Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Activating Prior Knowledge

(Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes)

New learning is constructed on prior knowledge and understanding. It was Jean Piaget (1896-1980) who suggested that new ideas are incorporated into conceptual frameworks in the mind known as schemas. By activating these schemas, new information can be assimilated and logically organised, in a way the brain becomes “sticky” and new information is more likely to be stored for later retrieval. For the why, when and how, read on...


  1. Neuronal pathways that contained previous information and related information are activated. By activating previous pathways, you make them “sticky”. New information will more likely stick.

  2. Recalling previous knowledge, especially when a student surprises themselves with how much they know, releases dopamine. This enhances motivation for learning.

  3. Finding out what students already know gives teachers a starting point for differentiation.


Every new topic, every time. 

How to conduct an Elicitation 

An elicitation is the act of drawing out information from the learners. There are many ways of eliciting information from students, teachers should mix it up to keep it interesting! These are some examples from my own practice as a science teacher.

  1. Mind Map

This can be completely free form. As an example the students are directed to put the word “Light” in the middle of a page and write down all the things they know about light. Then get students to share back something from their mind map, or conduct a gallery walk so students can see what others came up with. Collecting up the mind maps gives the teacher an idea of each student's prior knowledge which aids in differentiation.

  1. Title Page

Students in my lower secondary classes seem to love the title page. Give them some coloured pencils and encourage them to include diagrams or add some words relevant to the topic. For instance a title page on light could include drawings of the sun, light globes, lenses, light rays, rainbows. 

  1. Visual Prompts

When starting a chemistry topic in the middle years, I place visual prompts to elicit previously stored information. I find information less connected to their lives more difficult for them to recall. One year I tried “Write down all the chemistry knowledge can you remember.” yielded a dismal amount of information. With the same questions and this visual prompt, students write down information about the periodic table, elements, atoms and subatomic particles, chemical reactions and so on.

  1. Guided Questions

I call them starter questions. Here are two examples

Example 1: The Skeletal System Starter Questions

Example 2:  In this example introducing an electricity topic for a year 9 electricity unit I used a video as a “hook” to promote curiosity about the topic.

 Extreme Jobs - High Voltage Power Line Inspection

Students then answer questions, some of which are based on the questions. These could be done individually or in pairs.

  1. Hot potato

Give a sheet of paper to each group of 3-4 students. They have one minute to write down words related to the topic. Then all the groups pass on their paper and then they have a minute to brainstorm to build on the previous list and so forth. This process continues until the sheets arrive back at their original groups, and everyone reads what new terms have been linked.

Activating Prior Knowledge makes the brain sticky for new information, releases dopamine, basis for differentiation.  You can use a Mind Map, Title Page, Visual Prompts, Guided questions, Hot potato

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