Background knowledge plays an outsized role in learning success. In fact, a recent major, peer-reviewed study points to background knowledge as a key factor in determining whether and how learning occurs. The researchers intended to study what accounts for why some students appear to learn faster than others. However, they discovered that rates of learning vary little across most populations. What appears to accelerate the learning of some students is the amount of related background knowledge they possess and their ability to apply it to the learning task before them.
The study was conducted at Carnegie Mellon University and was released in early 2023. It included more than 7000 youth and adult learners from a variety of backgrounds, learning histories, and geographic areas, as well as 1.3 million observations and 27 datasets. Participants were given a variety of learning tasks in math, science, and language.
Given the role background knowledge plays in learning, our challenge is to do all that we can to ensure that our students possess what they need to learn successfully. We also need to help students activate the background knowledge they already possess. If students haven’t recently engaged with their relevant existing background knowledge, it may not be immediately available to assist their learning efforts. Further, we must help students make connections between their background knowledge and the learning with which they are about to engage.
Admittedly, students come to our classrooms with varying amounts of background knowledge. For many students, their family background (including a history of formal education), levels of parental and familial engagement, and even economic and cultural factors, can influence the academic background knowledge they possess. Yet, there are a variety of steps we can take and activities in which we can engage students to assess and build background knowledge before we begin planned instruction. Here are five initial activities upon which we can build:
- Pre-assessment activities. We might have exploratory conversations with students about what they already know, or we might ask them to respond to a series of prompts in order to uncover their current knowledge, understanding, and areas of misconception.
- Storytelling. We can share engaging stories with students to fill in information gaps, help them see relevance in what they are going to learn, and spark interest in the topic.
- Virtual field trips. We can employ videos and other media to help students to understand elements (such as historical events or figures), build context, and experience authentic applications.
- Graphic organizers. We might use mind maps, charts, and other structures as advance organizers to build understanding and reveal important relationships.
- Visual representations. We might choose tangible objects or pictures to demonstrate key concepts, connections, and content.
Many students may have previous experience, or otherwise have background knowledge, that is relevant to what they are about to learn, but they may not immediately recall what they have learned. Yet, with some refreshing and reminding, their background knowledge is likely to be renewed in preparation of supporting their learning. Consider these activities to assist in activating background knowledge:
- Vocabulary review. When we have students revisit key terms and language associated with what they have previously learned, we can stimulate their recall and uncover what they already know.
- Brief reteaching. We can provide students with brief reteaching lessons to activate their recall and emphasize elements of past learning that will be important in the learning that lies ahead.
- Peer conversations. We might give pairs of students discussion prompts that draw on what they know and invite recall of previously learned content. After a discussion, students might record or report what they learned about what they already know.
- History mystery. We might conjure a fun mystery that will require students to draw on past learning to solve. We could include hints and clues that point to key elements of past learning as assists to solving the mystery.
The final step in tapping background knowledge is to help students connect what they already know with what they are going to learn. While building and activating prior knowledge sets the stage for learning, making connections can jump-start the process. Here are some options on which to build:
- Present a preview. Once students have built the necessary background information and refreshed what they already know, we might present a preview of what they will learn next. Following our introduction, we can present questions or lead a discussion about how what students already know might connect with and support what they will be learning.
- Tap curiosity. We might present a question or dilemma that stimulates imagination and “hooks” students on finding answers. When the “hook” is embedded in what students already know, and points to what they are going to learn, it will be a sure winner.
- Design a small-scale problem. We can present students with small-scale problems that can be solved with information they already have and skills they already possess. We might follow up with an introduction to the new learning that builds on what students already know but requires making connections and going beyond their current knowledge and skills.
- Create a simulation. We might design a multi-part simulation, the first phase of which can be engaged with the background knowledge students already possess. When students reach a barrier or challenge that demands more knowledge or skill, we can introduce new learning to complete the next phase, and the cycle can be repeated as new learning grows and becomes more complex.
The crucial role that background knowledge plays in learning demands that we ensure that students have the knowledge and skill foundations to benefit from our instruction. We also must be certain that the background knowledge students possess is active and ready to be tapped. Finally, we need to help students to make the connections necessary to allow what they already know to support what they are going to learn.
Koedinger, K. R., Carvalho, P. F., Liu, R., and McLaughlin, E. A. (2023). An astonishing regularity in student learning rate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 120(13). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2221311120