Episode 79 The importance of prior knowledge

Show Notes

Key Point #1: Prior knowledge is the most important factor!

  • David Ausubel said “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly.”
  • It is easier to build on existing knowledge than to learn new material from the beginning
  • So Identify it!

Key Point #2: What do students need to already know?

  • Identify what students need to know in order to learn the new information.
  • Cannot just teach Newton’s laws of physics if students do not know what a force is.
  • Cannot teach a students to read a book, without knowing their letters, sounds, morphemes etc
  • Identify common misunderstandings you may need to overcome. eg) if I think the sound f and th are the same I will struggle with my spelling. Or if I think all the energy systems function independently and do not overlap, I cannot then see how an athlete can play football.

Key Point #3: What do they already know?

  • Find this out
  • Formative assessment
  • Get to know them for other connections

Key Point #4: How can you help them connect prior knowledge with the new?

  • Your job is to help students build on their current knowledge to learn the new
  • Make the connections explicit
  • Chunk information that is related
  • Help the student see the organisation, structure and meaning in what they are learning.
  • Provide an overview of the topic to serve as an advanced organiser

Lifelong learning

  • Teach the importance of this to your students
  • Teach them to purposefully connect the new and the old for better learning
  • Give them skills for future learning


Dan: (00:00)
Hi, and welcome back to the effective teaching podcast. I’m your host. Dan Jackson, today is episode 79 and we are looking at how important student prior knowledge is for learning. Well, I want to start by telling you that prior knowledge is the number one most important factor when it comes to student learning. Okay. I’ll say it again. The number one most important factor is for you to know the prior knowledge of your students when it comes to learning. In fact, David Ausubel said that “the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows, ascertain this, and then teach him accordingly.” It is easier to build on existing knowledge and to learn new material from the beginning without actually having a connection to, to put with it. Right? So identify this. You need to know what your students already know when you’re creating units.

Dan: (01:05)
When you’re creating lesson plans, when you’re teaching kids in your classroom, you need to find out what they know, because it is the number one most important factor or largest influencer on what students can learn. Right? In fact, there’s some quote somewhere. I’m sure I’ve said, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen where it basically says that know the biggest thing that influences what you can learn and what you already know. Okay. So you need to make sure you know this. So what do students need to already know? That’s what I went with. The next point I want you to get to is if you’re looking at creating some kind of lesson or unit, and you’re looking at the content that they have to learn the new stuff, right? I want you to think, what is it that I’m presuming that these students already know to be teaching this to them?

Dan: (01:52)
Or what do they already need to know in order to understand this right? Identify what students need to know in order to learn that new information, you cannot just teach Newton’s laws of physics. For example, if the students don’t actually know what a force is, okay, they need to learn force. And then you can start to teach them about opposite and equal reacting forces and all that kind of stuff. Okay. You cannot teach kids how to read a book without them actually already knowing their letters, their sounds morphine’s phonetics. Like there’s so much that goes into reading. And if your students don’t have the ability to read and you’re asked them to read something, they’re not going to get it. They’re not going to learn that. Okay. So you need to have a look. What are the things that they already need to know? And not just need to know all the things that already may be able to do as well.

Dan: (02:40)
Right? There’s those prior knowledge, but there’s also prized skills that might be needed for what you’re doing. Okay. The next thing I should do once you’ve identified the things that they need to know right. Is identify some common misunderstandings that you are going to need to overcome. Okay. So maybe a student thinks they know what forces and they have a misunderstanding of it. That’s quite common. Okay. Or maybe if I’m getting the read, maybe students haven’t distinguished the sounds of F so and right. Uh, and that means that they’re going to struggle to spell things. I’m going to get them to write stuff and they can’t get that correct. Because they actually can’t distinguish the sounds. Okay. It’s kind of like an ER, right. Students often don’t distinguish those two sounds. And so I know that’s a common, it’s under section a misunderstanding. And so I’m going to correct it before I even get into what’s coming.

Dan: (03:35)
Okay. Uh, another one, if, if I think that my, if my students think that all the energy systems in the body function independently, that they don’t overlap. Okay. I can’t then ask them to see how an athlete can play football and what energy systems are being used and how they relate. But it’s a very complex system. If the students haven’t gotten the basics and understand that they actually are all connected, they can’t then move forward with the understanding of that. So next, now that you’ve worked out what they need to know, need to check, do they already know that? Okay, so you define this out, do some kind of formative or diagnostic assessments, okay. With your students. I would do this at the beginning of a unit, for example. Uh, and if you’re about to start a new topic within the unit, do it again, check that they’ve got it.

Dan: (04:27)
And if something is flowing, if something is going from, I’ve just taught this, and now we’re about to teach this topic. But if they haven’t understood the original topic, they can’t actually get the new bit. Right. So I’ve just taught something about force. And now we’re going to go into more detail about Newton’s laws. For example, if you want to check that the students actually have done that learning. So formative assessment is really key there for knowing if they’re ready to move on. Okay. Making sure they’ve grasped the basics before you move them on into deeper thinking and other things. Do they already know what they need that prior knowledge for the new information, you’re about to teach them if they don’t, they need to get them to know that, okay, you also might want to find out what else your students might know that you can connect with.

Dan: (05:16)
Okay. So let’s say they don’t know force, but they do understand something about acceleration and cars and they’re really into cars. Right? And they’ve seen measurements of force in when they’re looking about engines, but they don’t quite understand what that means. And so you can then pull on that information that they’ve already got to then teach them the new stuff. Okay. So even if they don’t have the prior knowledge you have identified, you don’t identify where are they at in relation to this understanding that I’m trying to get them to next, you want to think of how can you help them to connect their prior knowledge that they already have with the new stuff that you are going to be giving? Okay. Your job is to help students to build on their current knowledge in order to learn the new knowledge, right. To move into this new space, this new topic.

Dan: (06:08)
So you want to try and make the connections really explicit. Okay. So when I’m talking about energy systems and ATP, I can talk about the explicit connections between all the energy systems that are producing ATP. They all produce at a particular rates. They’ve recovered particular rates, and the connections can be seen in that, in that process. When I’m, when I go through and talk about, you know, we’re going to expire on this one and it’s gonna start to recuperate, but in order for it to recuperate, this other system has to be providing the ATP for this one to replenish. So there’s lots of things that I can go into there. Uh, or maybe it’s with, with reading, I’m going to make things explicit, right? We’re going to be learning the difference between and today. All right. So then I’m going to start to identify words that they are using.

Dan: (06:54)
So the thing, and we’re going to talk about fingers, right. And we’re going to make it really clear distinctions and then lead into the words that are harder, where students might more be more likely to get them confused, right? Like, uh, how to spell writing, for example, the w is the R or right. Which you got issues there that you’ve got to sort out common misunderstandings that are going to come up. So you want to make these connections explicit for the new information that’s coming clearly connected with the old, okay. Make those connections as clear as possible. Next you want to look at the information you’re presenting to your students and think does some of this information actually really clearly relate to each other? Like, can I chunk it together in how I teach it so that the kids are getting all this related and connected information at once and they can kind of then see that as one kind of unit that they’re connecting with something they already know, or is there stuff that I need to look when I’m looking at the new content?

Dan: (07:56)
Do I need to structure it in a way where the students are getting, it’s going to build upon itself? You know, so they’re going to get the new foundation bit, and then they’re going to get the B just beyond that. And then a bit beyond that. And so I might start by saying, all right, there’s two different types of managers and there’s a robotic energy systems and there’s anaerobic energy systems. Okay. Now let’s build upon that. What are the aerobic energy system? What are the do some examples around that connecting intern types of training, maybe and aerobic training and all those types of things. And then I’ll do the anaerobic. And there’s a connection there because the, an that’s before aerobic is without oxygen now. And so now I’m going to break that down for that and talk about those processes. So can you chunk that knowledge together for them next?

Dan: (08:42)
You want to see if you can help the students to see the organization, the structure and the meaning and what they’re learning. So is the information I’ve given them in the syllabus. It might look to like it’s kind of structured, but can you clearly structure and organize it and show the meaning really clearly to your students so that it’s easier for them to learn it. Okay. Maybe you’re going to provide an overview, right? If you give a student an overview of a topic before you then go into it in detail, that actually automatically helps them to organize and structure that content, because it works as an advanced organizer for them as they go into learning it, they go, okay, I’ve got to put this into these structures, right? So I might start by saying, there’s aerobic and anaerobic. And so some of our big things going here and anaerobic things going here, and we’re going to segregate it.

Dan: (09:31)
There’s a big overview. There’s a handout for that. And there’s like these topics headliners. So, okay. As learning stuff, they go underneath those topics, those headlines, uh, and that helps the students to structure it, which then helps them to learn it. And it also helps them to connect it with their prior knowledge. Okay. Particularly if you’ve making those connections explicit between the prior knowledge and the new knowledge, when it comes to the lifelong learning aspect of the importance of prior knowledge, when you want to do is make sure that you actually teach this to your students, teach them explicitly, that they need to be thinking about their prior knowledge as they’re learning new knowledge. So if they learn something new or there’s new information coming, they need to be thinking in their brain. How does this connect with something else I already know? Can I find connections here?

Dan: (10:19)
Okay. And that can help your students to learn that information. And so they’re developing that skill. That’s then required for life that when they’re learning something and go, Oh, I can connect that with this. And that helps it to become more of a memorable. You want to teach them to purposely connect the new and the old and give them the skills for future learning because as they come into the future, whatever it is they’re going to learn. There might be some problem that’s put before them. They can go, okay, this is new, but I have this knowledge that I can connect to that. And that will help me to learn stuff. Or I have this skill about background that might help me to solve this problem. And so I can start to fall on that, do some research and adjust my process for solving that problem.

Dan: (10:58)
That might help me now. So we’re really looking at developing that skill of learning in your students as they move forward, to help them to become lifelong learners. Well, that’s it for this episode, if you liked it, please click the subscribe button, make sure that you leave a review. If you’re in a good mood and please head over to teacherspd.net/79. If you want to grab a copy of the show notes or see the transcript, I hope you will then come back next week and join me as I look into how frameworks can impact learning.

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