Prior Knowledge

Table of Contents

What is Prior Knowledge?

Prior knowledge can be briefly defined as the information, life experiences, and beliefs that advise how individuals interpret and classify new information. 

How can Prior Knowledge be used in the classroom?

Assessing prior knowledge can be a great way to set students up for success. By tapping into what students already know and leveraging it to link to new concepts and information, instructors create a framework for not only learning, but also retention.

While prior knowledge can certainly help students understand concepts better, inaccurate or incomplete prior knowledge can have the opposite effect. In order to ensure that students’ prior knowledge is sufficient and accurate, faculty should take care when assessing and supplementing their understanding.

Assessment of prior knowledge can take many forms depending on the content and could be as formal as implementing a diagnostic tool or as informal as asking students to brainstorm what they think of when considering a topic as part of a class discussion. When creating an assessment for prior knowledge, consider that students may be reluctant to admit openly what they don’t know. Especially when conducting the assessment at the start of the course, reassure your students that their responses will not be graded or, if possible, even left anonymous.

After students’ prior knowledge has been assessed, faculty can activate that knowledge to more powerfully put learning in context and address any existing gaps. Some strategies for this include explicitly stating the prior knowledge required or making comparisons between students’ experiences and course content.

Next Steps for Using Prior Knowledge in the classroom.

Consider implementing some of these strategies in your classroom:

  • Concept Inventories, such as a pre-test, to gauge students’ understanding of fundamental concepts. These are usually designed with correct answers in mind and can reveal gaps in student knowledge.
  • Self-Assessment Probes, which allow students to rate their own familiarity or comfort level with topics.


Constructivism from DLI

Building Upon Students’ Prior Knowledge and Skills from Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Are You Tapping Into Prior Knowledge Often Enough in Your Classroom? By Edutopia