Prior Knowledge: The Most Important Factor for Learning

Rows and rows of prior knowledge
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When faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, medical experts confronting the coronavirus first consulted their prior knowledge of similar viruses to look for clues to contain this one.

When you are learning how to use a new piece of software, you are unconsciously looking for ways it’s similar to software you’ve used in the past, and using that prior knowledge to find your way around.

This article explores the important role of a learner’s prior knowledge in training material development.

Knowledge builds on prior knowledge

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” – David Ausubel.

David Ausubel was a New York psychologist who contributed greatly to the theory of constructivist learning. His biggest contribution was undoubtedly that of advance organizers.


Advance organizers of prior knowledge

An advance organizer is information introduced in advance of learning itself and presented by an instructor to help learners organize new incoming information. They are not the same as overviews and summaries which simply highlight key ideas and are presented at the same level of abstraction and generality as the learning to come. Advance organizers are presented at a higher level of abstraction and generality.

Examples of advance organizers include:

  • A story that relates the abstract learning to come to a real-life application. For example David Foster Wallace’s story about two young fish asking an older fish what water is, to illustrate the point that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see.
  • A concrete example of the type of learning to come. For example, the opening two paragraphs of this article.
  • Definitions of key terms used in the learning to come.

Principles of advance organizers of prior knowledge

There are two principles to the concept of using advance organizers to activate prior knowledge.

  1. The most general ideas of a subject should be presented first and then progressively differentiated in terms of detail and specificity.
  2. Instructional materials should attempt to integrate new material with previously presented information through comparisons and cross-referencing of new and old ideas.

Applying these principles, along with the other core principles of training material development, the learning designer constructs training in such a way that it directs attention to what is important upfront, highlights relationships between key concepts and provides a reminder about relevant prior knowledge.

Advance organizers increase learning retention when the following two conditions are met:

  1. Learners must process and understand the information presented in the organizer.
  2. The organizer must indicate the relations among the basic concepts and terms that will be used.

Types of advance organizers of prior knowledge

There are two types of advance organizers – comparative and expository.

Comparative Organizers

The main goal of comparative organizers is to act as reminders to bring into working memory concepts learners may not realize are relevant to the training they’re about to take.  For example, a training on the topic of team leadership might start with a discussion of lessons from Carol Dweck’s book on the growth mindset and Angela Duckworth’s book on grit.

Expository Organizers

In contrast, expository organizers provide new information that learners will need to better understand upcoming information. A good example of this type of organizer of prior knowledge is if you were training a team on cybersecurity training for the first time, you might compare the common aspects of a handful of well known cyber fraud cases to activate that prior knowledge for the learning that is about to come.

In studies about the effectiveness of advance organizers, the most statistically significant impact they have on learning is in the case of novices, or learners being exposed to content for the first time.

A drawback of advance organizers can be that learners need to comprehend them independently and make sense of them for them to have any impact. One way around this is to encourage learners to come up with their own real-life examples before learning the details of a new concept.

How to activate prior knowledge in your learning design

Here are some ideas to use in your own training material development:

  • Ask learners to predict what a training session will be about and justify that reason based on prior knowledge.
  • Ask learners questions about content before they’re exposed to it and have them justify their responses based on prior knowledge.
  • Ask learners to identify differences or similarities between what they already know and what they’re discovering for the first time.
  • Ask learners Why questions specifically before training content is presented (“Why is grit important in leading a team?”) – studies have shown that even wrong answers can lead to better learning retention in the actual training session thanks to the prior knowledge activated.
  • Worked examples presented before learners start to solve a new problem allow them to activate prior knowledge about what was significant about the fully-solved problem they just observed.
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