Weekly Teaching Note
Mar 16 2011
Importance of Students’ Prior Knowledge

“. . . the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe . . ..”

Implications for Teaching and Learning

“A logical extension of the view that new knowledge must be constructed from existing knowledge is that teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject. Teachers then need to build on these ideas in ways that help each student achieve a more mature understanding. If students' initial ideas and beliefs are ignored, the understandings that they develop can be very different from what the teacher intends.”

Try the following strategies to determine if your students understand the material, and to uncover possible misconceptions:

  1. Have students put a key concept into their own words.  You might even identify a particular audience. (Examples:  Explain the concept of “corporation” to high school students; Explain an “irrevocable trust” to a group of retirees.)
  2. Have students offer their own applications and/or examples for a key concept (Examples: Stephen Covey recommends “Win-win performance agreements”: give two specific applications, one related to current news and one related to your own life. Give a concrete example of the concept “due process.”)
  3. Have students formulate ways to show relationships (Example: concept maps)
  4. Have students summarize the main points after 15 minutes of lecture or demonstration. Stop part way through your presentation and ask students to summarize your main points so far. Keep the papers anonymous. If students are confused, ask them to write questions they need answered. Collect the papers and quickly sift through them to confirm and clarify the important points for everyone.
  5. Have students summarize the main points at the end of class by using a “Minute Paper.” Ask students to respond to two questions: What is the most significant thing you learned today? What question about the material is foremost in your mind that you would like answered next time we meet? You can keep the responses anonymous, or you can use them for attendance by having students sign and turn in their responses. After class, review student comments, sort them by categories, and use them to structure a review for the next class session.


  • Academy of Art University, Feedback in a Flash! Accessed 3/9/2011 at http://faculty.academyart.edu/resource/tips/1840.html
  •  Angelo. T. A. and Cross K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass.
  •  Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Barbara Millis
Teaching and Learning Center
University of Texas at San Antonio

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