Activating Prior Knowledge

Classroom Strategies

Sep 11

One of the foundations of effective rigorous acquisition as well as strong support for struggling students is that teachers activate prior knowledge. Activating prior knowledge not only helps students make connections between what they know already and what they are about to learn, it helps students become mentally engaged in upcoming learning.

We’ve been hearing about the power of activating prior knowledge for a long time, but at Mindsteps, we’ve seen many activating strategies used ineffectively over the last few years. If you want to use activating strategies more effectively, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Activate Relevant Prior Knowledge: What students know already is a great tool for helping them learn something new. Their pre-existing knowledge acts as a foundation on which they can build new knowledge and helps them connect what they are learning to what they know already. These kinds of connections are what makes new learning make sense. Think about what students have learned already and how it might help them learn the key concepts of an upcoming lesson. Be very strategic here and only choose the prior knowledge that is directly related to what you want students to learn. Then choose an activating strategy that not only surfaces that prior knowledge, but also sets students up to be successful with the upcoming lesson format. For instance, if you want students to read a passage, you will need an activating strategy that helps reacquaint them with the foundation concepts and key vocabulary in the reading passage as well as prepares them to read more successfully. Advanced organizers may work better in that situation. However, if you are preparing the class for a discussion or interactive lecture, brainstorming or KWL’s might work better. Or, if you are building on previous concepts as part of a sequential lesson, then using a word splash might make more sense. Check out this month’s TIP sheet (available to newsletter subscribers only) for how to use these activators with your students.
  2. Minimize Irrelevant Prior Knowledge: Not all activating strategies are created equally. Sometimes in an attempt to entice students to learn, we can actually activate the wrong kind of prior knowledge. Instead of preparing students for learning, we actually distract students with prior knowledge that is unrelated or that makes new learning even more confusing. Be careful about using drama and emotion or interesting tidbits to stimulate interest, especially when students have limited background knowledge to begin with. While these additions may be related to the topic, they are not directly relevant to what you want students to learn and therefore can serve to distract students from what’s really important. It’s okay to include stories and interesting details as long as they are directly related to your learning objectives.
  3. Compensate for Missing Prior Knowledge: Sometimes students don’t have the prior knowledge they need to really understand and master the concepts in an upcoming lesson. Thus, instead of activating prior knowledge, you will need to create it. You can design activities for students 2-3 days before the lesson that help students develop the relevant background knowledge they will need for an upcoming lesson. Such activities can include giving students a reading (on their reading level) that explains background knowledge, teaching a mini-lesson on the topic, showing students a clip from a movie or documentary and following up with a class discussion, or give students a diagram, illustration, or multimedia presentation. These and other methods provide students with an important knowledge base on which they can build in the main lesson. The point is to create activities that build relevant background knowledge prior to exposure to the new lesson content. Then, just before the lesson, you can use activating strategies to remind students of what they just learned and how it will relate to what they are about to learn.

Here are a four questions to ask as you plan your activators:

  • Does my lesson lend itself to an activator? Not every lesson needs an activator. Activators work best with lessons that involve concepts. Activating strategies may not be as useful in lessons that involve procedural skills.
  • Do your students have the prior knowledge they need? If your students already have considerable prior knowledge, they may not need additional support. If they have little or no related prior knowledge, then you will need to build prior knowledge first.
  • Are there any distracting details in your lesson that might activate irrelevant prior knowledge? Eliminate any details that may distract students from the main point of the lesson.
  • What is the most appropriate activator given the type of background knowledge students need and how you want them to use it in an upcoming lesson? Choose activating strategies that directly set students up to be successful in your upcoming lesson.

Click here to  learn more about activating prior knowledge.

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(31) comments

[…] Activating Prior Knowledge […]

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    Tammy December 5, 2016

    Talking to them about their families and histories can sometimes make the bridge if the selection takes place in the past..

    Reply

[…] help your students comprehend a more challenging text is by activating their prior knowledge and/or build necessary background knowledge about the content of the […]

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    Dee May 26, 2017

    I think your suggestions are very helpful and straight to the point

    Reply

[…] skipping over some discussion, some give and take. As I drew pictures, I “activated prior knowledge“, elicited responses as to what slope was, what the slope-intercept form represented, etc. […]

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[…] what they believe the book will be about. Predicting in this way can help activate a child’s prior knowledge  which readies the student to learn new information by connecting it to what they already […]

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    Tammy December 5, 2016

    Most Students love to predict what the story will be about and choose things that interest them and put them in the story…whether its time travel or characters with super human powers..its interesting to hear them make predication

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    Becky December 5, 2016

    Yes, predicting what the story is about from the title, pictures from the story etc is a great way activate riot knowledge by connecting to their lives.

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      Robyn Jackson December 7, 2016

      Agreed!

      Reply
Anita October 10, 2016

I feel that visuals work well,making learning games using prior lesson content.

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    Robyn Jackson October 20, 2016

    Anita, I love visuals too!

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      Tammy December 5, 2016

      Visuals are one of the best ways, especially if you can find something that is a piece of art to then talk about the artist.

      Reply
Anita October 10, 2016

I like to use visuals, to include games to review prior content

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Anita Venable October 10, 2016

Unable to move on

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Karen November 29, 2016

You really do need to know about prior knowledge.

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    Becky December 5, 2016

    I agree

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Colleen Siebener December 4, 2016

Activating prior knowledge is essential to student learning. Not only does it begin to connect ideas for students, but it also allows for teachers to know where to focus or how to provide more or less knowledge.

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Colleen Siebener December 4, 2016

Activating prior knowledge connects ideas for students, but it also allows for teachers to know where to focus or how to provide more or less knowledge.

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Becky December 5, 2016

Prior knowledge helps in literature when introducing a story from a different era. Some students connect through knowledge of family and older relatives.

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Tammy December 5, 2016

Assess their prior knowledge and by using a visual see if they can predict the story based on what they already know about the character and the visual.

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Shane Smith December 13, 2016

Activating strategies work best for me when designed to hook each individual student in my classroom.

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Tommy December 13, 2016

Visuals and Examples

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Christine Metcalfe December 15, 2016

At high school, I always build on prior research knowledge. At elementary, students often try to predict what will happen next in the story. I also relate the story to other ones we have read.

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matt December 16, 2016

During a PE lesson, prior skill tasks or vocabulary discussions can often be part of the very first thing you do with your kids before teaching the next concept.

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    Shelia Davis May 12, 2017

    Totally agree

    Reply
Anita May 16, 2017

I think having a mini-lesson on the topic is a great strategy.

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Anna Miner May 18, 2017

Bringing everyone together helps join ideas and work together. General questions help get a topic started.

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Toni McComas October 24, 2017

It’s important to have or create background knowledge for students to help them connect to what they are learning to what they already know.

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[…] Activate background knowledge: Make time to connect your students with what they already know about what they are about to learn. And make sure that each learner in the room has the opportunity to connect with their prior knowledge. Use turn and talk or other ways to take an extra minute to stimulate each thinker’s schema. […]

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Cynthia Rehm December 18, 2017

The information in this article was very informative. I will try this with the students I work with.

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[…] (2017, September 11). Activating Prior Knowledge. Mindsteps. Retrieved from https://mindstepsinc.com/2012/09/activating-prior-knowledge/ […]

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