Assessing and updating prior knowledge

It’s essential that we help our students to link new learning with prior knowledge.

These links are what help our students to truly understand the new learning and to remember it long term.

Missing prior knowledge is a very common reason for learning failure, even though it’s not always obvious to the teacher. There are two types of long term memories:

  • Rote knowledge: this involves simple recall and doesn’t need to be understood.
  • Understood knowledge: the new knowledge is linked to existing, prior knowledge and makes sense to the student.

If the student’s brain can’t find any connections or prior knowledge of what the teacher is presenting, it may be totally filtered out, even before it gets to working memory. The diagram below shows how this happens.

A diagram showing how new learning is filtered out if it doesn't link with prior knowledge

One of the easiest ways to baffle people is to use words that don’t make sense to them.

One of the ways this can happen is when we use technical jargon and assume the listener understands what is being said. We see this regularly by lawyers, online helplines, and arrogant friends! It’s the same with your students: if they don’t understand the words being said, they can’t learn.

There’s two types of vocabulary we can use with our students.

Technical terms we will use in this topic: These are words we don’t expect our students to know at the start, but will need them to know at the end. For example: Napoleon, fossilise, genre, photosynthesis.

Ordinary words: These are the words we use in a sentence which we assume the student will know. This is a very common source of difficulty. For example, a student reads the line in a biology textbook: “An antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria”. We may expect her problem lies with ‘antibiotic’ and bacteria’, but it’s not. She learnt those words in the lesson – they’re technical terms. The ones she struggled with are ‘resistant’ and ‘strain’. As is often the case, we give common words uncommon meanings in our subject.

Strategies for assessing prior knowledge

The two videos above show Step 1: Prior Knowledge in action, in a history lesson and in a science lesson.

There are several strategies available to assess our students’ prior knowledge about a topic.

Teacher questions

  • General class questions: These provide a quick understanding of what most students know.
  • Questions to individual students during later activities: These can be probing to get more information but this method is time consuming. It’s important to build rapport, because some students don’t feel comfortable with this type of questioning.

Student questions

  • Students to write down 3 questions they would like to ask before the new lesson starts.


  • Performance based prior knowledge assessments (a quiz or test): This method measures knowledge of the topic and can include both theory based questions (which test knowledge) and case study based questions (which test the student’s application of the knowledge). This method is useful before and after presenting the material, to assess prior knowledge and for teaching evaluation.
  • Prior knowledge self-assessments: This strategy uses questions to get students to reflect on their own knowledge.

Concept map or mind-shower


  • This is a graphical representation of students’ knowledge.
  • It gives insight into how they organise and represent knowledge.
  • This strategy can be repeated throughout a topic to re-assess knowledge and to give students confidence in their own knowledge.

Updating missing knowledge

Once we’ve assessed our students’ prior knowledge, we need to make sure the gaps are filled in. The aim is for our students to have the necessary prior knowledge secure in their long term memory so that new learning can happen.

Here are some examples of the sorts of ways we can do this:

  • Vocabulary programs.
  • Phonics programs.
  • Catch-up lessons.
  • One-to-one and small group interventions.

Some teachers feel they have so much curriculum content to cover, that they don’t have time to do this.  However, it’s better to spend time on prior knowledge so that effective learning can take place – otherwise you can end up re-teaching parts of the course or running revision classes before exams.

Image credits

Header image:

What's next?

Activities for Step 1