1. Connecting new to known

When you connect new information to something you already know, you are able to make better sense of the new information or remember it. You probably feel like you are drinking water from a fire-hose when people throw large amounts of totally new information at you. Both of these experiences have something to do with prior knowledge and limited working memory.  

According to Richard Mayer, prior knowledge plays a very important role in learning. Prior Knowledge is stored in long-term memory, which is vast in capacity. In long term memory, knowledge elements are organized into coherent structures. These coherent mental structures are called schemas.

When new information comes into working memory, schemas get transferred from long term memory into your limited working memory. The schemas then help learners select relevant incoming knowledge elements, organize them, and integrate new to known. When this process happens, the new information “makes sense” to you (1).

  1. Chunking

With the help of schemas retrieved from long-term memory, many new individual knowledge elements in working memory get organized into a single knowledge structure. This process is called chunking. This chunking process creates space in the working memory, and allows more information to enter in your limited working memory (1).  

That is why the more relevant knowledge you have, the better you understand and remember the new information.

  1. How do you assess students’ Prior Knowledge?

So if prior knowledge plays an important role in learning, how can instructors assess if students have appropriate prior knowledge for the topics that they are going to cover? Here are some suggestions.

  • Give a diagnostic assignment, such as a low or no stakes quiz or essay. 
  • Ask students to do braindumps — writing down everything they know about the topics that they need to have knowledge of — and create a concept map with a main topic in the center linking all the supporting concepts. The concept map should show the instructor where the knowledge gaps are.
  • Ask students to assess their own prior knowledge (2).

These exercises should give instructors ideas on how to approach the material they want to cover.

  1. How to activate students’ Prior Knowledge?

Even if students have appropriate prior knowledge, unless it is activated, students cannot use it. The appropriate schemas need to be transferred from long term memory to working memory to help select and organize incoming information by integrating new to known. Students might not remember that they have appropriate prior knowledge. They might not know when or how to use that knowledge. Here are some ways to help activate the appropriate prior knowledge.

  • Use a concept map activity and ask students to share their maps and reasoning with classmates. 
  • Give retrieval practices — calling information to mind from memory —  in the form of low stakes tests from last week, chapter, semester, or year.
  • Let students engage in an elaborative interrogation by asking them how and why questions. Let them explain and describe ideas with many details.
  • Ask them to make predictions about the incoming information before they actually encounter it based on their relevant prior knowledge.
  • Give small prompts or reminders to make knowledge connections. 
  1. How to give some extra prior knowledge to boost their learning

If students do not have the appropriate prior knowledge, it is hard for them to make the incoming knowledge elements stick.

Before you start reading a book, you might look at the table of contents, headings, images, and index to see which words or phrases appear often and make a note of them. You do that because this process gives you some relevant prior knowledge.  

In the same way, instructors want to try providing students with as much relevant prior knowledge as possible. Mayer lists pre-training as one of the evidence-based instructional principles for managing essential processing. Before giving a complex lesson, giving the names and characteristics of the key concepts helps students to understand the lesson better (3). 

But what if students have inaccurate prior knowledge, misconceptions, or misunderstandings? You can try letting them notice the internal contradictions by asking them to explain their reasoning. Simply showing how accurate knowledge is used is probably not enough since a lot of misconceptions have been reinforced by multiple exposures. Therefore, students need to have sufficient opportunities to use accurate knowledge in the right contexts and conditions.

As you can see, prior knowledge plays a crucial role in learning. It can help or interfere with learning depending on its extent and nature. But there are some ways to activate appropriate prior knowledge and overcome inaccurate prior knowledge.


  1. Mayer, R. (2011). Applying the Science of Learning. Boston, Person. 34-37.
  2. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 10-39.
  3. Mayer, R. (2011). Applying the Science of Learning. Boston, Person. 68.

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