A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 1 of 7): Students’ Prior Knowledge Can Help or Hinder Learning

Prior Knowledge

by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

In their book, How Learning Works, Susan Ambrose et al. classify “seven principles of learning”, which are basically general rules that can be applied to almost any learning experience. The seven principles are as follows:

  1. Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning
  2. How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know
  3. Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn
  4. To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned
  5. Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning
  6. Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning
  7. To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning

Throughout the book, the authors analyze each principle by asking three primary questions:

  1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?
  2. What does research say about this principle?
  3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

This post will be the first in a series of seven. In each post, I will examine a different learning principle by summarizing the authors’ response to these three questions before addressing a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction? So let’s get started with the first principle: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning.

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

Here are the two examples from the book:

“I recently taught Research Methods in Decision Sciences for the first time. On the first day of class, I asked my students what kinds of statistical tests they had learned in the introductory statistics course that is a prerequisite for my course. They generated a fairly standard list that included T-tests, chi-square, and ANOVA. Given what they told me, I was pretty confident that my first assignment was pitched at the appropriate level; it simply required that students take a data set that I provided, select and apply the appropriate statistical test from those they had already learned, analyze the data, and interpret the results. It seemed pretty basic, but I was shocked at what they handed in. Some students chose a completely inappropriate test while others chose the right test but did not have the foggiest idea how to apply it. Still others could not interpret the results. What I can’t figure out is why they told me they knew this stuff when it’s clear from their work that most them don’t have a clue.”

“Every year in my introductory psychology class I teach my students about classic learning theory, particularly the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement. I know that these can be tough concepts for students to grasp, so I spell out very clearly that reinforcement always refers to increasing a behavior and punishment always refers to decreasing a behavior. I also emphasize that, contrary to what they might assume, negative reinforcement does not mean punishment; it means removing something aversive to increase a desired behavior. I also provide a number of concrete examples to illustrate what I mean. But it seems that no matter how much I explain the concept, students continue to think of negative reinforcement as punishment. In fact, when I asked about negative reinforcement on a recent exam, almost 60 percent of the class got it wrong. Why is this so hard for students to understand?”

In the first story, the students’ prior knowledge is at a lower level than the professor expects. In the second story, it is the students’ prior knowledge of the words positive and negative that are hampering their ability to learn.

2. What does research say about this principle?

Research is very clear that not only do students learn better when connecting new knowledge with current knowledge, but in order to learn students must connect new knowledge to current knowledge. This is most effective when students prior knowledge is activated, sufficient, appropriate, AND accurate. Conversely, prior knowledge can hinder learning when previous knowledge is inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, OR inaccurate. This means that if just one element is off kilter, prior knowledge becomes harmful rather than helpful.

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

Below is a list of suggestions to how to incorporate this principle into your classroom. (Note: All suggestions are headings in the book itself.)

To assess prior knowledge

  • Talk to colleagues who teach prerequisite courses
  • Administer a diagnostic assessment
  • Have students assess their own prior knowledge
  • Use brainstorming
  • Assign a concept map
  • Look for patterns of error in student work

Activating accurate prior knowledge

  • Use exercises to generate students’ prior knowledge
  • Explicitly link new material to knowledge from previous courses
  • Explicitly link new material to prior knowledge from your own course
  • Use analogies and examples that connect to the students’ everyday knowledge
  • Ask students to reason on the basis of relevant prior knowledge

Methods to address insufficient knowledge

  • Identify the prior knowledge you expect students to have
  • Remediate insufficient prerequisite knowledge

Methods to help students recognize inappropriate prior knowledge

  • Highlight conditions of applicability
  • Provide heuristics to help students avoid inappropriate application of knowledge
  • Explicitly identify discipline-specific conventions
  • Show where analogies break down

Methods to correct inaccurate knowledge

  • Ask students to make and test predictions
  • Ask students to justify their reasoning
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to use accurate knowledge
  • Allow sufficient time

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

As I read this portion of the book, I saw numerous opportunities to improve my instruction. I also was glad to see that some of the things I was already doing were research-based. The biggest gap I see in my current instruction is the area of activating accurate prior knowledge. I plan on making a concerted effort in linking new course content with content already in my course and in previous courses. Sometimes I think I skip over this because the connections are already clear to me, but I need to realize to explicitly show these connections to my students.

What about you? Do you apply this principle in your classroom already or do you plan to use one of these strategies in the future? Let me know by commenting on this post below.

3 thoughts on “A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 1 of 7): Students’ Prior Knowledge Can Help or Hinder Learning

  1. Pingback: Welcome Back! | Ask CCIT!

  2. Cory,
    Thank you for doing this series of posts. I have found that my students seem to learn best when I referenced things they should have learned in prior courses. As you said, the connections are clear to instructors so we often overlook mentioning them. I can tell you that I did not think to do this until I had experience teaching both remedial and college level courses. I can instantly see the “light turn on” when I reference something from RDG 051 in my ENG 101 class. It seems like such a little thing to do but in my experience it truly has made a big difference.


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