Activate Prior Knowledge

Principle 1: Students' prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

Prior knowledge helps students learn when that knowledge is activated, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate.

"As we teach, we often try to enhance our students' understanding of the course content by connecting it to their knowledge and experiences from earlier in the same course, from previous courses, or from everyday life." 

Susan Ambrose et al. (2010)

Why is it helpful to know about students’ background knowledge?

One of the challenges for students is activating their appropriate knowledge to novel situations. Instructors help students learn how to activate their existing knowledge to new problems.

Misconceptions and gaps in student knowledge can greatly impact student learning. Understanding these can help you guide students to greater success in your class by enabling you to:

  • Gauge overall preparedness of the students
  • Target specific knowledge weaknesses
  • Address misconceptions so students can try to move beyond them
  • Construct a picture of the diverse student backgrounds in your class
  • Bridge the gap between prior knowledge and new material

What to consider when planning to find out about students’ background knowledge

Many methods exist to find out about student background knowledge, but considering the following can help you select the one that is best for your situation.

  • What do you think students should already know and how can you best find out whether they do?
  • What are some common misconceptions related to your subject?
  • How do you intend to respond to the answers that you find out about student background knowledge?


  • Do not give students a grade for the assessment.
  • Make sure the students know that it will not be graded.
  • Consider allowing students to take the assessment anonymously.
  • Use technology, such as Canvas, that will enable you to quantify the data and produce graphs that can be shown to students.
  • Share the information from the assessments with the students as appropriate.

What are some effective ways to find out about students’ background knowledge?


This method can be as simple as listing a series of about 10 to 15 statements and having students identify whether the statements are true or false.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Quick and easy to create
  • Students have a 50% chance of guessing the correct response, but this can be okay for a quick, ungraded overview of student prior knowledge
  • Response data are easy to analyze and graph, providing a picture that is useful for both students and instructors
  • Most useful for recall and comprehension
  • Less useful for higher level thinking and skills

A variation of the true-false inventory is a survey with questions in the following format:

    How familiar are you with x?

  1. I have never heard of x.
  2. I have heard of x, but my understanding is unclear.
  3. I have a clear idea of x, but have not used it.
  4. I can clearly explain x and have used it.


This method, as described in Angelo and Cross (1993) requires students to complete short answer or multiple choice questions to probe their prior knowledge more deeply than a quick inventory. It can be given on the first class meeting or at the beginning of a unit.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Provides data about what the students know and if a short answer format is used, can provide data about how well the students can communicate what they know
  • Helpful to include questions that most students can answer correctly along with more difficult questions so that the easier questions can provide a starting point for instruction
  • Can stimulate students to recall information that will be relevant to the new instruction
  • Results can be frustrating for underprepared students
  • Can create first impressions that are difficult to change, even though it is a single snapshot of student knowledge


This method, also described in Angelo and Cross (1993), requires students to focus on an important term, name, or concept and list several ideas that are most closely related to this focus point. Instructors can then identify the richness of student understanding.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Quick and easy technique that can be done with large classes
  • Helps draw student attention to major ideas
  • If limited time is given for student responses, it can provide an idea of what the students believe are the most important ideas. However, this limited time will also drive student responses to the recall level rather than higher level cognitive skills
  • The technique focuses on one idea at a time, but can be repeated throughout the course
  • Work through your own focused list before giving the assignment to students so that you know the topic is neither too narrow nor broad, and is clearly stated.


Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. ISBN-1-55542-500-3.

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