been sometime since they have drawn on that knowledge. Assigning an alphabet brainstorm on World War I would be an excellent way to activate prior knowledge and prepare them to read and analyze the novel (see image below).
Bridge Activity for Flipped Classes
In flipped classrooms—a class where students read materials and view lectures outside of class and work through more analytical or practical activities in class—a bridge activity can help students transition from their pre-class work to in-class learning by activating prior knowledge. Jaclyn Stewart and Gregory Drake introduced such a bridge activity to their large enrollment, flipped organic chemistry class. The findings suggest their version of the bridge activity is an effective way for students to activate prior knowledge and learn more effectively in a flipped classroom (Stewart & Drake, 2019).
Students prepared by reading content and watching content related videos with lecture-style worked examples. A short online pre-class quiz was mandatory prior to class attendance. During class, students worked on worksheets in groups or independently. “Our bridge activities had a number of formats: short answer, chemical drawings, fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false, and multiple choice. Within these formats, we tested definitions, conceptual understanding, and familiarity with chemical reactions” (2427). The bridge activity they designed is a worksheet students complete after they have finished both the readings and the quiz. Students brought two copies of their completed worksheet to class, one of which was collected for grading. (The grading was simplified to a participation grade for demonstrated effort—students were not penalized for misunderstandings.) During class, the instructor then led a discussion on the worksheet questions to remind students of the content and clarify their understanding. Students could revise the extra worksheet they brought to class. For a detailed example of the worksheet Stewart and Drake use, read the full article in the Journal of Chemical Education (see References below).
Visual analysis is another engaging way to activate prior knowledge. Analyzing images involves breaking down elements of an image and understanding how those elements convey ideas and feelings and how those ideas resonate with the viewer’s values and beliefs. To analyze an image, students have to draw on their own knowledge and understanding of the world. What are the social, political, economic implications of the image? In other words, what do they already know about the context surrounding the image? This is what it means to activate prior knowledge and prepare the brain to connect to and add on to its existing understanding.
Before teaching new content, find a powerful and relevant image associated with the topic. Visit Artstor for images of art or search U-M image databases for historical photos and images. Show the students the image and give them time to think about its meaning, either independently or in groups. Encourage students to avoid looking up information about the image; instead, they should consult their memories to activate the previously gained knowledge that is already there. Below are some general questions that can be used for prompts in visual analysis.
- What does the image encourage us to think? What seems to be the main idea of the image?
- What beliefs or values does the image support or appeal to?
- What do you know about the artist? Who is the intended audience?
- How do text and image work together?
- What is missing from the image?
- Is there an argument to be read? Is there political motivation?
- What do the details of the image suggest (focus, composition, framing, lighting, texture, angle, and significance)?
- What are the social, economic, political, and/or historical implications of the image?
Activating prior knowledge is a crucial part of learning, but it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Try one of these simple techniques the next time you introduce new content to students.
Schwartz, B.L., Son, L., Kornell, N. & Finn, B. (2011). Four principles of memory improvement: A guide to improving learning efficiency. International Journal of Creativity and Problem-Solving, 21, 7-15.
Stewart, Jaclyn J, & Dake, Gregory R. (2019). Activating Students’ Prior Knowledge Using a Bridge Activity as an Initial Interactive Discussion in a Flipped Organic Chemistry Course. Journal of chemical education, 96(11), 2426–2431. Easton: American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.
Buehl, D. (2014). Classroom activities for interactive learning. International Reading Association.