Understanding Prior Knowledge: A Guide for Instructors and Teachers

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1. Prior Knowledge Explained

Prior knowledge can be defined as information you know on a topic prior to learning more about it. This could be acquired through dabbling in a topic through interest, reading something in passing, or facts and information passed on from others.

The existing knowledge you have can be a real asset to comprehending and understanding new information and experiences both for instructors and teachers as well as the students themselves. For a teacher or assessor, taking past knowledge into account when developing teaching strategies can help make new information more relatable to learners.

2. Gaining Prior Knowledge

There are many ways you can gain prior knowledge and a lot of it is likely to be subconsciously obtained. One of the first ways is through direct personal experiences. This could be that you've traveled somewhere and first-hand done what you are teaching about. It could be a skill you have such as cooking a certain meal or it might be riding a bike. You can also obtain prior knowledge through education; both formal, such as university, or informal learning such as through books and documentaries.

Your social and cultural background can influence your perspectives, beliefs, and what you learn and it might be that you know a friend or family member who has imparted knowledge on a particular subject matter to you in the past.

3. Activating Prior Knowledge in Reading

If you have prior knowledge on a topic, this will be a great help when it comes to teaching a subject. You might have touched upon something you're going to teach in the past for example and now want to tap into that to further help your methods with your students.

Activating this prior knowledge through reading is a strategy often used and can be highly useful for making connections between what you already know and what you're going to build upon. Reading enables you to improve your retention of the subject matter, enhance your comprehension, and strengthen your critical thinking of a topic. You’ll likely be surprised at how much you remember and how much better you understand topics that you have prior knowledge of.

When reading, you want to first preview the text to give you an idea of what you're going to delve into. This can help you access relevant prior knowledge. You should ask yourself questions and think about what you want to build on, connect to what you already know about the topic, and make predictions on what you think the book will cover based on what you know already. Take notes as you go and once you've finished reading, make time to reflect and summarize what you learned, what you knew already, and how your perception or idea of the topic may have changed.

4. Using Prior Knowledge in Social Studies

Social studies requires you to remember a lot of dates, important historical events, societal dynamics, and political and cultural contexts. Use prior knowledge to help them grasp these concepts, comparing and contrasting current issues with historical ones. Analyze different perspectives, ask questions, and teach your students gradually rather than sharing too much information all at once.

5. Connecting Prior Knowledge to New Content

The process of connecting prior knowledge to new content enables you to bridge the gaps in your information and build a deeper understanding of a topic. When teaching a topic you want to be as knowledgeable as possible so this cognitive process is a great strategy for building on this. In order to effectively do this, you need to first preview your new content, whether this is visuals, diagrams, news articles, or books. This way you can get an overview of what you're going to learn and make mental connections between what you already know and what you're going to learn.

Reflect on personal experiences you have had such as through your hobbies, work, or personal life, and how they can relate. You should also link what you're learning to current affairs or things that have happened in the past - this can help make the material more relatable and therefore easier to digest.

6. Importance of Prior Knowledge in Learning

Prior knowledge is one of the most fundamental tools for learning and is very helpful for students. Prior knowledge serves as a foundation for which new knowledge is built and makes it much easier to digest facts, figures, and information. Without this, new topics can seem harder to grasp and take longer to comprehend.

Prior knowledge also helps you understand new concepts better, aids in memory and retention, helps to make topics more engaging and motivating, and means you can recognize patterns that help you learn.

7. Building on Students' Prior Knowledge

Building on a student's prior knowledge is a pivotal part of the learning process and it’s down to you to help them activate this technique. Recognizing and leveraging on what they already know can make it easier for all of you, with their grasping new concepts quicker, being more engaged in your lessons, and relating better to the materials you are providing. The process of scaffold learning can be a real help, meaning you start with the simpler foundational concepts before moving on to the more complex ones, continually referring back to what they already know.

8. Activating Prior Knowledge in Lesson Planning

When you are lesson planning, you want to consider activating your student’s prior knowledge. There are many ways you can do this and it's better to implement the strategy sooner rather than later. Use pre-assessment tools, surveys, and tests to figure out how much your students already know and understand about what you are going to teach. In this, you can include prompts such as visual aids or references that can help to activate their prior knowledge.

Find material that connects to the world around them and is relatable and use things such as analogies to simplify complex ideas and make them easier to understand. Begin by touching on certain topics then as the school year goes on, keep referring back to them. You will find the more you do this, the stronger the neurological pathways and the better and deeper understanding they will have.

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