Faculty Development & Learning Assessment

Importance of Students’ Prior Knowledge


A logical extension of the view that new knowledge must be constructed from existing knowledge is that teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject. Teachers then need to build on these ideas in ways that help each student achieve a more mature understanding. If students’ initial ideas and beliefs are ignored, the understandings that they develop can be very different from what the teacher intends.

To determine if your students understand, and to possibly uncover misconceptions, use the following strategies:

1. Have students put in their own words a key concept. You might even identify a particular audience. (Examples: Explain the concept of “corporation” to high school students; Explain an “irrevocable trust” to a group of retirees.)

2. Have students offer their own applications and/or examples for a key concept (Examples: Stephen Covey recommends “Win-win performance agreements”: give two specific applications, one related to current news and one related to your own life. Give a concrete example of the concept “due process.”)

3. Have students formulate ways to show relationships (Example: concept maps)

Adapted from: Millis, B. (n.d.) The Teaching & Learning Center, The University of Texas at San Antonio. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from University of Texas San Antonio Web site: http://www.utsa.edu/tlc

Tip References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.