Eight Strategies for Activating Prior Knowledge

Activating prior knowledge means connecting and integrating new learning with prior knowledge and experiences. There are many strategies that teachers can use to activate prior knowledge, but the most important component of this practice is to develop an assets-based approach to teaching and learning. 


Why is it important to activate prior knowledge? 


Based on over 1,800 meta-analyses, education researcher John Hattie has developed a Visible Learning database that summarizes what works best in teaching and learning. Based on this research, the effect size of integrating prior knowledge with new learning is 0.93 which indicates that this strategy has the potential to considerably accelerate student learning. Activating prior knowledge can have a significant impact on student growth. 


What is an assets-based approach? 


Instead of focusing on what students do not yet know, an assets-based approach to teaching and learning recognizes the funds of knowledge that students bring with them into school. By drawing on the rich knowledge, skills and experiences that students already have, teachers are able to support students in integrating new learning into already established schemata. Funds of knowledge can include culture, language, religion, life experiences, household skills, community practices and much more. 


Questions for Teachers: 


  • What real life experiences might students have related to this topic? 

  • What are some ways that this topic might be approached in other communities or cultures? 


How can teachers activate prior knowledge? 


  • ABC Brainstorming - Students list topic connections matched to each letter of the alphabet.

  • Anticipation Guide - Students respond to teacher-created prompts (True/False, Agree/Disagree) that relate to their opinions, thoughts, and beliefs about a topic. 

  • Five Senses Chart - Students imagine themselves in a particular setting and describe what they might be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch in that setting. 

  • Image Brainstorm - Students view an image and brainstorm with as much detail as possible what is happening in the image. A modification would be to use a gallery brainstorm with multiple images (or questioning prompts) placed around the room. 

  • K-W-L Chart - Students complete a chart with what they Know and what they Want to Know about a topic. After the lesson, they add what they Learned about the topic.  

  • Mind Mapping - Students generate a mind map by placing the topic at the center and related terms in surrounding bubbles. Other graphic organizers can also be used similarly.

  • Multimedia and Realia - Using videos and other real life objects can bring a topic to life. 

  • Walk Around Survey - Students walk around the room and survey their peers on a particular topic. This strategy can also be used as review or closure at the end of lesson. 

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