How to Activate Learner’s Prior Knowledge?

When designing eLearning courses or trainings, I usually ask myself whether the information in the content is going to help learners understand a point better or it will hinder their understanding because of their prior knowledge. If you have access to your blended or face-to-face training participants, you can find out about their prior knowledge concerning certain concepts in the content by asking them questions; but what if you are designing an online course for a mass number of learners whom you can’t have access to? To accomplish a well-designed course, I believe we should always be mindful of this learning principle: ‘Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.’

Learners certainly bring their knowledge gained in other courses and through their daily life to our courses. According to Ambrose et al. (2010), this knowledge is an amalgam of perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, some of which are accurate for the context, some of which are inaccurate and insufficient for the learning requirements of the course. This knowledge influences how they interpret incoming information. Learners create links between previously acquired and new knowledge to help them construct robust knowledge; however, they may not make connections to relevant prior knowledge accurately.

Adapted from How Learning Works by Ambrose et al.

Adapted from How Learning Works by Ambrose et al.

When learners connect what they are learning to accurate prior knowledge, they learn and retain more; so it is important that we help them activate their relevant prior knowledge. For example, as stated by Ambrose et al., to help them remember the historical events in a city/country, listing the events won’t help them remember specific facts. This can be optimized by asking a set of “why” questions (“Why would Ontario have been the first place baseball was played?”. Learners are forced to draw on their prior knowledge of Canadian history and relate it logically to the new information. This is called: elaborative interrogation: to improve learning and retention.

Below is other techniques you could use to activate the learners’ prior knowledge:



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovette, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works. Jossey-Bass


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