Step 1: Activities

Let’s put it into action!

So we know it’s absolutely vital to assess and fill in gaps in prior knowledge before we set about presenting new material to our students. On this page you’ll find some activities and questions to think about to help you to apply all of this to your own practice.

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Activity 1

Pick a topic that you are about to begin with a group of students. Here are some questions to consider in relation to this new topic. You might like to just think over each question, write your answers down, or discuss them with a colleague or group of colleagues.

  • What prior knowledge do your students need to access this topic?
  • Do your students have this knowledge, and how do you know?
  • Can you check that prior knowledge at the start of the topic?
  • Do they know the meaning of the keywords?
  • Have you built up keywords and vocabulary?
  • Do your students have any concrete experiences which allow them to link what you’re teaching them to something they have already experienced?
  • Do you need to start further back?
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Activity 2

Stick with the same topic from Activity 1. This time try creating a prior knowledge quiz, which you can use with your students at the beginning of the topic. This can be really helpful when it’s done by several teachers or as a department.

We might have got used to the idea that our students struggle with this particular topic and accept that that’s just the way it is, or we might feel outraged that they should know it since they we taught them it last year! There’s a few different ways we can go about this.

The first way is to shift how we respond to students’ questions. If you’re asked a question by one student, then answer as usual, but if several students ask the same question or get the same question wrong, don’t answer immediately. Instead ask yourself why they are all getting it wrong – is it prior knowledge? This can then be added to the list of prior knowledge questions you’ll use to assess your students in the future.

The second way is to use links with everyday knowledge. If the subject we’e teaching is one the student has studied before, the main links are to the previously studied knowledge (eg. A-levels linked to GCSE). However, some subjects, like Health & Social Care, Carpentry, and Engineering, have no direct prior links. When this is the case, links to everyday knowledge are the main ones to use.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you are starting a topic on Health and Safety at work. You could try: “What do you know about health and safety?” but this might still be too alien. Better to start with something which every student will be able to relate to: “What did you do to keep safe on the way to college today?” Get the students to discuss in pairs, and then use assertive questioning to bring all the students into the discussion. Once you’ve activated the prior knowledge, you can link to it so the students understand the topic.


Tara is a staff trainer and was observing a gym instructor taking another member of staff through the various machines in the gym to see what she already knew. He got her to go on the equipment so she could demonstrate to him how to use it, so he could identify if there was anything right or wrong. The majority was correct, but he re- taught her everything. When challenged by the trainee, the instructor said “Well it’s on my session plan, so I need to do that”. An assessment of prior knowledge would have saved time here!


Daniel was teaching a Year Eight group a unit on Earth and Space. He soon noticed several students had asked quite advanced questions. He wondered how much they already knew, so the next lesson he gave them the revision quiz for the unit. The marks ranged between 12-18 out of 20. He then identified the topics that more students got wrong and covered those. It took 3 lessons rather than the 12 allocated.

Often the problem is the opposite: that the students know too little. The evidence suggests that you get better results if you check prior knowledge first and fill in the gaps, rather than assuming prior knowledge and teaching the course as usual. This might mean that you can’t teach all the material, or that you have to rush some of it, but without giving students the opportunity to make links, the learning can’t stick and they can’t understand the topic.

Linking to prior knowledge using similes and analogies

Most of us use similes and analogies (or even metaphors) without even noticing or even naming them. They are all ways to link the new knowledge we are teaching with something the student already knows.

They are useful to help students link something new to something they already know, so that they form a memory. Sometimes the link can be a difference: “Backstroke is like front crawl, but on your back”, or: “A bolt is like a screw, it has a thread and you turn it, but the thread goes into a nut, not wood.”

The key thing is that the thing you’re saying it is “like” must be well known to the learner.

Similes are saying one thing is like another.

  • “As green as grass”.
  • “Diesel is like petrol, but thicker”.

Analogies are longer and link similar processes.

  • “The team worked together like a well-oiled machine.”
  • “Trying to get Jim to do his homework is like trying to get the cat into a box”.

Metaphors simply leave out the ‘like’.

  • “My teenage son has turned into a gorilla”.
  • “We’re in a battle of ideas”.

When these are linked together into a longer story, they are called allegories or fables, and if they have a message, they may be called parables.

In a more general sense we can make links by saying things like: “You know when….” or “You remember when…”.

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Activity 3

For this activity, you’ll need the outline or textbook for a course that you’re teaching. You’re going to identify similes and analogies which you could use in the course to help your students to learn the material.

1. Pick some of the keywords from a topic you’ll be teaching. Find similes to explain them.

2. Now find a process (eg. colouring hair, using a chainsaw, writing a CV) and come up with an analogy for that.

3. Finally, think about if there are any physical models which would help your students learn the material.

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Activity 4

Our students get all sorts of things muddled.

  • Temporary and permanent hair colour.
  • Mitosis and meiosis.
  • Proton and electron.
  • Concrete and mortar.
  • Comma and apostrophe.
  • Grove and rebate.
  • Legislate and legalise.

The reason for the muddle is clearer when we see that memories share pathways and links with similar things. When our students get in a muddle, it’s because they’ve linked two things in their minds so they appear to be the same thing to them. Our job is to separate them.

For this we can either use a verbal or written route, for example: “Explain the difference between…”, or we can use a more graphical route as shown below. A good method to start with is a tickbox table with questions that the students fill in. An extension of this method is to create the questions through class discussion.

Tickbox for similarities and differences

The table below is good for comparing two related things. For example: atom and solar system, king and Pope, concrete and mortar, sheet and halyard.

Pick two things from your course which learners need to differentiate. Use the table below to try out the technique.

Table for comparing two related things

Now plan the simplest possible task you could do with the students to give them practice.

Name 2 or three different pairs you could use.

Venn diagram to compare two similar things

Image credits

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What's next?

Step 2: Presentation