Pedagogy Pointer – What DO your students know?

Research from as far back as the 1980s, and maybe earlier, shows that learning is enhanced and extended if students access prior knowledge before they learn something new.  This give them a frame of reference, or “hook,” on which to hang their new learning (Harvey F. Silver and Matthew J. Perini) thus making recall and understanding easier.  

But how do you know what their prior knowledge is and how can you get them to access it?

ask the


1First, it’s important to note that the prior knowledge may NOT have to be in the new knowledge domain.  For instance, I may have a breadth of knowledge in various software application but may have no prior knowledge of digital photo editing.  However, when learning Photoshop, my prior software understanding will not only speed up my learning of Photoshop, it will help what I do learn stick, because I can relate it back to what I already know.

2Second, you may be able to rely on their life skills, upbringing, or culture to frame new topics.

3Third, think about asking them to recall declarative (facts/meanings) and procedural (problem solving) knowledge.

4Fourth, try to use high-level orienting questions when possible.  Osman & Hannafin state,

“Explicit orienting questions focus learner processes on

question-specific information-often to the detriment

of higher level knowledge and skills such as problem

solving (Hannafin & Hughes, 1986).
High-level orienting questions, in contrast, require

that to-be-learned lesson content be integrated rather

than simply filtered. They imply relationships to be established,

dilemmas to be faced, and problems to be

solved rather than isolating explicitly which information

to process. “


Model of Prior Knowledge
The model of prior knowledge (Copyright 2007. Hailikari, Nevgi & Lindblom-Ylanne)


Create a quiz.  Questions should be a combination of declarative and procedural knowledge.  You can add a mix of questions encompassing what they should know from previous classes, plus a few questions that they should know at the end of the upcoming module/topic/concept.

  • This quiz will NOT be graded.
  • It can give you a sense of what the students know at the outset and what procedures they can apply.
  • You can use the quiz data to help sculpt your teaching.
  • Students can recall material they should hopefully know.

Group work

Problem or Case

Ask the students, in a group, to try to solve a problem or case study that you would normally give them AFTER they have learned the material.  This will require them to all work together to attempt to formulate a solution.  After they read and review the lectures, etc. they can get together in the group to try the same case study or problem again.

Concept Map

Ask the students to brainstorm a concept map with all of the concepts they can think of that relate to the upcoming topic/concept.  Not only do they have to try to recall what may work but they also have to think about how these items connect to one another.

Think About When

You can do these queries at the beginning of the semester or right before each new module or concept. It’s up to you to decide what method works best for your material.



  1. Explain WHY you are doing this.  Tell them the theories of prior knowledge and learning and that this is to help them.  This is an important step so don’t skip it.
  2. When possible, allow them to work in groups or pairs.
  3. Focus on allowing them to see their knowledge in terms of the practical world, not just in regurgitating information but using it to solve problems.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., Norman, M. K., Stephens, C., & Audio, T. (2019). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Tantor Audio.

Beier, M. E., & Ackerman, P. L. (2005). Age, Ability, and the Role of Prior Knowledge on the Acquisition of New Domain Knowledge: Promising Results in a Real-World Learning Environment. Psychology and Aging20(2), 341–355.

Hailikari, T., Katajavuori, N., & Lindblom-Ylanne, S. (2008). The relevance of prior knowledge in learning and instructional design. American journal of pharmaceutical education72(5), 113.

Osman, M., & Hannafin, M. (1994). Effects of Advance Questioning and Prior Knowledge on Science Learning. The Journal of Educational Research, 88(1), 5-13. Retrieved June 8, 2021, from

Silver, H. F., & Perini, M. J. (2010). The Interactive Lecture: How to Engage Students, Build Memory, and Deepen Comprehension (A Strategic Teacher PLC Guide) (Strategic Teacher PLC Guides) (Pap/Pstr ed.). ASCD.

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