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Activating Prior Knowledge


Prior knowledge refers to what a learner already knows before learning new information. That is, it's the information and educational context already present before new instruction. Prior knowledge is important as it serves as a foundational building block for new knowledge. Activating prior knowledge helps students see the connections between previous learning and new instruction, builds on what students already know, provides a framework for learners to better understand new information, and gives instructors formative assessment information to adapt instruction.

Strategies to Activate Prior Knowledge

There are many strategies instructors can use to activate a learner's prior knowledge. The list below provides a few examples of strategies that work well in the higher education classroom. Click on the strategy to learn more. Need help implementing a strategy or want ideas specific to your course? Feel free to email us at

Advance organizers are visual organizational tools to aid your students’ understanding of information. They provide a structure to the lecture or lesson, allowing students to connect prior knowledge to new knowledge.

There are many different types of advance organizers.  A K-W-L is one type of advance organizer that specifically asks about students’ background knowledge. Ask students to divide a sheet of paper into three columns: K, W, and L. K = What you already KNOW; W = What you WANT to know; L = What did you LEARN. Students fill in K and W before beginning the lesson. Ask students to share their responses before beginning the lesson. The L column is filled in at the end of the lesson and can be collected as a tool to know what students took away from the day’s lesson. View a K-W-L template.

Charts and other graphic organizers can help as well. For example, a Venn diagram or comparison/contrast chart can be useful in getting students to activate prior knowledge and highlight similiarities and differences. Learn more about advance organizers.

An anticipation guide is a series of statements that students are asked to note their opinion about (e.g., agree/disagree). The idea behind an anticipation guide is for students to think about what they already know, consider what they do not know, and revisit after instruction to evaluate if their opinion has changed and why. Anticipation guides can also generate interest and curiousity about the upcoming lesson.

To create, begin with about 4-5 thought-provoking statements. Make a column on the right with Agree/Disagree options, or place the options below the statement. You can also consider adding space for a Why? response, where students note the rationale for their responses. Students individually complete these and the instructor can then choose whether to have students share responses in pairs, small groups, or as part of a whole class discussion. At the end of the lesson (or a unit), ask students to revisit their responses and adjust responses if necessary. What have they learned that changed their opinion? See an example anticipation guide.

Case studies can be used at any level of depth and can range from brief to more extended cases. In this case (pun intended), we're referring more to the use of brief cases used to activate prior knowledge. These are intended to get students in the mindset for the day's lesson (or beginning of a unit) and bring into working memory the knowledge they already have, while hinting at the pieces of information they still need to learn.

You can present a brief case study at the beginning of class and ask students to make a decision or answer questions based on what they already know. As part of the activity, you may ask them to list items they need to know to make better decisions or more accurately answer questions. Then, after the lesson/unit, revisit the case study and students' responses.

Similarly, this can be done with problems. In this case, the problem would be at a level just above where students can solve on their own but not too overwhelming. Students could discuss what elements of the problem they recognize and are similar to other concepts. The lesson then would build on what they already know and what they need to know to solve the problem.

Forecasting asks students to make a prediction based on information they already know. Prior to a lesson, demonstration, or simulation, pose a question to students but leave the ending open (or answer unclear). Ask them what they think will happen and why (here is where prior knowledge comes into play). After the lesson, revisit the question and see if responses/predictions have changed.

An opening question, or question of the day, is a question displayed on the projector or board at the beginning of class. Students have the first 1-3 minutes of class to answer the question before it goes away. It can be a problem, a concept question, an opinion question, or a personal experience question. The key idea is that the question activates prior knowledge that students will need for the day's lesson.

Power previewing is an effective reading strategy that can activate prior knowledge. Before actively reading a text, students skim the text strategically. This may require some scaffolding on the instructor's part. For example, ask students to preview section headings, boldface words, and definitions. Then, ask students what stands out from their preview. Is there anything that reminds them of something they have previously learned? How so? Pairing an advance organizer (like a K-W-L) can work well with this strategy.

Worksheets can be an effective tool for getting students to think about concepts prior to instruction. In this sense, worksheets are actively used pre- and post-lesson. Students would first answer questions or complete activities on the worksheet, knowing that they are not expected to have all the information they need to know yet. However, they can use what they do know to help formulate their answers or hypotheses. Then, after instruction, students revisit and edit their responses to incorporate new information and learning. See an example of how to incorporate worksheets into a lecture class.