Activating Prior Knowledge: Strategies, Examples | Activate Press (2024)

Have you ever noticed that learning something new can seem quite simple at times but more difficult on other occasions? Often, access to prior knowledge, to what students already know, is the difference. By activating prior knowledge, teachers can make learning easier for students.

In this article, we’ll describe prior knowledge and why it might make learning new things quicker and more efficient. We’ll also look at some strategies and examples for activating prior knowledge by having students write down what they know or talk in a whole class discussion.

What is Prior Knowledge?

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Prior knowledge refers to the information and educational environment that a student possesses before learning new material. An individual’s schema refers to their organization, storage and recall of prior information.

When students lack sufficient prior information, learning relies on building a schema from the ground up instead of using existing foundations. As a result, new learning can be challenging and exhausting. A learner’s ability to generate new information is ultimately hampered if they lack past knowledge.

As long as our prior knowledge is accurate and consist with new information, prior knowledge benefits the learning process. The more prior knowledge, the better.

Learning Lab

Taking advantage of existing knowledge before working on a topic can increase a learner’s comprehension and academic literacy. In a specific domain, activating prior knowledge relies on facts, rules and relationships between concepts.

Students’ prior knowledge has long been thought to be the most influential factor for academic learning and performance. Both information acquisition and the ability to use high-order cognitive problem-solving skills are positively influenced by the amount and quality of past knowledge.

Strategies to Activate Prior Knowledge

You can use strategies to activate prior knowledge or background knowledge deliberately. Indeed, any teacher should instinctively try to do this when introducing challenging new material. These are some well-established strategies for activating prior knowledge that can easily be modified and applied less formally if you want.

1. Anticipation guide

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An anticipation guide is a set of ideas about a topic created by the teacher that students answer before learning or reading about the subject. They’re frequently set out as a list of assertions with which students must agree or disagree. This can be done verbally or in writing.

Teachers can use an anticipation guide to determine the main content on which students will focus during the class. It’s a good idea to have students examine their anticipation guides towards the end of each module to evaluate how their thoughts have changed.

2. Mind map classroom brainstorm

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Here is a mind map brainstorm activity that you can do with the whole class or just individually. When you introduce a new topic that students have some familiarity with already, activate students’ prior knowledge with a mind map.

You’ll get the student(s) to create a mind map of concepts related to the topic. Follow these steps.

  1. Write down the concept, e.g. the “Solar System”, inside a circle on a whiteboard or large piece of paper.
  2. Around the circle, have students write down as many related terms and phrases as they can think of. For example, they might write Earth, sun, orbit, planets, one year, Mars and Venus.
  3. Limit the amount of time students have. This speeds up the pace and excitement of the activity.
  4. Keep the mind map visible in the classroom as you explore the main topic, adding new terms and facts as you go.

3. Concept maps

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The next step up from a simple mind map is a concept map. Whereas a mind map is about presenting information visually, a concept map also tries to show relationships between elements.

A concept map is a visual representation of a structured overview. It is a representation of a topic’s essential terms and concepts. The subtopics are connected by lines, indicating their link to the main idea and to one another. The general main points are often in the center, with lines connecting the specifics or examples to these main points.

Such a diagrammatic presentation of a topic facilitates the integration of new information with students’ background knowledge. Teachers can use concept maps to present a topic, determine what learner’s know about the topic, and provide a foundation for further study.

4. Brainstorming related terms

A strategy to incorporate students’ prior knowledge in learning is to brainstorm related terms. This is an informal blend of the mind map and concept map approaches. Before formally studying a topic, the teacher (a) asks students to suggest terms that may come up and (b) as the terms are suggested, asks students to explain what those terms mean and how they relate to the parent topic.

You can see an example of this approach in the video above. The teacher is introducing a non-fiction text on endangered species as part of a guided reading class. Students are asked what terms may come up based just on the front cover of the book, suggesting words such as extinct, habitat and hunter. As a follow up, they’re also asked to clarify what the terminology means and how it connects to the endangered species theme.

5. Preparatory texts

Providing easy preparatory texts can be highly beneficial to establish reading confidence and build background knowledge. As a strategy to establish knowledge on the subject, teachers can present simplified texts that address subjects or ideas similar to those in more complicated works.

Examples of Activating Prior Knowledge

To explain how you might activate prior knowledge, let’s start with a couple of examples.

Example 1. Learning the meaning of “prior knowledge”

This article offers a good example in itself of using pre-existing knowledge. You might not have known the concept of prior knowledge beforehand.

But you would understand what the word “prior” means (before). And you know that “knowledge” is about information.

By attempting to decode and relate both words, you may quickly figure out what prior knowledge loosely means. Your initial concept is hopefully being refined as your brain processes the information you are reading.

If you didn’t know what either of those words meant before you found the article, you probably wouldn’t have made much progress yet. Looking up and understanding the words would have slowed you down from the start.

To help someone understand the meaning of prior knowledge, we can also use similar expressions, such as background knowledge, existing knowledge or even known information. The more we’re able to relate a new concept to what we already know, the faster and more accurately we assimilate that concept.

Example 2. Transferring Concepts Between Sports

Here is another example. Maureen is learning how to play soccer. She is already aware that basketball players have offensive and defensive responsibilities.

In soccer, the concept of offense and defense is a little different because teams have people who exclusively play offense and others who just play defense. Nonetheless, because she had some previous experience with this concept in the sport of basketball, her brain is able to relate it to the new concept in soccer.

Maureen’s learning and understanding of the sport of soccer is made easier because of her previous knowledge of basketball. She quickly adapts to running back and marking up players when asked to play defence. When moved into offence, she instinctively knows to try to create space between herself and opposition players.

Research on Prior Knowledge

With English language learners (ELLs) for example, Jana Echevarria and Deborah Short discovered that utilizing and building past knowledge is critical to enhancing educational proficiency.

According to Carnegie Mellon psychologists, learning anything new is easier when we can connect it to something that we already know; to our background knowledge.

Other research, such as the article “Prior knowledge activation: Inducing engagement with informational texts”, backs up the premise that prior knowledge activation is an important phase in the learning experience. Access to prior knowledge was found to be crucial to reading comprehension and the learning process.

Activating Prior Knowledge: Strategies, Examples | Activate Press (2024)


What is activating prior knowledge strategy? ›

Activating prior knowledge means both eliciting from students what they already know and building initial knowledge that they need in order to access upcoming content.

How do you activate prior knowledge in reading? ›

Power previewing is an effective reading strategy that can activate prior knowledge. Before actively reading a text, students skim the text strategically. This may require some scaffolding on the instructor's part. For example, ask students to preview section headings, boldface words, and definitions.

What is prior knowledge examples? ›

In education, prior knowledge is the learning that a child gathers before entering a classroom for the first time. For instance, one child may enter kindergarten having already learned to identify different colors and to count to ten, based on their activities at home with a caretaker before entering school.

What are APL strategies? ›

The model comprises 26 factors important to HE-education and is named the APL model, A standing for approach, P for practice and L for learning. It addresses both teaching and learning, instructors and students, that is. Factors not supported by the research in the brain and learning are not included.

How does the teacher activate students prior knowledge? ›

Language Arts Strategies – Reading, writing, comprehension

For example, reinforcing comprehension strategies activates student's prior knowledge, and sharing texts of a similar genre works to stimulate curiosity and initiate the inquiry process that will direct the learning.

Which of the following is the best example of an approach to activating a student's prior knowledge about the sea? ›

Which of the following is the best example of an approach to activating a student's prior knowledge about the sea? The best example of a way to activate prior knowledge is interactively reading and discussing a book about the seashore with the child.

What are the five techniques that we can use to develop our active learning skills? ›

Other examples of active learning techniques include role-playing, case studies, group projects, think-pair-share, peer teaching, debates, Just-in-Time Teaching, and short demonstrations followed by class discussion.

What are the 6 strategies for effective learning? ›

Specifically, six key learning strategies from cognitive research can be applied to education: spaced practice, interleaving, elaborative interrogation, concrete examples, dual coding, and retrieval practice.

How do you engage students prior knowledge? ›

Strategies include pointing to upcoming lessons, providing lesson or lecture roadmaps, inviting reflective writing, and active learning activities like concept maps or case studies. Hampshire College provides a helpful list of other activities for engaging student prior knowledge.

What are the 4 pre reading strategies? ›

"Pre-reading includes four steps: preview, predict, prior knowledge, and purpose. You can remember these steps by thinking of them as the '4 Ps.

What is example of applying past knowledge to new situations? ›

Applying past knowledge to new situations means to applying what you learned in the past to a new problem. An example is using simple math in geometry and algebra. Another example is learning about swimming and life saving, a person can use their knowledge to save someone who was drowning at the beach.

How prior knowledge is used in the classroom? ›

More prior knowledge gives students more working memory to acquire more new knowledge to enhance their learning engagement (Sweller et al., 1998). Cognitive load is also affected by instructional design, which can reduce extraneous cognitive load or increase germane cognitive load (Kirschner et al., 2011).

How do you write prior knowledge in a lesson plan? ›

List the main points of the unit you are about to teach, and ask students to write what they already know about each one. Share their answers with the entire group. List the key terms that students will study. Have students write what they believe each term means based on what they already know about the topic.

What are the 4 types of learning strategies? ›

Perhaps the most simple way of describing 'learning styles' is to say that they are different methods of learning or understanding new information, the way a person takes in, understand, expresses and remembers information. There are 4 predominant learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinaesthetic.

What are the 4 anchor strategies of extended comprehension strategies? ›

Anchor Strategies: Summarize, Analyze, Create, Socialize.

What makes APL special? ›

Its signature? Soles made of a special, streamlined material called Propelium, which doesn't break down as quickly as the foam that fills most shock-absorbent shoes.

Why is activating prior knowledge important in the learning process? ›

Activating student prior knowledge helps students to remember what they already know and understand about the area of learning, thus helping them to build on this previous learning.

Which is an example of the students making an active response? ›

Common form of active student response techniques are choral responding, response cards, guided notes, and clickers. While they are commonly used for disabled populations, these strategies can be applied at many different levels of education.

How do you use active learning strategies? ›

Active learning methods ask students to engage in their learning by thinking, discussing, investigating, and creating. In class, students practice skills, solve problems, struggle with complex questions, make decisions, propose solutions, and explain ideas in their own words through writing and discussion.

What are the seven types of strategies? ›

To improve students' reading comprehension, teachers should introduce the seven cognitive strategies of effective readers: activating, inferring, monitoring-clarifying, questioning, searching-selecting, summarizing, and visualizing-organizing.

What is a prior knowledge activity? ›

They are used to assess a learner's prior knowledge of the concept and to clarify any misunderstandings they may have about the subject.

What are examples of pre-reading strategies? ›

Pre-reading examples can include reviewing pictures and tables or figures, jotting down key points and preparing simple questions that'll supplement your understanding of the main text. At work, you're often overwhelmed by the amount of text you have to go through.

What are some examples of pre-reading activities? ›

Pre-reading Activities to Generate Interest

Use visual aids – Use pictures, realia, maps etc. to introduce topic, locations. Relate and link these aids to students' own lives and experiences. Guess the story from the cover – Show the cover to the class and elicit as much vocabulary as you can.

How do teachers activate prior knowledge? ›

Power previewing is an effective reading strategy that can activate prior knowledge. Before actively reading a text, students skim the text strategically. This may require some scaffolding on the instructor's part. For example, ask students to preview section headings, boldface words, and definitions.

Which of the following is a good means to activate prior knowledge? ›

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.

What are activation strategies? ›

A customer activation strategy is an approach to get your users to move past the initial sign-up stage to a point where they derive real value from your product and become loyal customers. Customer activation strategies focus on improving the customer experience by using both qualitative and quantitative data.

What is activation example? ›

Activation (or bioactivation) may also mean the process or state of becoming more effective in carrying out a particular function. For instance, the activation of an enzyme would make the latter perform its specific biological function. Another example is when an inactive prodrug is converted into an active metabolite.

What is activating strategies in strategic management? ›

Activation is the process of stimulating an activity -so that it is undertaken effectively. Activation of strategy is required because only a very small group of people is involved in strategy formulation while its implementation involves a large number of people in the organization.

What is the process of activating the strategy is called? ›

Strategy implementation is the translation of chosen strategy into organizational action so as to achieve strategic goals and objectives.

What is activating teaching methods? ›

Activating methods increase pupil´s involvement, motivation and attention but also develop certain cognitive aspects better than traditional teaching. Activating methods develop skills in capability in analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

What is activation function in simple words? ›

Simply put, an activation function is a function that is added into an artificial neural network in order to help the network learn complex patterns in the data. When comparing with a neuron-based model that is in our brains, the activation function is at the end deciding what is to be fired to the next neuron.

What does activation mean in advertising? ›

Marketing activation is the execution of campaigns, events, and experiences that generate awareness of your brand. Done well, marketing activation resonates with your audience. The activation process focuses on enhancing the path to purchase for customers, often through an interactive experience.

What are the 5 strategies? ›

Mintzberg developed his 5 Ps of Strategy as five different definitions of (or approaches to) developing strategy. He first wrote about the 5 Ps of Strategy in 1987. Each of the 5 Ps is a different approach to strategy. They are Plan, Ploy, Pattern, Position, and Perspective.

What are the 4 active learning approaches? ›

Cattaneo (2017) classifies active learning activities as problem-based learning, discovery-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and case-based learning. She finds that each of these approaches is student-centered, but they vary quite widely in their implementation.

What is the best active learning strategy? ›


This process forces students to think individually, and then allows them to analyze and clarify their response collaboratively. It helps students organize prior knowledge, brainstorm or summarize, and apply and integrate new information.

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