Prior Knowledge

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Text taken from APS Principles of Learning:


New information learned depends heavily upon prior knowledge and experience.


Content knowledge or expertise influences how information gets mentally encoded and organized. Learners bring with them a set of assumptions and beliefs that can serve as a mental framework for learning. In "the construction of knowledge," they use prior knowledge to incorporate meaning into newly acquired material. In this way, prior knowledge influences how learners interpret new information and decide what aspects of this information are relevant and irrelevant.

The influence of prior knowledge can be illustrated by comparing experts to novices. In a given domain, experts having a larger knowledge base, compared to novices, can chunk information into more meaningful chunks, which may facilitate learning.

For example, relative to non-experts, chess experts have a better memory for positions of chess pieces on a game board (Chi, 1978). When chess pieces are placed randomly on the board, however, this advantage disappears. This indicates that chess experts do not have superior general memory; rather they are able to draw upon their knowledge of common chess positions when beneficial to remembering.

What you already know usually helps you to learn, but it can also impair learning. This is especially so if prior assumptions or beliefs are misleading, plainly incorrect, or otherwise incompatible with new information. Learners, thus, may be susceptible to committing systematic errors if their interpretation of newly-presented material is based upon faulty logic or knowledge.

Besides being possibly misled, having an extensive knowledge base is not adequate to guarantee optimal learning. In 1929, Alfred Whitehead coined the term, inert knowledge, to reflect the fact that relevant knowledge is not always applied in the right situations. Thus, it is important to cue students' knowledge base (i.e., explicitly reference relevant concepts that are already known) to ensure transfer of learning across situations and contexts.

Educational Applications

Assess students' knowledge at the start of instruction, probing for underlying assumptions and beliefs. Challenge students' common misconceptions by providing examples that prove otherwise. Tailor instruction and explanations to accommodate individuals' prior knowledge and experience when possible. This is may done through providing analogical examples that bridge students' prior knowledge with the new concepts they are to learn.

Practically speaking, it may not be possible in a class setting to target prior knowledge of individual students, so aim to provide a range of explanations or demonstrations of a particularly difficult concept. Depending upon educational background and experiences, individual students may find particular explanations or demonstrations more useful than others. The idea is to cue students' prior knowledge that may be relevant to the learning situation at hand.

Suggested Readings

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. This is the classic in detailing how cultural knowledge influences what details in a story are remembered and what details are misconstrued to fit one's cultural traditions and practices.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking. R. R. (Eds.). (1999) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Research Council. This book evaluates the most current research on learning and teaching. Among other topics, it discusses the role of prior knowledge in learning and the relevance of social and cultural contexts.

Chi, M. T. H. (1978). Knowledge structures and memory development. In R. S. Seigler (Ed.), Children's thinking: What develops? (pp. 76-93). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. This chapter discusses how content knowledge (or domain-expertise), rather than age, aids memory performance under certain circumstances. For example, children who were chess experts demonstrated superior memory for chess positions than did non-expert adults who had superior digit span recall.